As an anthropologist and professor who has taught a wide range of social and cognitive science courses on two continents and with a culturally diverse range of students, from the undergraduate to the postdoctoral levels, I have come to cultivate an ambivalent skepticism regarding the current insistence to “decolonize” universities. I cringe at employing the imperfect (though highly in-vogue) fad of experiential authority, but here I go.
I speak from the perspective of a scholar and ethnographer with close to 20 years of experience working with and for indigenous people on four continents, from the Arctic and the Amazon to Aotearoa/New Zealand and Tibetan monasteries in the Himalayas; or again with Afro-Brazilian populations, Arab Muslims in France, sex workers in Europe and Brazil, people who hear voices, street children, children with neurodevelopmental disorders and radicalized young men. I am no stranger to the plight of people who do not benefit from full social, economic, legal and cognitive participation in their societies. Finally, I speak as a man and father who, as a graduate student in the mid-2000s, would have proudly called himself a social justice warrior.
A claim you will often read in statements, letters and calls for action is that anthropology originated as, and fundamentally remains a deeply racist, sexist and colonialist discipline – as illustrated by its foundational texts and figures. Among other accusations concerning the systematic “othering” (or derogatory misrepresentation) of marginalized groups, you will read that anthropology has always worked hand-in-hand with colonialist, imperialist and “extractive” or exploitative projects. I encountered these claims again, if more eloquently expressed, in a recent position statement and call for action put out by the anthropology students’ association at my own university. My first reaction upon reading the statement was a sincere smile – the statement brought me back to my own passionate and quixotic struggles for what I regarded as justice in my student days. It also moved me to share my thought with the students.
Watching bright, motivated young people thinking hard about and mobilizing to take action for solidarity and justice is for me always a beautiful reminder of our species’ altruistic, cooperative and creative nature. In spite of the diversity of theoretical interests and political views in our discipline, the core ethical principle of “do no harm” is not only the primary official obligation declared by the 120-year-old American Anthropological Association (AAA), but a universal value with which we can all agree.
Our discipline certainly harbours dark historical corners and ongoing problems that reflect a failure to abide by this important code of ethics. During the Second World War and the Cold War, anthropologist and archaeologist Carlton Coon was famously suspected of using his fieldwork in Iran as a cover for C.I.A. operations, while publicly defending the project of America’s “invisible empire.” Coon’s controversial positions on the so-called poly-regional hypothesis, according to which distinct human “races” evolved in different places and times, were infamously used by segregationists to argue in favour of racist legislation.
In 1967, the posthumous publication of Bronislaw Malinowski’s field diaries portrayed the inner world of a lonely, neurotic man plagued with racist contempt for his Melanesian interlocutors, and strong doses of guilt and shame directed at his sexual desire for Trobriand Island women. This revelation dealt a hard blow to the naïve premise, championed by one of the founders of our discipline, of objectively and dispassionately documenting other people’s realities “from the native’s point of view.”
In the early 2000s, the discipline entered a new existential crisis when veteran anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon was accused of deliberately instigating warfare among the Yanomamo (who live in southern Venezuela and northern Brazil) to bolster his controversial theories on human aggression. In North America, most anthropologists trained in the wake of the Chagnon controversy thus developed a deep anxiety about most of our discipline’s core principles, from the possibility of respectful engagement with and knowledge of cultural difference, to the project of advancing claims about human evolution via the study of pre-modern people. Colonial guilt had loomed in the heart of young anthropologists since the 1970s. By the late 2010s, it had become an explicit moral precept.
In these times of high anxiety and increasing moral and cultural rigidity it is important to put such a “decolonizing” critique in broader context. From its inception in the late 1800s, the discipline of anthropology was premised on respectful non-judgmental curiosity about, and engagement with, the immense diversity of thought, behaviour, goals and life-ways of non-Western cultures. From the beginning, anthropologists played a leading role in advancing the project of cultural conservation and in campaigning for the human rights of colonized peoples.
The discipline has also made extraordinary contributions to broader efforts at pan-human solidarity – indeed, to the advancement of broader solidarity with other forms of life and ways of relating to the environment. To claim that anthropology is built on colonialism as a foundation – increasingly common since the publication of Talal Assad’s Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter – is both empirically wrong and deeply disrespectful of the rich history and core ethos of our discipline. Isolated and over-simplified examples of bad anthropology do not define the discipline as a whole.
