Tag Archives: Fellow Feeling

Cultural Relativism


If you want to understand Indigenous People you should know something about anthropology. Sadly, I know little about anthropology. Of course, as faithful readers of my blog know, absence of knowledge has never stopped me from offering my opinions. Today is no exception.

I have said that to understand the relationship of the invaders of the western hemisphere to the Indigenous people cannot be understood without realizing the arrogance and superiority they felt to indigenous people.

Franz Boas, sometimes called the father of modern Anthropology was perhaps the first anthropologist to poke holes into the false sense of superiority of the west. He was interested in how beliefs and convictions coalesced into something he referred to as culture. He thought this was a valid organizing principle. So does Wade Davis another eminent anthropologist. Boas, appreciated, as very few of his fellows did, that cultures of the west had a lot to learn from indigenous cultures.  As Davis said of Boas, “Far ahead of his time, he sensed that every distinct social community, every cluster of people distinguished by language or adaptive inclination, was a unique facet of the human legacy and its promise.”

Each culture provided an opportunity that every one who contacted it would be well advised to pay attention to it and learn from it. Ideological blinkers are never helpful. Boas is seen by many as the originator of modern cultural anthropology and for good reason.  He looked at cultures without bias and without suffocating feelings of superiority. Boas wanted to learn from people he met. He was not there to teach them. He was not there to save them, he wanted to benefit from their stored ancient wisdom. That attitude was extremely unusual in its time. Boas worked among many people including the Inuit of Baffin Island, the indigenous people of the west coast of North America and in every case made sure that his students kept an open mind. Boas ensured that his students communicated with the indigenous people they met in the language of those people. He asked them to participate as much as possible in the lives of those people they studied.  As Davis said of Boas,

“Every effort should be made, he argued, to understand the perspective of the other, to learn the way they perceive the world, and if at all possible, the very nature of their thoughts. This demanded, by definition, a willingness to step back from the constraints of one’s own prejudices and preconceptions. This notion of cultural relativism was a radical departure, as unique in its way as was Einstein’s theory of relativity in the discipline of physics. Everything Boas proposed ran against the orthodoxy. It was a shattering of the European mind, and ever since, anthropologists have periodically been accused of embracing an extreme relativism.”

That does not mean we have to abdicate from making judgments. That does not mean we can’t cherish the good from our society too. Lets cherry pick the best from each world. Lets just not be blind to the good fruit from our kin. When we make judgments, lets make sure that they are informed, based on reasoning not wishful thinking, or worse, no-thinking, and free from bias. In other words we should always try to be ideal observers.  We owe that not only to them, but to ourselves.

One day Boas in the cold winter of 1883 was caught in a dreadful snowstorm in northern North America. It was the mother of all blizzards. Temperatures dipped to minus 46º C. That would even impress people from the prairies of Canada like me. Boas and his group understandably became disoriented in the storm. For 26 hours in the freezing cold there was nothing he could do to help his men. He left himself and his entire crew to the care and custody of the local Inuk companion and their dogs. Eventually the Inuk guide led them to safety and the men survived, though half dead when they arrived. They were nearly frozen to death and nearly starved. The next day Boas wrote this in his diary,

“I often ask myself what advantages our good society possesses over that of ‘savages’ and find, the more I see of their customs, that we have no right to look down on them…We have no right to blame them for their forms and superstitions which may seem ridiculous to us. We highly educated people are much worse, relatively speaking.”

Boas opened the eyes of anthropologists, but many more. Many people came to realize we have a lot to learn from others. Our hubris must be put on the shelf.

Boas  explored the idea that random beliefs could coalesce into what he called “culture.” Boas was among the first to promote the idea of culture as an organizing principle of anthropology.

Boas became the leader of modern cultural anthropology. He studied with an open and unprejudiced manner how human social perceptions are formed and how members of distinct societies become conditioned to see and interpret the world. I would say Boas was the father of modern cultural anthropology and also the father of the sociology of knowledge.

