Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Clifford Geertz and Radical Objectivity

My current office sits near the anthropologists, who have posted this comment from Clifford Geertz on the departmental bulletin board. It appears near the end of the "Introduction" to his 1983 collection of essays, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretative Anthropology. Geertz wrote:
To see ourselves as others see us can be eye-opening. To see others as sharing a nature with ourselves is the merest decency. But it is from the far more difficult achievement of seeing ourselves amongst others, as a local example of the forms human life has locally taken, a case among cases, a world among worlds, that the largeness of mind, without which objectivity is self-congratulation and tolerance a sham, comes.
Geertz is writing about people viewing themselves within the context of a variety of cultures: in passing, he mentions "American ethnographers, Moroccan judges, Javanese metaphysicians, or Balinese dancers." But near what feels like an especially divisive election day, it seems worth posing his insights as a challenge for all of our partisan beliefs.

While I am not a member of the Religious Society of Friends, I attended a college with Quaker roots and married a 22nd-generation Quaker. The Quakers have a term called a "query," which refers to a question--sometimes a challenging or pointed question-- that is meant to be used as a basis for additional reflection. So here is Geertz, reformulated as queries to myself.
  • What effort do you make to see yourself as those from the other sides of the partisan divides see you? 
  • Do you have the "merest decency" to see those with other political beliefs as sharing a nature with you? 
  • Do you see yourself and your political beliefs "as a local example of the forms human life has locally taken, a case among cases"?
  • To what extent is your objectivity a matter of self-congratulation?
  • To what extent is your tolerance a sham?