Clem walked directly into the issue of the politically correct toward the end of his career when he took up the cudgels to fight off the effects of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), starting with an editorial in the Quarterly Publication of the Curators’ Committee and an article, Archaeology: Science or Sacrilege? two years later (Meighan 1982, 1984). Nearly a quarter of the subsequent titles in his bibliography is directed at this issue. In these articles he makes his stance quite clear: That NAGPRA is associated with the whole business of politically correct (PC) language. That application of the law will be devastating to archeological research. That the politicians who are advocating applying the law have little interest in the law itself. That the Native Americans are not of one voice in these matters but are largely indifferent to it. That the issue is being used by their political leaders to further an anti-White attitude and not because they care about the bones or artifacts.
This article was originally published in “Onward And Upward!: Papers in Honor of Clement W. Meighan” edited by by Keith L. Johnson; Stansbury Publishing, 2005
Clem musters a good deal of evidence to support these claims and presents them in a quiet but not unimpassioned voice. It is clear that he does not object to the reasonable use of the NAGPRA rulings when applied to remains that are directly linked to living Indian Nations, as when he writes “Certainly archaeologists . . . are willing to draw a line between remains that living persons can reasonably claim deserve to be treated with the respect due to an ancestor and remains for which no such relationship can be established” (Meighan 1993). But the law is so written as to go beyond such reasonable use, thereby enabling the political exploitation that is hampering archeological research. The finding of Kennecott Man, with his non-Indian physical characteristics and with his eight thousand years of antiquity, dramatizes the issue to which Clem devoted so much attention in his last years.
I very much appreciated Clem’s tell-it-like-it-is quality and think all scientists should follow it for, at the end of the day, only the truth is what matters. Perhaps I admired it because it is one that I aspire to, though with neither the intensity nor the consistency he did. At least twice in my career my research has carried me into the heat of controversy, not because I sought it out, but because I had faith in the importance of scientific findings and went to where the truth took me The first of these was my study of California agriculture, for which I was taken on by the major industrial forces in the State and in the halls of Congress. The second was a study of the Native American rights to land in Southeast Alaska that has played and still plays an important role in governmental decisions and in the courts. I offer these as credentials to my claim to being a liberal of long standing—though not a knee-jerk liberal. In the following I want to discuss Clem’s position on NAGPRA in relation to the broader implications for political correctness in anthropology.
* * *
Concern with the politically correct has a long history in anthropology. This is to be expected inasmuch as we constantly deal with social groups and categories. We have, for example, always had trouble labeling those (how shall I call them?) who are at the center of our research. We have yet to find some term that is not in some way demeaning to refer to those people who live or lived without writing, guns, jails and the other accoutrements of “civilization.” When I entered into anthropological discourse as a freshman in 1930; it was just divesting itself of those terribly derogatory words, “savage” and “barbarian.” There had been some effort to legitimize these words as the distinction between what we now call foragers and food producers, but it never caught on and, because of their social connotations, would not have done, anyway. Malinowski was still using “savage” in his titles in the twenties but neither word was much used in serious anthropological writing of that period and I was therefore shocked to see it used by Lévi-Strauss in The Savage Mind, wondering if the word had less negative load to the French. One can come up with some surprises, such as Ruth Benedict, that sensitive poetic wielder of words, attributing the epigraph in her Patterns of Culture to a “Digger Indian,” a derogatory term for the natives of California presumed to have come from their practice of digging up wild roots but that must have attained popular usage for its phonetic similarity to the worst ethnic epithet in the English language.