Boas insisted that his students learn and conduct their research in the language of the place and even participate in the lives of the people that they studied. These were revolutionary ideas at the time.  Davis said of him, “Every effort should be made, he argued, to learn the way they perceive the world, and if at all possible, the very nature of their thoughts.”

Of course this required his students to set aside their preconceptions and actually look at, and listen to, the people they were studying. Prejudice had no place in their science. One had to look skeptically at one’s own cultural preconceptions in order to avoid being enslaved by them.

This led Boas to his revolutionary idea of cultural relativism. According to Davis, “This notion of cultural relativism was a radical departure, as unique in its way as was Einstein’s theory of relativity in the discipline of physics. Everything Boas proposed ran against orthodoxy. It was a shattering of the European mind, and ever since, anthropologists have periodically been accused of embracing an extreme relativism.”

This does not mean that all cultures are equal. It does mean that all cultures merit respect. It does mean that all cultures have something to teach us. It does mean that cultural arrogance is misplaced. As Davis said,  “In truth, no serious anthropologist advocates the elimination of judgment. Anthropology merely calls for tis suspension, so that the judgments were are all ethically obliged to make as human beings may be informed ones.”

Boas wanted to see the world through the eyes of his subjects. He wanted to walk in their moccasins. He practiced radical empathy, not arrogance. That is the attitude we need to understand Indigenous issues. Not arrogance. Not a sense of superiority. Empathy is much more helpful.




Scott Turow is a fine writer of legal fiction. I know a lot of people enjoy the novels of John Grisham. So do I, but Grisham is not a great writer. Scott Turow is a very good writer. “Great” might be too strong a word, but not by much. That is the difference.

Limitations is one of Turow’s legal thrillers. But like all good books–in fact like all good art–the real subject is empathy. The book is designed to make us walk in the shoes of someone else. No it is designed to make us walk in the shoes of others. The book explores the connections between people and the world. It shows how they (and of course, we) are all linked. We all have affinity for each other and for the world in which we are located. Great literature is like religion. The original meaning (I would even say the correct meaning) of “religion” is connection or linkage. Art and religion are what link us. They are metaphors by definition.

The story of the book is the problems encountered by an appeal court judge who is given a difficult case to decide.  The appeal court consists of 3 judges. 2 of the judges have quickly decided what they think and they are on opposite sides. Of course, the case is not as simple as the other 2 judges make it out to be. So the protagonist George Mason effectively must decide the difficult case. He has to agree with one or the other. And truth, as always in good novels, as in life, is murky.

The case involves young men who commit a horrible crime against a young woman. They are clearly guilty, and were found guilty at the the trial, but the questioner the Appeal Court  is whether or not the case is statute barred by the Statute of Limitations. In other words is it too late to legally find them guilty?

The case becomes more difficult to decide for 2 reasons. The first is  someone is making mysterious threats against the judge. This distracts him. That makes deciding more difficult. Is the threat related to the case the judge must decide? As well, the case reverberates with the judge because of similarities to an incident in his life many years ago. As a result he feels uncommon sympathy for the 4 convicted youth of a heinous crime when perhaps he otherwise would have felt not any sympathy for them at all. And remember, sympathy or empathy is the point. How could a stellar judge, a kind man, have see any resemblance between himself and these loathsome appellants?

The judge asks his boss, the Chief Justice of the Appellate court, if he is disqualified if the case reminds him of himself. The Chief is wise, he replies, “They’re supposed to remind us of ourselves, aren’t they George? Isn’t that a quality of mercy (echoing Shakespeare’s exploration of similar themes in The Merchant of Venice)?” The judges are forced to ask themselves, “Who are we to judge?”

In the case the 4 youth clearly committed the horrible act but the legal question is whether or not the statute of limitations applies or not. Should guilty youth be acquitted for nothing more than the passage of time? The question in the book is summed up well by the judge in the final decision:

“As crimes so often do, this case has riled passions, broken hearts, and left behind a wake of lives forever disturbed. At is core, it asks us to reconsider a question the law has long pondered: how long and under what circumstances, punishment may be delayed before the balance of justice tips against it?”

