The role of Anthropologists in societies engulfed by intractable conflict

This is a very good read on the effects of hostility and the hubris of nationalism – in this case Israeli – and more importantly, on the role of Israeli anthropologists ‘holding a mirror to one’s society’, by Michele Rivkin-Fish.

It contains some good points and quotes – I particularly enjoyed the reference to the work of David Grossman:

He details the anatomy of wounds inflicted by languages of hate – the clichés and stereotypes that spread from the media to individual minds, eating away at the capacity for empathy. As people increasingly come to expect aggression from the Other, they excuse it in themselves, filling the world with a banal ugliness. Grossman traces these symptoms to their root cause – the hostility and hubris of nationalism – which he exposes as a creeping, fatal tumor traversing the body politic. The dehumanization of the Other, he shows, is the dehumanization of the self.

One quote from Grossman’s book, Writing in the Dark, reminds me of Todorov’s claim that the fatal flaw of our approaches to evil, genocide and social injustice is our relationship with evil as alterity – the distinction that we make between ourselves and others: heroes/victims versus the villains:

When we are able to read the text of reality through our enemy’s eyes, it becomes more complex, more realistic, allowing us to recover the elements we suspended from our world picture. From that moment, reality is more than just a projection of our own fears and desires and illusions: when we are capable of seeing the story of the Other through his eyes, we are in healthier and more valid contact with the facts. We then have a far greater chance to avoid making critical mistakes and perceiving events in a self-centered, clenched, and restrictive way. And then, sometimes, we can also grasp—in a way we never previously allowed ourselves to—that this mythological, menacing, and demonic enemy is no more than an amalgamation of people who are as frightened, tormented, and despondent as we are. This comprehension, to me, is the essential beginning of any process of sobriety and reconciliation,” (Grossman 2008: 55-56).

An Israeli anthropologist describes how s(he) uses anthropological lenses in deconstructing identities framed by hardcore nationalists politics:

I tell the students, ‘we’re going to put on our anthropological lenses,’ put away our ethnocentrism and look at how people live, as part of the broader context of their values. You must not assume a person shares your cultural values. This isn’t a theoretical issue, but a tool for life. It frees you because it enables you to understand others.  You can still believe in your own cultural values while respecting others.

And, last but not least, an important observation that I can relate to:

Literature and ethnography convey nuance and contradiction – they displace sloganeering and discredit reductionist thinking. These genres awaken writers and readers, students and teachers to new ways of seeing, thinking, and being: they open minds, enabling people to reach beyond the confines of the self to understand and appreciate the viewpoints and suffering of others.


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