Every you, every me

I was struck by something Timothy Burke wrote at Easily Distracted, as a comment on one of his own posts, which was progressively threadjacked.

He was writing in relation to the discussions of rioters in London, vs. the bankers responsible for the economic meltdown. The contrast between those scrambling to make excuses or find cultural explanation for rioting, while not looking at financial practices in the same way, reveals a blind spot in a lot of people's thinking. As Professor Burke wrote:

But you’re singing my song on a point that I frequently harp on (including in classes, to my poor students) which is that for a very long time much qualitative social science has shown very little interest in elites or powerful social groups like soldiers or bureaucrats in the same terms that it takes an interest in many other social groups, e.g., as groups that have “cultures”, that are the products of social conditions, and so on. Lazy or simple versions of the social-conditions-produce-and-justify-practices ought to be just as forgiving of neoconservative bombing of Iraq. Admittedly, part of the reason that there are very few ethnographic studies of military or security force cultures of torture (for one example) is methodological: the powerful have very little interest in welcoming ethnographic inquiry into their habitus, even when that’s not strictly secret in some sense. But part of it is also the assumption by a lot of people on the left that the elite are already fully understood in this sense. Which I don’t really see: if I had to teach a class on the everyday cultural world of the most elite financial capitalists, I would have very few studies to put on the syllabus that would compare with what I can offer in a course on everyday life in rural southern Africa. I’d have to use memoirs, novels, and journalism, which is fine, but it’s still a notable gap. Unless what people mean by assuming that these worlds are already known to inquiry is because academics or leftists typically believe that they themselves are part of or known personally about such elite social contexts or that the self-representations of elites in the public sphere are accurate or useful guides to their everyday practices.

This relates to the kind of problem I bump up against regularly in my research, which involves assessing the cultures of colonialism at different sites. I don't often see scholars finding culturally determinist explanations for European empires. However, at the the high point of European expansion, we could easily say it was a longstanding part of European culture to beat people up and take their land. The defeated either sucked it up and learned to bow to a new king, or they rallied their friends and pushed the invaders out. (see Spain, reconquest of). And pretty well every part of Europe had been on both sides of that equation (conqueror and conquered) at some point in their history.

Historians, whether we like it or not, tend to vew the colonialist elites of the past as our equals, to be judged on our terms, while the subaltern groups are condescended to and excuses are made for their culture-bound hopelessness. I'm reminded of this response to the Aztec exhibition at the British Museum, which said a lot of what I was thinking at the time. If an exhibition of the history of the slave trade showed shackles and whips and did not say "look at this evidence of human cruelty" but "look at the fine workmanship on that!" most of us would be horrified and outraged. Why wasn't the Aztec show seen in the same way?

If Europe’s explorers and conquerors are condemned as invaders, pillagers and exploiters (which means judging them by our contemporary standards of morality), then we have to hold other groups to the same standard. Otherwise it’s like saying “oh, those poor benighted tribal people, with their simple understanding of the world, we can’t condemn them for their child sacrifice/cannibalism/cruelty. But those white Europeans, we can condemn them for witch hunts/slavery/torture, because they should have known better.”

Evil people and nasty practices have existed everywhere, at all times. So have good people. I am certain there would have been some Aztecs who thought the murder of children was wrong, and who tried to stop it. Diversity of opinion within a group isn’t something we in the educated West have exclusive claim to, either. “People of [group], believed x....”. Really? All of them? Can you think of one thing today that “everyone believes”?

Either we're all trapped by our cultures, or nobody is. I'm frequently annoyed with people who describe themselves as "very spiritual". This irks me because I regard "spirituality"—in the sense of having an interior life, rather than adhering to any particular religion or philosophy—as an essential element of being human. To say one is "very spiritual" is like saying one is "very human".

Which brings me back to Professor Burke’s useful point about rioters and bankers: if we’re to excuse the rioters for their culturally determined behaviour, the same excuses have to apply to the bankers. Or conversely, theft is theft. If you expect better from someone because they wear a suit and work on Wall St than you do from a teenager in a hooded sweatshirt, what kind of class snobbery is that?