Anthropologies Of Truth And Deception: Forward To The Past!!

Prof. Anand Singh

Anthropology, School of Social Sciences University of KwaZulu-Natal, Howard College Campus

As we approach the date set for the IUAES 2023 Congress questions continue to abound about where it is to be convened and who are the rightful conveners for this once in five years mega event. The questions are not inappropriate since they centred upon the juxtapositions of two issues that have been central to anthropological research viz. truth and deception. Both of these issues are indeed core to the very nature of human relations, predating the advent of the institutionalization of intellectual thought and the career-building that emerges out of it. Numerous publications exist among anthropologists who have tried to deal with truth and deception in various ways (see for instance Susan D Blum: 2005, 2007; Peter Metcalf: 2002; Carole McGranahan: 2017). Susan Blum’s book has been portrayed in a convincing way about the inter-relationship between truth and language, and is, therefore, best left unaltered:

Blum considers the longstanding values that led to this style of interaction, as well as more recent factors, such as the government's control overexpression. But Chinese society is not alone in the practice of such customs. The author observes that many Americans also excel in the manipulation of language, yet find simultaneous moral absolutism opposed to lying in any form. She also considers other traditions, including Japanese and Jewish, that struggle to control the boundaries of lying, balancing human needs with moral values in contrasting ways. Deception and lying, the book concludes, are distinctively cultural yet universal—inseparable from what it is to be a human being equipped with language in all its subtlety.

Against the background of the current turmoil in Anthropology’s international leadership, this short paper tries to address questions around what humankind has faced over the last several millennia. Crucial to this exercise is the fundamental issue about whether we are moving positively forward since the introduction of participant observation as a tool of verifying actualities on the ground about people and institutions, or are we moving forward without being cognoscente of our past? While Blum’s position on the Chinese, visa vis the rest of the world, echoes the truism that I posit here, an interesting and challenging history brought contemporary practices in Anthropology and its cognate social science counterparts to the point of confrontation against the deceptions of the enlightenment period that began in the 16th century. Several radically political altering phenomena occurred during this period. It was witness to the rapid decline in the influences of the Roman Catholic Church through the concomitant challenges in the rise of Protestantism. Islam’s grip over one of the most advanced civilizations of the world that is India was rapidly deteriorating. By the time the Portuguese entered Goa, India, their fight was more against the Hindus than against Islamic invaders. However, to Anthropologists, it was the rise in intercontinental exploratory trips from western European countries that mattered. They set the scene for what constitutes Anthropology and the broader fraternity of the Social Sciences and Humanities. Key among these countries were Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Netherlands and Portugal. All of these countries were outward-looking, battle-ready and determined to expand their influence through their royal allegiances, technologies and Christianity.

In the rise of 16th century West European industrialisation there was a realism that sowed the seeds of connivance, coercion and capture of foreign territories, their resources and its people. There was a realization that their spirit of adventurism, technologies that produced swifter outcomes in production, and organisational capacities, would outdo the lesser advanced populations in other parts of the world. In India, and most other places of the world, while trade relations prevailed with neighbouring territories, accessible by land, rivers or the oceans, trade relations were either to cement cultural ties or engage in pragmatic exchange relations. Maharajahs and their kingdoms in India operated as if they were self-contained independent units. They were devoid of any intentions to galvanize and to unite as a country. At the time of India’s independence from Britain, there were as many as 565 “independent” kingdoms, almost oblivious to the impact that external intrusions into their territories had on their sovereignty.

Preceding the rise of Calvinist ideology within the wider context of the rise of Protestant thinking in the 16th century, was the Catholic Church. Its takeover of political administration since the dismantling of the western side of the Roman Empire in 395 CE, and the much later demise of its eastern counterpart in 1453, created a space for the onset of Protestant forces. The supremacy of the Church in the daily affairs of the people became the basis for oppositional politics against Papal control. Charges against the Vatican were ironically, about excesses and over indulgences in the clergy’s pursuits for materialistic niceties. They went against the vows of Catholic rules of celibacy and simple lifestyles that ought to be dedicated to the Holy Spirit as well as to serve as role models to their followings. Protestant opposition set out to change this by advocating a return to the word of Christ from the very beginning of his time. But it was also to change the system of allegiances in political and economic matters of the masses.

