Might as well begin this blog with some thoughts on cannibalism – as good a topic as any for the Dunedin School. (Incidentally, what first whet my appetite for an exploration of cannibalism was the thirteenth chapter of the Book of Numbers, with its all-devouring landscape and giant-sized grape clusters.)
Mind you, this post has less to do with cannibalism than a typical academic reaction to it. The typical move of the human sciences, when faced with the unusual practice of eating other people, or indeed with any unusual or repugnant practice, is to ‘contextualize’ it. In this way, the practice is given an explanation within a network of cultural meanings and functions, and is fairly much sterilized as a result. But Anthropologist Don Gardner thinks that this contextualization can often be a thin cover for a subtle form of ethnocentrism. He argues the case in a very interesting article, ‘Anthropophagy, Myth, and the Subtle Ways of Ethnocentrism’ (1999). According to Don, when contextualization or thick description – and all those other standard practices of the human sciences – are carried out with the impulse to euphemize the ethical dimensions of the practices, then the initial unreflexive negative response is never really challenged. It is only buried in a network of explanation, disavowing the ethnocentric negative evaluation which prompted it. And so,
“this contextualizing move, too, can be sustained by ethical orientations uncomfortably close to those characteristic of people who would condemn cannibalism out of hand.” (36)
What also gets buried, as a result, is the possibility that the morality of a certain practice is still an open question. The impulse to contextualize can sometimes be motivated by the desire to place the offending practice beyond moral contemplation. The rationale is: this practice is obviously wrong, so how do we disarm negative reactions to it? Think of the rush to affirm that female genital mutilation is justifiable in terms of the framework of the cultural expectations of North-east African Muslim women. Think of the enthusiasm to describe the cultural significance of the genocidal Israelite ban (ḥerem) in the Old Testament conquest narratives, to ‘appreciate’ (and thereby justify?) its cultural-religious significance as a dedication to holiness. Think of the concerned attempts of many Bible Commentaries to redeem Rahab by denying her vocation as prostitute (as Daniel Hawk discusses). Gardner is right on the mark here. When the contextualizing explanation is governed by the motivation not to challenge ethnocentric attitudes, but to bracket out ethical aspects of a practice from consideration,
“there is… a kinship between those who would demonize and those who would contextualize ethically questionable practices.” (41)
It is true that contextualization can often greatly enrich our understanding and challenge our prejudices. Contextualizing can fundamentally challenge any immediate gut reaction we might experience. But as Gardner shows, the human sciences can conversely be used to protect or even reinforce these very same gut reactions.
– Don Gardner, ‘Anthropophagy, Myth, and the Subtle Ways of Ethnocentrism’. Pages 27-49 in Laurence R. Goldman, ed., The Anthropology of Cannibalism. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1999.
– L. Daniel Hawk, Every Promise Fulfilled: Contesting Plots in Joshua. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox, 1991: 62.