Some canonical accusations of “colonialist” anthropology also turned out to be false. The litigious claims advanced by journalist Patrick Tierney against Chagnon, for example, did not hold up to scrutiny. In 2002, a special Taskforce of the AAA had examined Tierney’s claims, voted to accept them and condemned Chagnon. An external investigative team, however, later concluded that Tierney’s book appeared to be deliberately fraudulent.
In her detailed investigation of the controversy, historian and bioethicist Alice Dreger traces the root of the overall issue to a growing divide between scientific and cultural anthropology after the 1970s, and a growing libel against evolutionary perspectives from the increasingly literary, inward-focused, angst-ridden “cultural side.” An early – and foundational – episode in the culture wars was the infamous session on sociobiology co-organized by E.O. Wilson and none other than the young Chagnon at the AAA’s 1976 annual meeting. Amid loud efforts to cancel the session and accusations of “racism, fascism, and Nazism,” the discussion was finally allowed to take place after Margaret Mead (herself a critic of sociobiology) condemned the outcry as “book-burning.”
Sociobiology is simply an interdisciplinary paradigm to study the evolutionary underpinnings of social behaviour. It has advanced our understand of altruism and cooperation as central mechanisms in human societies. Yet in cultural anthropology, sociobiology’s reputation as “racist” and “colonial” has somehow lingered. The view that science itself is racist and ought to be decolonized, once confined to esoteric seminars in literature and philosophy departments, is now gaining traction within scientific disciplines themselves.
Anthropologists in training motivated by decolonial approaches ought to examine the object of their anxiety. Or more to the point, return it to an object of study.
First, “colonialism” is not limited to the historically recent Euro-American expansionism that is the current object of caricatured public obsession. “Colonialism” encapsulates a wide range of examples of inter- and intra-group conflict, war, migration, enculturation and anthropogenic impact on the biosphere. This transcultural process is likely as old as recorded history itself, going back at least to the Bronze Age nearly 4,000 years ago.
Colonialism is therefore an object of study and deep questions for anthropologists. Human conflict, expansion and the encroachment of some groups at the expense of others are similarly not uniform processes. Such dynamics have also led, for example, to new networks of trade, exchange and dialogues, new forms of gift-giving, solidarity and curiosity, or hybrid forms of human expression from art and language to food, music, literature and philosophies. Anthropologists bearing witness to colonial projects have also described these emerging forms of life. None of us, dare I say it, would be here, having these discussions, without colonialism.
Human history is not one thing. Diverse pasts and presents cannot be expected to conform to the specific normative desires of one sub-culture of elite North American students. So it goes with “othering.” The extent to which different human worlds, or indeed individual human minds, are mutually knowable – the problem of “otherness,” or so-called alterity – is another anthropological classic. Whether radical alterity – the postulate that other people’s worlds are unknowable – even exists, whether it can be breached and, if so, whether it ought to be breached, are examples of anthropological questions about the matter.
“Othering,” as in making false or severely biased claims about other groups, is simply bad anthropology. A good anthropologist will aim for objectivity and reflexivity on the limits of her objectivity. A uniformly self-accusatory claim that all of anthropology is bad anthropology – in the sense that it habitually makes false claims about others – is inaccurate, silly at best, and highly counterproductive.
The historical oddity of seeing members of an elite student sub-culture produce “anti-colonial statements” that reflect a deep sense of unease about their own culture itself deserves an anthropological treatment. A more deflated account of such a statement can be taken to mean something like: “We ought to be good anthropologists; we ought to interact with others respectfully, strive for objectivity, and exercise appropriate reflection on the limits of our objectivity.” It goes without saying that we ought not to produce racist anthropology or act like colonialists in our work, as it goes without saying that we ought not to physically assault our informants, or intentionally misrepresent their lives.
Why then produce and sign such statements, passed along with the associated weight of strong social sanctions for those who would rather not sign it? More to the point again, the deeply coercive – in many ways intimidating – nature of our increasingly rigid moral culture warrants an anthropological investigation.