In Europe bringing down the role of the Papal Administrations worked. However, in the lands that were gradually conquered and its people subjugated as economic slaves, religion once again reared its ugly head as a justification for their exploitative control. In South Africa for instance White supremacy was justified through the biblical attribution that “Blacks are the tillers of the soil, drawers of water and hewers of wood”. The inscription intertwined with the idea that people of European origin had a God-given right to rule over the less powerful natives of lands far away from the continent of Europe. European presence was popularized as a civilizational responsibility that had to bring forth the “tribal savage” in at least two ways. First, they had to upgrade their economic performance and productivity by introducing them to western technology. This produced quicker results and was more efficient. No thought, however, was given to the sustainability of natural resources through outcomes such as dustbowls in agricultural areas or depletion of protein sources that are land and ocean-based. Second, they bound the captured populations into a web of exploitative economic relationships that were not only class-based, but which over time, rendered them incompetent and marginal to their own indigenous knowledge systems. In the process, over the last three hundred years and a bit, at least 545 indigenous languages have disappeared and been replaced by the colonizers’ languages. Invaluable losses have been incurred in the disappearances of indigenous knowledge systems as well. Ironically, it is this very factor that western development policy advisors are today placing at the centre of their economic revival plans to resuscitate productivity and make people less dependent on exogenous criteria for their upliftment.

First among the Europeans to make contact with indigenous communities were explorers, missionaries and colonists. Members from each category noted down their observations about phenotypical features of the people they met, their customs and rituals, food habits, economic relations and political structures. In retrospect, and sadly so, our beloved career that is anthropology, served as one of the handmaidens of colonial rule. Anthropologists were well-trained observers in social arenas and in understanding the political structures of indigenous leadership. They understood their uses and value to the colonisers, creating careers out of their acquired knowledge about the locals. Initial uses of the material that was gathered by the explorers, missionaries and colonists sought to establish the alleged superiority of the Europeans over everyone else in the world. The theory of social evolution allowed Europeans to bask in the make-belief glory of being among the most advanced in the world. Their literacy, industrialization and oceanographic adventurism boosted their confidence in how much they could achieve through the capturing of foreign territories. Industrialisation in Europe was viewed as the only place in the world where such heightened levels of innovation, creativity and productivity occurred. That the two most populous nations in the world, China and India, were already engaging in knowledge transfers in scholarly exchanges through institutions such as the University in Nalanda, Bihar, India, or through trade relations, hardly counted in self-praises of themselves. Established trade routes within India already prevailed since the Mohenjo Daro and Harrapa civilizations several thousand years prior to the establishment of the Roman Empire. Later trade with Middle Eastern and African countries began to flourish through the use of ships that were substantially larger than what Europeans were using (Shashi Tharoor 2018). Upon growing contact with India, the English abandoned their own shipyards in favour of Indian craftsmanship. None of this, however, counted in the European lexicon of what constituted “industrialization” prior to the rise of Protestantism. Max Weber’s thesis for instance, on the theory of rationality, ascribed frugality and the power to reason in order to profit and accumulate capital as an exclusive European ability. Little reference, if any at all, was ever paid to the entrepreneurial abilities of the peoples of the Near, Middle and far East.