When I began to write, the word of choice for the people we study (note how I have avoided using any word here!!) was “primitive.” We had Lowie’s Primitive Society and Radin’s Primitive Man as Philosopher and Murdock’s Our Primitive Contemporaries and so on. It seemed to me to be non-pejorative at a time when primitive artists were popular in two senses, self-taught ones like Grandma Moses and the works of the artists of Africa, the South Pacific and elsewhere. Still, it connotes something of lesser value to a world that dotes on progress and it, too, was ultimately tabooed. I believe Mel Herskovits was the first to raise our consciousness on this when he published the second edition of Primitive Economics with the title changed to Economic Anthropology (Herskovits 1952). Mel’s early example of consciousness-raising about PC speech came from his close association with African political leaders who were seeking African independence. My own objection to the word at that time was not its political incorrectness, but its global lumping of everything from the Ona and Yahgan of Tierra del Fuego to the sophisticated and urbane Ashanti and Baganda, who had nothing in common but their ignorance of writing and to being subject to European overrule and the anthropologists’ inquisitive notebooks. I was abashed when I found we had used the term in The Hupa White Deerskin Dance (Goldschmidt and Driver 1940) when I re-read it prior to a visit forty years later, but if any Hupa objected, it was not voiced. (The Hupa are not reticent to express negative opinions; I was castigated for revealing events about people and when I pointed out that I had not used names, they replied that they knew perfectly well who was being referred to. I had aired no new gossip; I had broken their taboo on saying such things in public.) We have not resolved this issue and writing has become increasingly awkward. For a while “tribal” was the word of choice but this is a politically charged word in modern, politicized Africa, where it is politically correct to pretend that tribal loyalties are not relevant in modern nations. Non-literate was tried, but while perhaps an accurate description of the broad category, it is essentially a negation, a definition-by-absence and derogatory by virtue of its similarity to “illiterate.” Of course, there is no real category in nature to which such a word can apply; it is only a construct of Western colonialism to which anthropologists have had to attach themselves.
Tribal names offer another source of embarrassment. Many in common use derive from their neighbors’ pejorative epithets that were taken over by European invaders. (Western culture does not have a monopoly on prejudicial attitudes and derogatory ethnic slurs.) The necessary changes give us trouble when we write for a semi-popular audience, half of which knows who the San and Inuit are and is annoyed when we spell it all out while the other half knows only Bushman and Eskimo and would remain in the dark when we don’t. Certainly a people should not suffer an insult every time their identity is mentioned and so we have no choice but to use their terms in such cases. But sometimes the complaints are just political grandstanding. I judge this to be the case with objection to the word “Indian.” The confusion inherent in this word for the aboriginal people of America is stupid and a nuisance but is not derogatory; substituting “Native American,” using a word that derives from an Italian explorer, is hardly an improvement. This is the kind of distinction that Clem would make with respect to expatriation of bones and artifacts; reasonable where there is clear association with a modern community. It is not reasonable when no such association can be shown, but merely propagandistic. Here is the real issue of PC: When terms are found objectionable by a repressed sector of the population, they provoke our guilt and we are expected to avoid them or be seen as uncaring.
* * *
The issues raised by NAGPRA are not verbal but are matters of action; thus they go beyond the issue of politically correct speech and raise issues of cultural relativism. Boasian cultural theory was built on the moral antipathy to social and ethnic prejudice, especially as applied to native peoples—but not unmindful of anti-Semitism and ethnic and religious prejudice in general. The Boasian movement to counteract the racist and religious prejudices of the European cultures of Europe that were used to justify slavery, colonialism, and the rapacious treatment of native peoples everywhere, was an important contribution to modern thought. Yet this does not obscure the fact that cultural relativism can also be a moral cop-out. It is, in its simplest form, the avowal that anything goes. The customary behavior of the Bloods and the Crips, two famous gangs in my city, have astounding similarities to those of the Ilongot headhunters of the Philippines described by Rosaldo (1980; see also Goldschmidt 1990), including social rewards for wanton killing of innocent people, the assertion of imaginary territoriality and doing it all with the aim of demonstrating sexual competence. If we do not fault the Ilongot on the basis of cultural relativism, how can we not also accept the Bloods and the Crips? Protected in my ivory tower, I can live with them—but what about the ghetto mother whose child is endangered? I am aware of the social causes that underlie gang behavior and know (as our police do not) that gang violence can be eliminated only by changing the institutions and behavior of the dominating society. This does not, however, alter the fact that I am morally opposed to gang culture. To understand may be to forgive, but it is not to condone.
