Message from the Department Chair
Prof. Tom Gill, Chair
Nowadays the term “intercultural communication” or ibunka komyunikēshon 異文化コミュニケーション is very fashionable. Instead of living comfortably in our familiar culture, like a “frog in a well,” we need to come out and look around us, see what other cultures are like, and learn to communicate with them. And of course, we should. I am a social anthropologist, and one of the fundamental principles of this discipline is that we should try to understand other cultures. Anthropology carries a burden of shame, dating back to the European empires, when the main job of anthropologists was to help the European colonialists govern the countries they invaded, and to preserve the “primitive” cultures that were thought to be doomed to extinction (“salvage anthropology”).
The perception that other cultures are “different”, not “worse” when compared to our own is called “cultural relativism” and was championed by Ruth Benedict (1887-1948). Her famous book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946) argued that Japanese society and culture were not worse than those of the USA, just different. Today that may seem obvious, but this was just after World War II, and many Americans thought Japanese were monsters who should all be killed. In that context, Benedict’s book was quite radical. It was originally commissioned by the US government, and was influential on the occupation government. Some historians think that Benedict’s book saved the life of Emperor Hirohito and perhaps prevented a Communist revolution in Japan.
Has any other anthropologist had that much impact on world affairs? And did the US government consult any anthropologists before it invaded Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq? If they had, they might have done things differently.
Cultural relativism sounds nice and liberal, but it is not an easy position to defend. In 1948, when the United Nations issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the American Anthropological Association criticized it. The AAA argued that there was no such thing as “universal” human rights – instead, the UN was imposing the view of white, industrialized nations on the rest of the world – telling other societies they are “worse,” not just “different.” As a result, anthropologists were in turn condemned as immoral and irresponsible – and the discipline has been fighting over this issue ever since.
What about societies that practice cannibalism, slavery and female genital mutilation? What about
Those that invade their neighbors and massacre their enemies? What about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? What about Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen? What about atrocities of the British empire, such as the Amritsar Massacre? When advanced societies commit atrocities, surely we should condemn them. If so, should we not also condemn ‘primitive’ societies that do the same kind of thing on a smaller scale?
In the end, anthropology’s job is to describe societies – not to praise them or condemn them. But we, whether students or professors, are not just scientists. We are human beings, and we cannot ignore the moral dimension of global affairs.
I look forward to engaging you in serious debate.