Another key dimension of anthropology, taking its cue from Margaret Mead’s classic work on adolescence in Samoa, is to gain fresh insights into what is taken for granted in the ethnographer’s own culture. By learning something fundamentally human and gaining another angle on reality from other cultures, we also learn something new and true about the human condition in general. Anthropologists have often offered compelling critiques of Western culture-bound assumptions, or other unduly universalized phenomena that pertain to specific historical moments and places. This may be why anthropology has spawned a fair share of contrarians, dissidents and anti-authoritarians.
In this vein of “making the familiar strange,” I am compelled to point out that “anti-colonial statements” from student groups in the early 2020s are not exactly acts of contrarianism, dissidence or courageous imagination of any kind. When student “activism” reproduces almost word-for-word the kinds of statements already proliferating in Admin and HR memos, mandatory employee training packages from Silicon Valley to federal governments, junk mail and other mea culpa manifestos from big business (like the Coca Cola Company’s recent “be less white” fiasco), the best-seller displays at book stores (both corporate and “independent”), viral content in most of the mainstream media, and even K-12 curriculums (see for example this extremely courageous Barbie video), or indeed what they have already been taught in anthropology, then something strange is going on.
That these very strange examples coincide with a narrowing and homogenizing of interests in student minds, and with novel forms of virtue-signalling, taboo, sacred worship, social contagion, shaming and punishment for non-woke dissenters or those who prefer to remain silent is, again, anthropologically interesting – and pedagogically worrying. A full explanation is required to shed light on the strange paradox of Woke culture.
What we now call “virtue-signalling” is a human universal. Humans everywhere need to demonstrate that they abide by local social norms and uphold culturally-specific moral ideals in their actions to signal their trustworthiness and manage their reputations. But societies differ in the range and rigidity of their moral expectations, as well as the means and harshness by which social costs are imposed on perceived norm-violators. Herein lies another paradox of the Age of Wokeism.
Where many cultures (both collectivistic and individualistic) uphold character virtues as ideals of good moral standing, large-scaled civilized societies (beginning with organized religion) tend to instil guilt as a self-reflective pro-social emotion – that is, as a way to check and readjust an individual’s behaviour in relation to social expectations and obligations. Internalized shame as in Confucian societies can serve as a similar, though harsher self-corrective mechanism. In contrast, primitive societies – and I use the term strictly in the anthropological sense – typically require more uniform cooperation for survival, and tend to be characterized by highly coercive social norms that impose a high cost on defectors. Primitive moral norms thus promote the highly performative, often cruel shaming and punishment of others as a way to enforce coercive norms.
The culture of Woke Millennials and Generation Z exhibits an odd mixture of postmodern hyper-individualism and loathing of hierarchy, along with primitive forms of unquestionable sacred worship and coercive shaming. But again unlike primitive cultures (which tend to promote cultural pride and ideals of strength), the Woke only worship alleged victims of their own culture. Wokeism may thus be the first society ever to identify with a projection of its others, and to promote the sacred worship of its own wickedness as a moral ideal. In the age of anti-colonial professions of faith, the costs of defection are not only high, but all-encompassing: they extend to anyone who appears unwilling to profess cultural self-hatred. Externally, Wokeism also punishes those who do not profess it.
More than 30 years ago, Allan Bloom observed with great concern that students were no longer interested in their own history – nor for that matter in the ways and wonders of other cultures and civilizations. He worried that abstract, contentless and condescending celebrations of noble victimization and equally abstract condemnations of imperialism were replacing all forms of inquiry in the humanities.
Watching the proliferation of “anticolonial” statements from student associations in 2020 makes me fearful that Bloom’s predictions were apocalyptically prophetic. In contrast, hearing students talk freely when we give them the means to do so gives me hope that such statements only reflect the loud and coercive voices of a relative few.
It has become a predictable token of the culture wars for professors to confess, anonymously, that they are terrified of their students. With a few rare exceptions, this hasn’t been my experience. In my classes and meetings with students, I am consistently inspired by how inquisitive, curious and open to difficult questions they are. There may of course be a self-selection bias in those who chose to take classes in evolutionary anthropology (a largely cancelled discipline) with a professor known for his criticism of Woke culture.
