Tag Archives: anthropology

The ethics of writing

While talking about the ethics of representation with a professor of mine, he asked me, “Look, let’s say you get drunk and then decide to drive home. You know you’re not supposed to do it, but you do, and on the way, you fall asleep behind the wheel and crash into a tree.

“You’ll get out of the tree, say, ‘Oh my God, thank goodness it’s just a tree,’ and feel relieved. You’ll have to pay a fine, maybe get a DUI, and you’ll have to pay for repairs, but in ten years, it will probably be a funny story you tell in ten years.

“But let’s say instead of hitting a tree, you hit a person. Suddenly, you feel a whole lot worse and you won’t be telling it as a funny story.

“So the question is, what are you basing your reaction on? The ethics of the action or the ethics of the consequence? Because in both cases, you did the same thing — you got drunk and lost control of your body while driving. But the consequences are very different and out of your control.”

This made me pause. In our culture, we like to think we judge people on the ethics of the action, regardless of consequences. You should not avoid stealing because you might get caught, but because the action of stealing itself is unethical. However, in the two cases of hypothetical drunk driving, our reactions are drastically different (either as the actor or the viewer) because of the consequences, despite the initial action being identical.

Anthropology is obsessed with ethics, mostly because what we do (learning about and then representing people) can have widespread and powerful effects. Anthropology has helped bring awareness to the plight of those who are brutally oppressed by powerful structures and figures, but also used to justify those same powerful structures and figures (such as European colonialism or racism). Therefore, we take our ethics very seriously. We try to do as little harm and as much good as possible.

But, as my professor noted, the consequences of our actions are usually completely out of our control. I may take painstaking action to act as ethically as possible while performing fieldwork and writing an ethnography, which someone may then use for less-than-ethical, even maliciously diabolical purposes. What can I do? Was the decision I made to write that ethnography unethical because of the consequences? Or am I absolved of fault because my own action was motivated and carried out with ethical precision (if that’s even possible)?

Of course, ethics is much messier than this, which is why I seem to be grappling with a constant headache these days. Since I’ve especially decided to start pushing myself, challenging my traditional, pre-conceived notions of what a “proper” ethnography is supposed to look like, my advisors and mentors just shrug and say, “We can’t tell you how to do anything anymore. You’ll have to figure it out yourself.” But, by the way, what you do or not do can have widespread, powerful effects for good or for evil on the people you study, or maybe even some other group you didn’t even think about. No pressure. Don’t inadvertently start a genocide. It’ll make our school look bad and funding might be harder to come by in the future.

In the end, you do what you can, and you try the best you can. Nobody imagined, especially J.D. Salinger himself, that Mark David Chapman would use The Catcher in the Rye as his “statement” after killing John Lennon. And surely, we won’t hold J.D. Salinger culpable or complicit in the tragedy. But at the same time, how do you grapple with it? If Roland Barthes is right, every time you write something, a little part of your commits suicide. No wonder so many writers decide to eventually finish the job their writing started. Ethics, writing, and representation is a dirty, messy business. 

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Sociological vs. Anthropological

I seriously want this guy's beard

I seriously want this guy's beard.

One thing I’ve discovered during my sociology classes: I am intrinsically Marxist.

This isn’t Bellevue College’s fault. It’s really just my own fault, I suppose. My teacher is schooled in and promoted the symbolic/interaction perspective (viewing microcosms and small, close relationships), and also promoted the feminist perspective. Some students resonated with the structural perspective (viewing society as parts of a machine). But me? I’m Marxist, to the core. Almost every society can be defined by conflict.

Whenever I view the Church in a sociological lens, therefore, I cannot help but view the Church rife with conflict – Utah culture vs. Non-Utah culture, the US church vs. the global church, women vs. the priesthood. And it’s all there; we just choose to ignore it or simply remain unconscious to it because the implications can disturb us.

And it disturbs me, I’ll admit. I’m to the point where I can view this without any implication to the Church’s truthfulness, which is a potential sign of (yay!)  maturity. But it still doesn’t solve the problem that comes with Marxism (and the core of my personality) – sociological research does nothing if it doesn’t try to fix the problems it discovers. But what can one person do in a Church with such a hierarchical, patriarchal structure? Out wait everything? Watch for slow, gradual change? The Church does evolve over time (and when looking back, the changes are drastic – Brigham Young would be horrified for sure). But it can still embitter me to certain elements and I just don’t like feeling bitter. It’s not a great feeling. It’s not very healthy.

I’ve been shifting my focus on the church towards a more anthropological approach. The Church is made up of people – imperfect people who try their best (or don’t try their best) to do what’s right and to protect what they have while trying to improve upon it. Suddenly, the Church culture isn’t something I have to incessantly fix. I can collect stories and folklore, examine some of our myths and I don’t have to pass judgment. I don’t have to fix anything. I just record. I love it.

When you've got stuff like this happening in your folktales, you're never bored.

When you've got stuff like this happening in your folktales, you're never bored.

I’ve been reading a lot of folklore lately – I spend some of my birthday money, and three out of the four books (The Bhagavad  Gita; Folklore of the Holy Land: Moslem, Christian and Jewish; and Irish Lore and Legends) are collections of folklore. I reluctantly left behind another tome of Jewish tales as well as books on Indian and Chinese folklore, simply because I didn’t want to spend all of my birthday money in one place.

I love folklore. For one, it’s been supporting the change in my attention span; the studies are probably right – the Internet is shortening my attention span. I don’t have patience for huge books on one subject and I prefer things to be short and dense. Folktales are like tweets – they’re usually pretty short, and the good ones have a lot of things to think about. Whenever I read regular books now (non-fiction) by the halfway mark I stop because I’ve learned all that the author usually has to say and the rest is just fluff. And because they’re short, I can devour pages upon pages of them. It’s seriously very addicting.

And my goodness, Church history. It’s awesome. Really. It’s like a religious soap opera and I love every part of it. And our folklores are just as good as any. We just need to start recording them and stop treating them like doctrine but as just that – tales with ambiguous sources. Ask any Jew if he or she really believes that you can use the Word of God to breathe life into a golem and they’ll laugh (unless they are seriously orthodox). But the stories of golems are not worthless – they’re a deep insight into the Jewish psyche and their desperate need for a physical protector in times of horrible distress and calamity for their culture. And sometimes folktales poking fun at religious authorities are necessary – not to disrespect them, but to remind ourselves that even the prophet is not akin to God, and as humans, we’re all subject to foibles and mistakes. We can develop a healthy, positive outlook towards the more negative aspects about who we are, and that, I can assure you from past experience, can bring about a very sweet peace of mind.

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