With this preamble in mind, I want to examine three sets of institutions that I (and others) have taken a stance on in the interest of cultural relativism but that have since raised serious doubt in my mind. The first of these is the issue of lobola, as bride payments were called in Bantu Africa. (The term for the payment also got caught up in PC, and was referred to as “bride wealth,” by anthropologists rather than as “bride price.” Considering it a market-like operation was seen as demeaning. I compromised by using “brideprice,” spelled as one word, because the Sebei, whose culture I studied, fiercely haggled over the amount, treating the event like a commercial transaction, and the transfer of goods showed price fluctuations like any other market commodity (Goldschmidt 1972). Whatever you call them, they are not prestations among the Sebei, though they are among the Maasai. In the Twenties and Thirties, when the anthropologists were beginning to replace, or at least supplement, the missionaries as a source of describing and explaining native populations to the general public, brideprice became an issue of contention. Consistent with the old missionaries’ wish to stamp out heathen practices, they tried to get rid of the custom, saying that it demeaned the sacrament of marriage. Anthropologists argued that the custom preserved marriages and had a stabilizing influence on family life. The missionaries and anthropologist each wrapped their arguments in their own values and assumptions, thereby preserving the controversy and assuring themselves that clearly they were right. My study of bride payments among East African peoples uncovered two distinct payment patterns; one where the amount was set by bargaining (in which the bride’s father tried to get the most possible and the groom’s people tried to pay the least) and another where the payment was a standard prestation (in which the two men used the marriage to create or shore up an alliance). In both cases the decision was made by men in the service of their own agendas without concern for the bride’s interests. One of my clearest memories from my life among the Sebei is of a young woman trying to escape her father, who was trying to force his daughter into an unwanted marriage; the hostile encounter with the angry father was the only one I ever experienced there. He felt we were intervening, which we were just by our mere presence. Aside from doctrinaire prejudices, the question actually is: Do you want to protect a native population from outsider domination or protect the female sector from the ravages of male authority? I know of no anthropologists who asked the women what they prefer.
My second example takes us to Australia and derives from one of my favorite ethnographic articles “Steel Axes for Stone-Age Australians” (Sharp 1952). It is an account of what happened to Yir Yiront society when missionaries gave out steel axes as rewards to men and women who they felt deserved them. It shows that even the most benign and well-meaning action of the dominant culture can have disastrous effects on native life and social relationships.
The Yir Yiront had used stone axes from antiquity. Every Yir Yiront knew how to make the axes if he could get the materials needed. But the axe heads were made of stones quarried by tribesmen some 400 miles to the south. The Yir Yiront were one link in a long chain of tribes extending onward to the north, whence the barbs of sting rays, a very desirable commodity used as spearheads, came by trade with the coastal peoples. Thus stone axes were scarce and valuable goods among the Yir Yiront. Only older men were allowed to engage in trading, with trading partners both to north and south; thus axe head ownership was monopsonistic. These scarce axes were an essential, perhaps the single most important, piece of capital equipment. They were needed not only for the all-important firewood, but also for building huts, making drying frames and the like. The owners rarely used the axes themselves. Women were the principle users, for it was their job to collect firewood. Young men needed axes for various tasks. As neither women nor young men were allowed to own them, they had to ask the old men for permission. These rules of trade and axe ownership and control were sacred, as one may well imagine, bound up in Yir Yiront totemic beliefs and mythology. It does not take much imagination to see the power this gave to the old men.
The missionaries gave out their superior steel replacements without regard for such doctrinal niceties; they gave them out in terms of their own values to women or youths who attended their services, who at least gave lip service to Christian belief and its alien set of values. The availability of these new tools undermined the hierarchical pattern of Yir Yiront social relationships and the authority of the old men — perhaps even the integrity of their myths. Sharp does not present this data in such a way as to be guilty of missionary bashing, but there is a subtle undertone that expresses a sense of regret and tragedy deriving from this set of events. At least that is the way I read his account and what I felt when I first read it. That is what one thinks when one sees the native as victim, when one accepts the underlying anthropological sentiment that native life is one of social equality against which external dominance is a threat. But the authoritarian character of the Australian men over women and youth, who were forbidden even to know the very myths by which these customs were validated, and whose marriages the men strictly controlled (often to their detriment and the elders’ personal advantage) was harsher and more domineering even than that of the Old Testament. Much as I regret the passing of a beautiful and fascinating way of life and the dreary consequences of the modern conditions of the aborigines, my interest in social equality has led me to a more moderate view of the missionaries’ generosity. It is again a question of values.
My third example leads back to the Sebei and a controversy that is much more in the public eye: female genital mutilation. Sebei girls undergo what has come to be called circumcision, done in a coming-of-age rite of initiation into age-sets that are the counterpart to men’s age-sets. The Sebei cut off the entire labia minora in a public rite that takes place shortly after puberty. It is a shocking operation to watch, the bloodshed and manifest pain and the danger of infection are enough to make one proselytize against it, as both European governments and Christian missionaries have done for the past century. Sebei circumcision belongs to an ancient North African tradition, where the operation can be found in a variety of forms from simple clitoridectomy to the drastic infibulation and re-opening of the vagina. Westerners assume that it is done to lower the libidinal drive of women but it did not seem to have that effect on Sebei women, though infibulation surely does preserve virginity.
