16 November 2007

The Uses of Witchcraft and the Limits of Multiculturalism

Domingos Pedro ... was accused by his family of being a witch
and of causing his father's death. His mother, Maria ... worries
about attacks by his relatives so Domingos lives in a shelter.
Domingos insisted that he admitted he was a witch only to
save his life. Photo: © Vanessa Vick for The New York Times.

Yesterday The New York Times ran a story on the plight of young chilren in several central African countries who"are accused of being witches, and then are beaten, abused or abandoned." The report is accompanied by a slideshow of photographs by Vanessa Vick. It brought to mind a typically smart essay by Clifford Geertz entitled "Common Sense as a Cultural System" in which he offers an interpretaiton of claims of witchcraft. He takes the famous analysis of E.E. Evans-Prichard among the Azande as a jumping off point:

"Thus, however "mystical" the content of Zande witchcraft
beliefs may or may not be (and I have already suggested they
seem so to me only in the sense that I do not myself hold them),
they are actually employed by the Zande in a way anything
but mysterious--as an elaboration and defense of the truth
claims of colloqial reason. . . . And it is as part of this tissue of
common-sense assumptions, not of some primitive metaphysics,
that the concept of witchcraft takes on its meaning and has its
force. For all the talk about its flying about in the night like a
firefly, witchcraft doesn't celebrate an unseen
order, it certifies a seen one.

It is when ordinary expectations fail to hold, when the Zande
man-in-the-field is confronted with anomalies or contradictions,
that the cry of witchcraft goes up. It is, in this respect at least,
a kind of dummy variable in the system of common-sense
thought. Rather than transcending that thought, it reinforces
it by adding to it an all-purpose idea which acts to reassure
the Zande that their fund of commonplaces is, momentary
appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, dependable and
adequate. Thus, if a man contracts leprosy it is attributed to
witchcraft only if there is no incest in the family, for "everyone
knows" that incest causes leprosy. Adultery, too, causes
misfortune. A man may be killed in war or hunting as a result
of his wife's infidelities. Before going to war or out to hunt, a
man, as is only sensible, will often demand that his wife divulge
the names of her lovers. If she says, truthfully, that she has
none (I don't know what the Zande common-sense view
concerning the veracity of women is, but if mere asking
seems enough it must be unusual) and he dies anyway, then
it must have been witchcraft--unless, of course, he has done
something else obviously foolish. Similarly, ignorance,
stupidity, or incompetence, culturally defined, are quite
sufficient causes of failure in Zande eyes. If, in examining his
cracked pot, the potter does in fact find a stone, he stops
muttering about witchcraft and starts muttering about his
own negligence--instead, that is, of merely assuming that
witchcraft was responsible for the stone's being there. And
when an inexperienced potter's pot cracks it is put down, as
seems only reasonable, to his inexperience, not to some
ontological kink in reality.

In this context, at least, the cry of witchcraft functions for
the Azande as the cry of Insha Allah functions for some
Muslims or crossing oneself functions for some Christians,
less to lead into more troubling questions--religious,
philosophical, scientific, moral--about how the world is put
together and what life comes to, than to block such questions
from view; to seal up the common-sense view of the world
. . . against the doubts its inevitable insufficiencies
inevitably stimulate."

I think this is a compelling analysis that avoids writing the Azande off as massively irrational.* On his account they invoke witchcraft in the face of unforeseen contingencies, happenings that in the face of widely-shared, well-established beliefs would be deemed highly improbable or impossibe. Geertz adopts a fairly tolerant stance here, as elsewhere in his writings, pointing out the way that those in Western cultures invoke analogous factors for analogous purposes. And his view is one I tend to share. But the story in The Times indicates the limits of this accepance of cultural practices. For in the cases reported by The Times young children ~ like Domingos Pedro, pictured above at age 15, who was accused of witchcraft by familiy members at age 12 ~ bear the brunt of accusations of witchcraft, often with dire consequences. This is an instance that raises the question "Why Respect Culture?" I have argued at length elsewhere that there is no prima facie reason to do so.** In situations like those described in The Times the settled beliefs and cultural practices that adults try to defend by charges of witchcraft (however embattled they may be by economic dislocation, war and other man-made mayhem) have scant normative standing in the face of the individual well-being of the children against whom the charges are leveled.

* For those dis-inclined to share this assessment I would recommend another famous essay: David Kreps. 1990. "Corporate culture and economic theory." In J. E. Alt and K. A. Shepsle (eds.), Perspectives on Positive Political Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Kreps offers essentially the same argument as Geertz in a different setting with different references.

** James Johnson. 2000. "Why Respect Culture?" American Journal of Political Science 44(3): 405-18


Anonymous Dawei from Beijing said...

Can you discuss what you mean when you say with regards to respecting cultures that "there is no prima facie reason to do so." I'm intrigued, and would love to know more.

17 November, 2007 03:23  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

dawei, I will try to write a bot on this tomorrow. SOrry to be slow. Jim

17 November, 2007 22:27  
Anonymous Dawei from Beijing said...

Thank you, I look forward to it.

17 November, 2007 23:18  
Anonymous Dawei from Beijing said...

Jim, any chance you can offer a few words on my question above?

Thanks much.

21 November, 2007 16:20  

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