The vast majority of students I interact with certainly report feeling terrified to voice the “wrong” opinions, and even “like” cancellable content on social media. But it is very likely that those students who speak the loudest, such as those who end up running student associations and writing anticolonial petitions, represent a small – albeit tyrannical – minority. I suspect that social media, the culture of customer satisfaction and anonymous survey platforms are giving us all a false sense that students’ views are essentially homogeneous.
Allow me to comment further on the current normative obligation to be an “activist.” The political views and causes in which students and faculty choose to engage are simply that: a matter of their free choice. It is not a university’s job to demand that its members be activists, and much less that they be one kind of activist for one kind of cause. It is similarly not the job of students to define the history and ethos of the discipline they are being taught, and to demand that a specific political angle be made obligatory.
Anthropology is not a trade in the strict sense of the term, like plumbing or dentistry. But it is a profession for which one must take a long time to acquire a specialized set of intellectual and human skills. Anthropologists don’t fix teeth or build house foundations, but they do fix conceptual muddles and, for those of us who consider anthropology a branch of science, build clear accounts of culture that shed light on the fundamental workings of human life. So, in that context, try to imagine a Dentistry Students’ Association defining dentistry as a harmful enterprise and insisting that it ought to be anti-colonial as per their definition.
As a rite of passage into the profession of anthropology, one must spend a long time, uncomfortably at first, living with and learning from people different from ourselves. Those students among you who have the privilege to engage in this rite will face a tough dilemma: outside of your small, but very, very vocal subculture, you will encounter very, very few people who see the world as you do. I wonder then, what kind of anthropologists you will become.
One final detour will help clarify my views on coercive statements of values and politics. A common but, in my view, hyperbolic token in the culture wars is to compare current “cancel culture” with the infamous struggle sessions of Maoist China, in which those accused of being out of line with the revolutionary ethos were forced to repent and publicly confess their bourgeois, imperialist sins.
While no student or professor to date (in the current culture wars) has been put to death or sent to labour camps for holding counter-revolutionary views, a growing number of dissenters – and even “believers” who merely strayed momentarily from the culturally required line – have lost their livelihood or incurred severe social and reputational damage for refusing to adopt the increasingly dominant anticolonial ethos. Quite a few of these have sought to salvage their careers or positions through humiliating public apologies and other acts of self-abasement which, indeed, evoke the pre-punishment phases of Mao’s struggle sessions.
Rather than deflate the comparison with Maoism, allow me to take it further. As a professor, I also face the dilemma of feeling coerced into signing public statements of politics on behalf of departmental entities or professional organizations. The memory of John McCain, the former Republican Senator and U.S. presidential candidate, has provided strong guidance in my own process. McCain was a man whose politics I do not share, but whose dignity and honesty I can recognize as universally inspiring.
As an officer and pilot for the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam war, McCain spent five-and-a-half year as a prisoner of war after his aircraft was shot down by a missile over Hanoi. Having suffered near-fatal wounds from the plane crash, McCain further endured five years of intermittent torture, fevers, dysentery and two years of solitary confinement. He refused the privilege granted to officers of being released because of his rank. He wouldn’t leave, he insisted, as long as his subordinates remained behind. As was customary during the Vietnam war, McCain was also offered better treatment and release for the price of signing a “confession letter” attesting to the bourgeois and imperialist sins of America. After five-and-a-half years of relentless torture, McCain finally signed the propaganda letter. “Every man has his breaking point,” wrote McCain many years later, “I had reached mine.”
It is in memory of men like McCain – much tougher men than I, who endured much more humiliating conditions than the current customer satisfaction wars on Twitter – that I feel deeply humbled in my conviction that I am far from having reached my breaking point.
To conclude, I fully support students’ rights to gather, conjure up and share as many statements as they want on whatever subject they see fit.
But I conscientiously object to signing.
Samuel Veissière is an anthropologist, cognitive scientist and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at McGill University, where he is co-director of the Culture, Mind, and Brain Program. His current research spans a variety of projects from the study of cultural evolution to experimental work on placebo effects, cultural dimensions of mental health, Internet addiction and social polarization.