Politics and Ethics: Anthropologists and Human Terrain Systems

I thought it might be best to wait and see how the discussion on the AAA’s new blog unfolded before engaging in any attempt at serious commentary. However, having captured my attention since it directly spoke to my own, and related posts there, I decided to clarify some thoughts, especially as I think that certain issues are (perhaps) the target of deliberate obfuscation (in the name of clarity, of course).

First, I wrote:

I do not want to see a discussion that is fundamentally about politics being displaced into the muddier field of ethics. This is not to dismiss ethics, but rather to make certain that we are focused on the politics behind the ethics, and stand up for those politics. The contention at the centre of our attention goes well beyond professionalism.

By issuing this statement, the AAA Executive Board has already done a lot to positively enhance anthropology’s political profile in a world where the politics of anthropology are precisely what have been under dispute.

Had the AAA not taken such a measure, then rest assured that I for one would have been very keen to start an international movement to boycott American anthropology, and specifically the AAA.

Yes, the last paragraph was definitely written out of anger, but I do not apologize for it.

In addition to my post above, others have made the following comments. One, seemingly in agreement, wrote:

I’d like to expand the existing debate on ethics and move beyond it. The question, for me, is not whether HTS violates the anthropological code of ethics. I believe that it does. But so do many other anthropological engagements the AAA does not oppose. And this where politics enters the game….the decision to condemn this, but not other violations, is a political decision.

I agree, and I am not agreeing to then dismiss the argument because it is “political” (treated as a bad word by some of the most diabolically political-minded speakers in the US media and US party politics). What is needed is clarity in our use of terms and specificity about the values to which one adheres.

Another commentator, purporting to seek clarity, actually clouds the issue further and tries to set the discussion back to one of self-serving professionalism:

We are not, after all, talking about whether one war or another is good or bad, whether all war is good or bad, whether it is right for an anthropologist to get involved in this or that war etc.; we are talking about whether it is professionally responsible for anthropologists to use their professional skills and abilities to assist in warmaking.

Do you see the problem in that statement? It comes at the end, that “we” should be talking about whether it is “professionally responsible” to assist in warmaking, using one’s “professional skills.” Then why would the issue of warmaking be the salient one? Clearly, assisting the warmakers only becomes problematic if you think that war is itself a problem. That is a political question, not a professional one.

This confusion is in part due to the diverse, valid, interpretations of the meaning of “ethics.” In some treatments, ethics is clearly about motivations based on ideas of what is right or wrong. In other treatments, ethics is about the principles, standards, and rules of personal conduct (especially as a professional these days). The AAA code of ethics is clearly about delimiting the exercise of power and is therefore intimately connected to the political.

Ethics are subservient to politics, and never more so than in war.

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