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Can anthropology save the world?

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, anthropology professor | May 24, 2016

Professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes gave the commencement address at the Department of Anthropology graduation ceremony, May 19. Here are excerpts from her speech: 

… We are living in difficult times facing an out of control, escalating wars in the Middle East for which we are partially to blame, and destructive political wars at home.  We are a divided nation within a profoundly divided world despite globalization and its allegedly democratizing effects. The gap between North and South, Middle East and Mid-West, between haves and have nots has become a chasm, making all of us less free and less safe.

Two weeks ago I was giving lectures in Rome and Prague on the plight of political refugees in detention and deportation camps cropping up in Europe. It was a sobering visit, as many countries including Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Denmark were making moves to build walls and to reject the waves of  refugees  fleeing wars and drought in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and crushing poverty Somalia.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes with midwife and others in Brazil

Anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes, with midwife and friends in Timbauba, Brazil, 2014

It is largest migration of people in Europe since WWII. Smugglers are legion and they defraud frightened refugees of their money and even of their kidneys demanded in exchange for basic necessities.

One of the smugglers involved in this shady business is a human trafficker named Boris Wolfman – indeed man is wolf to man.  In Prague, hate rather than love was in the air, driven by a new nationalism and calls for cultural and racial and religious homogeneity. Czech police began pulling refugees off trains and wrote numbers on their arms with felt tip pens, a creepy (rather than creeping) xenophobia, Islamophobia and a re-emerging anti-Semitism within the country.

In the beautiful historical center of Prague, resisters began to plaster the walls and windows of certain hotels, museums, and restaurants with posters announcing “Hate Free Zone” as the exception. This could happen to us. At the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, where I gave my lectures, I found it difficult to talk about human trafficking in a way that would jibe with the art exhibition on the Soul of Money.  While humans and animals might have souls, I was pretty sure that money did not.

In two days I fly to Recife and Timbauba in northeast Brazil to work with 120 community health agents with middle school educators, who are the first and often the only responders to the needs of pregnant women infected by the Zika virus. Carrying the threat of severe birth defects, the Zika epidemic is complicated by Brazilian laws that still prohibit abortion and a public-health crisis occurring amidst the near-collapse of the Brazilian economy and the real threat of a coup d’etat against the Workers Party President Dilma Rousseff, whose impeachment by Brazil’s Congress was an attempt to avoid corruption charges against themselves.

We are facing another kind of populist coup d’etat in the United States.

And you, dear class of 2016, are walking into a booby-trapped terrain, a world not of your making, and ill-equipped, you might think, with little more than a degree in anthropology. But never more was that degree more valuable and more needed.

How to fight xenophobia the dangerous fear and hatred of strangers? The opposite of xenophobia would be xenophilia, a term that barely exists on the internet except with reference to certain botanical species that seem to adjust to cohabiting with alien plants.

Xenophilia is not so much the love of difference as freedom from the fear of difference, and a healthy curiosity and desire to understand strangers who anthropologists have always seen  as precious repositories of human knowledge. Can anthropologists – cultural, biological, medical, linguistic and archaeological – deploy our deep commitment to human and biological diversity to resist the forces of hate, fear and xenophobia?…

Anthropologists are restless and nomadic people. We are a tribe of hunters and gatherers of human artifacts, human cultures, life ways, and human values. Anthropology requires us to become intimate with the people we want to understand – getting inside their skin, standing in their shoes kind of thing.

Ethnography is an art form, a work of translation, that demands all the senses – the observant eye, the attentive ear, a keen sense of smell, touch, and a sense of taste – a “gusto” (in Portuguese) that carries a double valence – a taste not only for new foods and spicy condiments, strong drinks – but also a taste for the sentient life through which a “society” is embodied — catching its sense of time and timing, its movements and gestures, its patterns of work, play, and devotion, its sense of humor and its sense of justice, its sense of dignity.

Anthropology also requires strength, valor, and courage. Pierre Bourdieu called anthropology a combat sport, an extreme sport as well as a tough and rigorous discipline. Anthropologists are the Green Berets of the social sciences. Archaeology teaches not only a deep appreciation and reverence for the past and for “small things forgotten,” as Jim Deetz described historical archeology. It teaches students not to be afraid of getting one’s hands dirty, to get down in the dirt, and to commit yourself, body and mind. Susan Sontag called anthropology a “heroic” profession – one that required brains and strength, sensitivity and guts. It was not just a job, not just a profession. It was, she said, one of those very few rare and true vocations.

You are the ones in whom your professors have invested their hopes and their trust. We need your intelligence, your initiative, your risk-taking, and your energy. We look to you as the next generation of “loyal rebels” – loyal to what anthropology has taught you: to value diversity; to embrace and enjoy (not just tolerate) human difference; to be open to the wisdom of strangers, and resolute in refusing any proposals that denigrate other ways of living and being in the world….

You are the heirs to a great tradition of anthropology. So march out of here today with plenty of that Berkeley attitude. May it give you the courage to work in the service of all humankind and be conservative protectors of all the creatures and plants and bio-diversity that sustains Mother Earth. May you be wise and strong and steadfast in building a better world than we have left you with.

Congratulations, good luck, Godspeed, and fare thee well, Class of 2016.

Comments to “Can anthropology save the world?

  1. P.S. Prof. Scheper-Hughes, it just occurred to me that your question “Can anthropology save the world?” might be refocused to read: “Can women leaders save the world?”

    The answer must consider the fact of life that far too many male leaders have failed throughout history to save previous civilizations because actions by males are most frequently controlled by their amygdala. That is a root cause of all the problems you have referred to in this post, especially including global warming, violence and inequalities that are destroying our civilization today, because of far too many male leaders who take actions dominated by hate, greed, and the power of money. The presidential primaries today illustrate this fact of life loud and clear.

    It is a neuro-scientific fact of life that the female brain has a proportionally larger prefrontal cortex, which produces superior empathy, while the male brain is dominated by a proportionally larger amygdala that has produced so many disasters throughout the history of the human race.

    Thus, during the 2016 elections, we must demand that all candidates dedicate themselves to correcting our failure to ratify the ERA and to immediately produce equal opportunities for all women so they can save the world.

  2. Prof. Scheper-Hughes, a most excellent, but increasingly tragic reality check.

    Because of the out of control pace of climate changes throughout the world today, we must produce solutions that can be implemented immediately as our highest priority.

    Will you please follow-up by dedicating yourself to uniting all UC professors and scholars to meet this goal before opportunities, resources and time run out to produce and perpetuate an acceptable quality of life for the human race?

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