I have always been opposed to the suppression of this custom among the Sebei. I first learned that there was a general, as distinct from missionary, opposition when I attended the United Nations conference in Vienna in 1979 on the transfer of technological knowledge. The conference was devoted to the issue of furthering the technical capabilities of under-developed nations by the transfer of knowledge from the industrial ones. It was an interesting ritualized discourse with concentric circles of participation—ambassadors and national delegates in the central circle and I, as a delegate from the American Anthropological Association, barely in the outer rim. Many satellite conferences were organized by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). As I listened to the many discussion by people from all over the world, I began to realize that nobody was concerned with people at the tribal level (when they were concerned with people at all) — not the metropolitan nations, not the new national governments, not even the NGOs that billed themselves as the social conscience of international relations. None of them seemed to have mastered the idea of culture; none of them seemed to take tribal beliefs, customs or values into account.
So, together with the few anthropologists representing other associations, we organized a symposium on the recognition and preservation of local cultural values. I presented the familiar anthropological position that we must learn to respect native customs and values. I was immediately attacked by an NGO delegate with an incredulous: “Did I really want to preserve the horror of female mutilation?” Then being unschooled in feminist literature, I was surprised that they had even heard of this esoteric custom, but was undaunted for, on the basis of my Sebei experience, I had no difficulty responding. “Yes,” I said in effect, “I have seen it at first hand and while it does not appeal to me as a custom, I believe it should be kept,” and went on to point out two things: first, that girls regularly sought the operation, often over the objection of their fathers who wanting to avoid the expense and second, that some male leaders wanted to abolished it for the same reason I wanted to preserve it. This reason was that it gave the women a feeling of equal gutsiness to men (who take great pride in their display of courage in their milder circumcision) and that it gave women a sense of unity in their conflict with the intensely gynophobic Sebei men; a unity that was celebrated in an important secret rite during which anti-male lessons and (I was told) witchcraft were taught the new initiates by the older women. These were to me strong and compelling, even feminist, arguments.
Now, however, I am not so sure—not because I had been wrong then but because of subsequent events. The first of these is AIDS, rampant in that part of Africa. The ritual, in which the circumciser goes from one girl to the next with no antiseptic but river water poured over the knife, is ideally suited for the transmission of AIDS. The other is more important; it comes from what Susan Ojangor wrote me a few years ago. She was my wife’s interpreter over 40 years ago and has since had a long career in Uganda social programs; I have kept in touch over the years. She said that the Sebei District Council had decreed that all Sebei girls must be circumcised. Susan is part of a movement to overturn that ruling and to stop female circumcision in Uganda. In my view, the situation was changed by that ruling made by an all-male Council; circumcision was no longer a girl’s choice but was being imposed upon her by men who were not subject to the ruling. It thereby becomes exploitative.
* * *
This is the key to judging what is really politically correct, whether in speech or in action: Who is being hurt; who is doing the hurting; who is hurting the most? These are not always easy questions to answer, in part because people, like the Sebei women, often willingly, if not happily, hurt themselves for some cultural reason. (We should not be too quick to condemn them. Who among us has not suffered in one way or another just to fulfill some cultural demand?) It may also be difficult to determine if someone is actually being hurt; perhaps the Yir Yiront women and the young men who were being deprived of sexual gratification, social participation and independence, like the Sebei women I had known, were amply gratified by the system as it was. Finally, there is the issue of where the greater hurt may lie. Is it worse to deprive a Bantu tribespeople of their cultural system or worse to help curtail the freedom of choice for the women among them? This is of course a choice of values, in which each situation is different and on which sensible people may disagree.
The same issues arise with respect to politically correct speech. Surely the harm done by derogatory ethnic epithets is far worse than the nuisance in discourse of the kind I mentioned earlier and no one with empathy for the disadvantaged could deny the verbal changes. But is “Native American” any improvement on the traditional “Indian” or is this just a political ploy? We have been asked to change our term for African Americans several times in the past thirty years. Having been raised as a polite and considerate boy to say “Negro” in the lily-white Texas of the Twenties, I found it hard to say “black,” as semi-polite Texans had done. I well remember sharing this sentiment with Claudia Mitchell-Kernan who was at that time Director of the African-American studies center at UCLA and her response: “So did I.” Of course we learned. The emotional load and semantics of ethnic terms is so intense that the use of an acceptable label is essential, however hard. I cannot see that “Indian” carries the same kind of semantic overtones as the now tabooed terms for African-Americans and it seems like an effort to create a problem where there is none.
