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23 June, 2013


Tilted and saturated, but on track and no mirage.

FOX "NEWS" being just the most blatant example, "fair and balanced" means little these days. But they're not to blame for the media's enshrinement of "getting both sides of the story," which both reduces complicated stories with many angles to two views and misses the point that true objectivity is a delusion. We never have all the facts (and tend to prioritize them differently), and humans are subjective even when they try not to be; the belief in objectivity is a subjective choice. 

People like to trot out the hard sciences to counter this argument, but my dad was a physicist, something I mention to give myself the aura of osmotic knowledge before explaining that Quantum Theory means that every observation changes the act being observed. On the surface of it, this would appear even more true for human culture, which is built on communication among subjects, each reacting to the other not only for the words said, but a variety of other cues, constantly adapting. By Anthro 201, I'd been taught that an ethnographer going in and taking notes and collecting data and walking out with a sense that he has an objective knowledge of the culture is insane. 

One way anthropologists deal with this problem (if it is a problem) is through something called "participant observation," meaning you do not stand by and take notes, you take part. Spend time with the community, learn their language, do the things they do. Which of course will be different for a 25-year-old male student than a 55-year-old female professor, neither of whom will get the whole story on a culture. Even if they want to, even if they succeed in transcending boundaries in the culture (maybe especially then), their presence  shapes the behaviors; when the anthro arranges the data and writes it up, other factors in her history, campus politics, mundanities to be dispensed and crises to be dealt with will all lead to a certain flavor. 

Trying to be objective is not a bad idea, though, and anthropologists or journalists or judges who go in with preconceived notions, hardened biases, or dull axes can be dangerous. Being open to facts and contexts for them, presenting different points of view, and not making data serve message instead of the other way around are all laudable. 

But sometimes it is laughable that both sides of the story get equal time, particularly because in America all it takes is money to elevate looney views to legitimate policy alternatives. Sometimes, one side is just flat out wrong, or interested in the 1% at the expense of the 99%. If in the name of Objectivity, the journalist gives traction to, oh, let's say the Iraq War, he has just aided and abetted a great harm. If the anthropologist is too detached and writes the academic articles but sits out the political action, she's taking sides.

Hmm. Here I am writing about anthropologists, pointing out where they can go wrong, without so much as a PhD. No specialization, making a living doing archaeology yet presuming to write about living culture, working not on a campus but in a state office. This blog reveals me as opinionated, and probably extreme as far as the bloated center of a bell curve is concerned. I'm pretty open about my bias that native cultures have had it very hard in this country, and that we ought to do what we can to perpetuate them, even if that means putting aside the notebook and taking action. 

So to some, I'm a shame to the profession. Even here at the blog, my own spew zone, I've had the occasional comment that I'm not even-handed enough, or missed something, that I was too extreme. Among my family and friends, I'll cop to being on the prickly end of the scale; I've been described as "fierce" by one. Which is true in some cases, and of course I've written things that I regret, but that's the price of feeling free to speak up. 

I am not objective, and cannot detach from something I care about easily, so I take sides. Being fair is fine, but presenting both sides of the story as if they were always of equal merit? Nah, I can't do that. Maybe three sides, or five. Maybe a dodecahedron of perspectives. At work, I need to collect data and write about them, sometimes making recommendations based on particular circustances--there is a place for something approaching objectivity. But here, opinions and iconoclasty can run loose, and my political tilt is right up front.

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