People who would never want to acquit just because too much time has passed must consider that as time passes witnesses memories fade; it is more difficult for the defendants to mount a defence because evidence has dispersed, and should accused people be kept hanging, waiting for justice forever? This is an important question.

Even more fundamental is the question of what is to be done when the  law (or justice) conflicts (perhaps) with empathy or fellow feeling? Which should prevail? What are the limitations to law or empathy?   Really these are the same questions that Shakespeare reflected on in his great play.

The novel invites us to consider that “suffering has many faces.” It also warns, “Sainthood is not required.” And finally, in the end, each of us must ask, was justice done?

I urge you to consider this book. Its worth the read.

Hatred, Fear, and Sympathy in War


Before they went to Vietnam, none of the American soldiers had been taught very much about the people they were fighting or the people they thought they were serving. American troops called the Vietnamese gooks–words first used by US Marines about the people of Haiti and Nicaragua during the American occupation of those countries. It hardly shows respect. They also applied the word to the North Koreans during that conflict. They had called the Japanese “slopes.” The Australians called the Chinese “dinks.” Those words were used in basic training. They said the Americans would be fightin gooks. “Vietnamese might be people, but gooks are close to being animals.” Soldiers referred to older Vietnamese women as “Mamasans” a term used to describe women who ran whore-houses in occupied Japan.   It was dehumanization again.

The North Vietnamese called G.I.s “invaders.” That is exactly what they were. They also called them “imperialists” which I believe they were, and Giăc Mŷ which meant “American bandits.”

By the summer of 1967 Americans were fighting in every part of Vietnam. Fighting was very intense in 1 Corp in the north. The Marines bore the brunt of the fighting there. 98% of the 2&1/2 million people who lived there lived within the narrow rice-growing river valleys along the South China Sea.

John Musgrave of the Marines was serving there. His company was heavily shelled by artillery hidden away in the Demilitarized Zone (‘DMZ’). They called that “the Dead Marine Zone.” His outfit was so heavily hit that it was referred to as “the walking dead.” Musgrave said that when he went to war “he wanted to be a part of the varsity”. He wanted to fight the North Vietnamese Army (‘NVA”). He said if he lived to be 62 some day he did not want to look in the mirror and see someone who had not given his all for what he believed in. He did not want someone else to do “the harder part.” He had pride. Some days when he was being heavily shelled he thought he was nuts, but he did it anyway. He thought it was his duty.

Musgrave said that every contact with the NVA was an ambush. They would contact the Americans unless they outnumbered them and “we were fighting in their yard.” Of course, I would ask him, why did you stay in your yard? They knew the ground; we didn’t. But that wasn’t all. “They were just really good.” Obviously he respected them. Why wouldn’t he?

All soldiers had weaknesses. According to Le Van Cho of the North Vietnamese his side had a big one. They smoked American cigarettes and left a trail that they could easily follow. The NVA also seemed to carry seemingly indestructible AK–47 weapons. The Americans used newly minted M-16s that for a time had a fatal flaw–they needed constant cleaning. They also often jammed in the middle of firing. Or as John Musgrave said, “Their rifles worked; ours didn’t. The M-16 was a piece of shit. You can’t throw your bullets at the enemy and have them be effective. And that rifle malfunctioned on us repeatedly.” I always thought American had superior weapons. I never realized that. I wondered, were the guns supplied by crony capitalists?

The Americans also had another “defect,” though in this case I am not sure that is the right word. As NVA member Ho Huu Lan pointed out, “When one of their soldiers was wounded or killed, and another ran up to retrieve the body, we were able to shoot them too.”

Though Musgrave obviously respected the soldiers, he said, “My hatred for them was pure. I hated them so much. And I was so scared of them. Boy I was terrified of them. And the scareder I got, the more I hated them.” Fear and hatred are indeed twins. In fact they are Siamese Twins.

Ho Huu Lan said, sympathy and hatred were interwoven, but on the battlefield hatred was dominant. The Americans were determined to kill us. We had to kill them too.

That’s what war is like. You have to fight the other even when you respect them.