The same can be said of some of the feminists demands on our speech. Though in sympathy with their real goals, I find that feminist demands for PC are often of doubtful value to these aims and the cost to discourse too great. Consider the attitude toward masculine pronouns where gender is irrelevant and hence unspecified; where, in the terminology of the grammarians, the masculine pronoun is the “un-marked” term. This traditional usage has been purposely misunderstood and misconstrued to be somehow demeaning to womankind so that the rules for PC speech require the ugly and awkward use of he/she, chairperson and the like. A minor fall-out has been to endow PC English with an almost standardized solecism that will very likely demand a rewriting of the rules of grammar: a plural pronoun referring back to a singular referent. Listen how often you hear a sentence like: “Somebody will have to change their attitude.” More important are the awkward locutions that have invaded the ordinary use of English. An occasional “he or she” can make it clear that both sexes are involved, but when it must be followed by a “him or her” it intrudes heavily upon the flow of language and hence of thought. Those of us who aspire to lucid, if not elegant, prose find the cost far too great for such ephemeral contribution PC might make to social equality. Unfortunately, as any reader of academic writing is reminded daily, not many among us seem to be aware of, let alone concerned about, this cost. Writers who treat PC with reverence sometimes reverse the traditional sequencing of his/her to her/his; a harmless-seeming vote for women’s lib, usually offered by a man who wants to demonstrate his egalitarian commitment to his female students. Harmless-seeming until one realizes that this will, if noticed at all, turn the reader’s attention away from the matter at hand to the contextually irrelevant issue of gender relationships. We English-speakers are heirs to a rich and subtle vehicle of communication, made possible by centuries of writing and thousands of diligent lexicographers and grammarians who constantly add to its potential. It is, as most of us know, a difficult medium to master and those of us who cherish it are unwilling to bend it out of shape for doubtful political purposes, however much we care about women’s rights. This, too, is a matter of values.
* * *
When Mel Herskovits gave his talk at the 1950 meeting of the American Anthropological Association on cultural relativism, on what he referred to as “tender-minded” and “tough-minded” anthropologists, on the fallacy of judging others by one’s own values, I earned his undying antagonism by speaking up for a tougher-minded category: those who judged not by their own values but by universal ones. I have no illusion that this is easy, nor even certain that it is possible, but I believe it should be an ideal, that it is the proper goal of the comparative study of humanity and that anthropology is uniquely suited to discovering the nature of such generalized values. I think anthropology has reached a level of maturity so that its practitioners can criticize the underprivileged and powerless just as freely as the strong and powerful. I think we must judge the real costs and the true benefits of words and actions and not respond to reactionary cant with the knee-jerk liberal cant called PC. Anthropology has earned the right to take this high ground because, more than any other major discipline, it has steadfastly built the scholarly and scientific case for true egalitarianism. We must use this knowledge for the benefit of society as a whole.
Clem Meighan was aware of this and acted on his conviction at some cost to himself, I am sure.
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1946 Small Business and Community—The Effect of Scale of Farm Operations on Community Life. Committee on Problems of American Small Business, U.S. Senate. Washington, D. C: Government Printing Office
1947 As You Sow. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co. (Also, Glencoe: The Free Press.)
1972 The Economics of Brideprice among the Sebei and in East Africa. Ethnology 13(4):311-331
1978 Agribusiness and Political Power. In As You Sow; Three Essays in the Social Consequences of Agribusiness. Montclair, NJ: Allenheld, Osmun.
Goldschmidt, Walter and Harold Driver
1940 The Hupa White Deerskin Dance University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 35(8): 103-131.
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...I mention them here because I will be saying things in this article that some will find politically incorrect and I want to establish my credentials as a long-standing, articulate liberal but do not want to burden this article with details. My agricultural research involved community studies that showed that the industrialized, corporate farming in California creates inferior communities (Goldschmidt, 1946, 1947). The controversies over this are described by me and others (Kirkendall, 1964; Taylor, 1976; Goldschmidt, 1978). I have also been involved with the research in Iowa and elsewhere (Thu and Durrenberger, 1998) that shows these findings are relevant to what is now going on in the American heartland, as I had anticipated fifty years earlier. The study of Tlingit and Haida land use and rights (Goldschmidt and Haas, 1946) was unpopular with the industrialists of the Alaska Territory because it established the basis for Indian rights to land.. My work was much used both be Native Americans and government agents in subsequent years to firm up these rights under modern law. The continuing value of this pursuit of truth is shown by the re-issue of this obscure mimeographed report and the current interest of present-day Tlingit and Haida in its contents (Thornton, 1998).