Since the eighteenth century newer forms of thoughts emerged in Western Europe as missionaries, colonial agents, travellers and discoverers of populations in other continents began open debates about evolutionary perspectives of humankind. West Europeans had gathered by then that their technology, intellectual pursuits and spirit of adventurism had set them apart from other communities of the world. It fostered discussions and debates about where and in what their advantages lay and how they could use them to advance their burgeoning interests in their rapid pace of industrialization. Their want for control over land and natural resources also led to the realization that indigenous minds and discourses about “the other” also needed to be under European control. Debates about the social evolution of communities all over the world abounded throughout Western Europe, placing Europeans ahead of everyone else (John Beattie 1966). While these early debates were entrenched in ethnocentric discourses, they somewhat unintentionally sought to raise the human ability to reason above blind faith in religion. Their continued interactions through writings and new theories about social development began to separate the church from the state. However, their intense and passionate debates and discussions stemmed more from conjecturing than from personal contact with “the other”[i]. Contact by anthropologists with communities outside Europe occurred towards the end of the 19th century. Cambridge University academic, AC Haddon made his maiden trip in 1898 with his students to the Torres Strait Islands, and German physicist turned anthropologist, Franz Boas (1928), after settling in the United States, made his first trip to the Inuit Eskimos in 1883. He lived with them in Baffin Island, situated in the Arctic corridor of Canada. Boas lived among the Inuit as they did, learnt their language and their cosmology. Both Haddon and Boas insisted upon the need to make contact and live with the people about whom they wished to write. This spirit of learning at a personal level within the target group constituted some of the early steps towards the anthropological practice of ethnographic research and participant observation. Together, efforts of both anthropologists and their students in the Torres Straits Islands and Baffin Island constituted significant efforts to divert from the ethnocentric styles of conjecturing and judgmental writings by the predecessor explorers, missionaries and travellers since the 16th century. Their approach to research and their creation of new theories was also a stand against the racist practices of the late 19th to early 20th centuries (See Beattie 1966). Their work was a radical shift away from the erstwhile writer and armchair theorist, Sir James Frazer, who when asked if he ever visited any of the communities he so eloquently wrote about, he replied: “God Forbid”.

Over the last three centuries,’ religiously motivated invasions and secular ideologies began setting the scene for wider application of their ideologies. Initial religious invasions, especially Christianity and Islam, focused mainly on the conquered populations and their territories. Secular ideologies, however, were exported through persuasive alliances by the more technologically and militarily powerful countries such as the United States of America (USA) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to less developing countries. While Christianity and Islam sought to replace local religious beliefs and practices, socialism and capitalism sought to replace local models of economic activities and political structures. Socialism (Karl Marx 1867) discouraged religion, but capitalism complimented the spread of Christianity (Nosipho Majeke 1952).

Throughout the medieval and modern ages, attitudes of undermining and patronizing people outside of the West European zone of influence continue to be undermined. No better illustration of this hovers over our heads than the forthcoming World Anthropology Council Congress (WAC 2023), scheduled to be held in January 2023 at the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS), Bhubaneshwar, India. Eagerness and enthusiasm was demonstrated in 2010 when they placed an offer to host an Inter-Congress. It was accepted and delegates from numerous countries were present to witness the work of the KISS administration and their staff in their endeavours to serve the most marginalized of the state of Orissa’s population from their tribal populations. There was no objection when KISS representatives made a second bid in 2013 at the Manchester University convened Congress, to host the next Congress in 2018. But they lost to Brazil in a fair and well-managed process. KISS’s ever-enthusiastic management, ready to be a part of Anthropology’s international events, made another impressively prepared bid to host the 2023 Congress. This time, against Croatia, they won impressively. In 2020 however, a bombshell was dropped on KISS and its partners by the IUAES Executive – that they could not host the Congress because of opposition to it as a “Factory School” that was trying to ”Hinduise” Orissa’s tribal populations.

In our search to abide by the “truth” and keep away from “deception”, I have to put my anthropological skills of observation and participant as an observer to the test. Between 2010 and 2020, the IUAES Executive did not have any objection to KISS as a host. All they did was act in a singular letter and through a singular phone call to convey their message that KISS will no longer act as a host because of allegations against it. There was no attempt to engage in the anthropological spirit of an on-site (re-)inspection, nay, participant observation, to verify accusations made against KISS. Neither was there any attempt to test the veracity of two internationally published papers by American Full Bright scholar Prof Christine Finnan against the allegations made by KISS’s alleged accusers. I say “alleged” because, at this historical juncture, India is facing multiple challenges from Islamists, generously funded NGOs operating as fronts for international Christian groups bent on acceleratin