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Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Dr. Leslie Sponsel, Professor
University of Hawai`i
04/17/2002
Commentary on W.P. 2.6, Allegations of inappropriate sexual relationships

 

The Task Force states: "In reflecting on Lizot's case, we observe that anthropologists, like other human beings, are sexual creatures. Inevitably, sexual attraction and sexual relationships will develop between anthropologists and those they encounter during fieldwork, including members of the population under study." Is the word "inevitably" valid in this statement? Of course, anthropologists realize there are universal human phenomena associated with gender, sexuality, sex, age, and related matters. Of course, anthropologists also realize that there is cross-cultural variation in these matters as well, and that the social, cultural, and fieldwork contexts are important to consider. But does the Task Force adequately consider these contexts in their Preliminary Report in the case of Jacques Lizot which Patrick Tierney discusses at great length?

Before considering this question and related matters, however, it may be helpful to identify more clearly the four overlapping, but analytically distinct, pivotal issues regarding professional ethics that emerge from Tierney's (2000: Ch. 8 "Erotic Indians" pp. 124-157) allegations of sexual misconduct: (1) means and ends--- using sex as a means to some non-sexual end; (2) power differential--- using a higher economic, social, and/or political status to coerce and/or exploit someone of a lower status for sexual and/or other purposes; (3) purchasing sex, as in prostitution; and (4) age differential--- especially an adult having sex with a subadult or minor. Some individuals may also be concerned about: (5) homosexuality, and (6) sex between individuals from different cultures and/or races. Personally, I think the last two concerns, five and six, have no relevance and simply reflect prejudice. In my opinion, what two consenting adults do in private is their personal and private matter as long as no one is harmed in any way, regardless of whether the relationship is heterosexual or homosexual, and regardless of whether or not they are of the same culture or race.

Actually, Lizot is the only anthropologist that Tierney singles out with allegations of sexual misconduct during fieldwork with the Yanomami. However, there is a difference between professional and personal life, and in my opinion that difference should be strictly respected, unless someone is harmed, there is some kind of breach of professional ethics, and/or abuse of human rights.

Lizot purposefully avoids any discussion of his personal field experience for whatever reasons of his own (Lizot 1985:xiv, Tierney 2000:147-148). Indeed, most anthropologists do not reveal the intricacies of the personal side of their field experience, and especially in print (cf. Good 1991). Perhaps sometime Lizot will write his own statement or intellectual biography to help others understand his viewpoint, experience, and refutation of any of Tierney's allegations.

The discussion in the Preliminary Report is inexplicably unanthropological in neglecting the social, cultural, and fieldwork contexts. As just one among many problems, age is not a monolithic phenomenon--- there is a difference between chronological age (years from birth), physiological age (degree of physical maturity), social age (how a culture classifies and interprets age differences), and legal age (when an individual can legally engage in certain "adult" activities). That is, the matter of age is simply far more complicated socially and culturally than this Task Force of anthropologists appears to even begin to appreciate. Furthermore, even chronological age is somewhat problematic for the Yanomami. Except where mission records are available, traditionally the Yanomami do not count and record their age in years. (Even within the same culture or society, there may be significant variation in the interpretation of age, such as the legal age for sexual consent in different states of the United States of America).

Time is relevant to consider in yet another way. Lizot lived for some 25 years among the Yanomami. Regardless of one's individual sexual attitudes, values, preferences, and libido, is it realistic to always expect abstention or celibacy in fieldwork which lasts for years? Also, is the relationship between individuals in the host community and an anthropologist really comparable in any way to that of a client and a medical doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist?

Another aspect neglected in the Preliminary Report is the role of Yanomami as active, intelligent, and competent agents. The Yanomami are humans, in spite of some accounts that have persistently dehumanized them, such as their libelous stigmatization as "the fierce people." The Yanomami are as intelligent as any other humans, contrary to some portrayals of them that imply otherwise. Many Yanomami are adults, even though some constructions of them are reminiscent of The Lord of the Flies (Golding 1971). (See Jahoda 1999). Indeed, anyone who has spent appreciable time with the Yanomami can not help but realize just how extraordinarily competent they are in social relationships, and especially considering the daily face-to-face interaction of a relatively small group of people in a single communal dwelling. In short, in my opinion, the Yanomami deserve far more recognition, respect, and attention as fellow humans than this Preliminary Report and some other accounts appear to allow. Also, in general, Yanomami appear to be just far more informal and relaxed about matters such as sex, marriage, and divorce than is usually the case in American culture (cf. Gregor 1985).

For about a century now cultural relativism has been considered to be an indispensable field method in ethnography, although Melville Hershkovits (1972) also identified it as a philosophical principle and ethic. When an anthropologists is living in another society should his or her actions be judged according to the standards of its culture, the anthropologist's own culture, both cultures (assuming there are no contradictions), some international standard like human rights conventions, and/or a code of professional ethics? What if the anthropologist is multiethnic? In essence Lizot became a long-term resident in Yanomami society and territory. Should he be judged by the standards of Yanomami, French, and/or American society? These questions are as complex and difficult as they are serious, yet questions such as these would be less likely to be considered if it were not for Tierney's book, whatever its deficiencies. It is unfortunate that the Task Force is so shallow in discussing this and numerous other points in the Preliminary Report.

While working in Venezuela off and on from 1974-1981 I had heard rumors several times about Lizot's sexual exploits with Yanomami boys. However, this was mentioned to me only in passing and I never asked for details, I simply wasn't interested in gossip and didn't think it was any of my business. I have never even visited the areas where Lizot and Napoleon Chagnon worked. I simply assumed that if there were any really serious problems with Lizot's conduct, then those who knew the details would take appropriate action, whether missionaries, government authorities, anthropologists, and/or the Yanomami themselves. When I first read Tierney's detailed account in Chapter 8 "The Erotic Indians" of the bound galleys of his book in July 2000 I was really shocked, thoroughly disgusted, and deeply disappointed because Tierney does make a convincing case with statements from various Yanomami, missionaries, and anthropologists. As with other chapters in Tierney's book, if even only a portion of Chapter 8 were true, then it remains disturbing and reprehensible.

The discussion of Lizot in the Preliminary Report, however, is problematic in several ways in my opinion. The Task Force asserts that the alleged sexual exploitation of Yanomami boys was "totally unacceptable to the Yanomami." If that were really so, then why didn't the Yanomami simply expel Lizot from their community? He lived with the Yanomami regularly for nearly a quarter of a century. The Task Force asserts that some of the boys involved "strongly objected." If that is so, then why did they engage in this activity in the first place? There is no accusation of rape, and beyond that, the sexual activity described by Tierney requires the cooperation of two individuals. But from Tierney's (2000:136-137, 143) account it appears that the bribe of trade goods was simply far too attractive, another confirmation of a component of Brian Ferguson's (1995) argument.

Apparently Lizot took undue advantage of his economic power to sexually exploit Yanomami boys, if Tierney's allegations hold. But is this really any worse than what some other anthropologists have done to exploit the Yanomami for egotism, careerism, scientism, and evolutionism? Isn't exploitation despicable for any ends? (See Tierney 2000:146). The Task Force has yet to really address that matter. Will it do so in the final report?

Yet another consideration is that, although Lizot's alleged inappropriate behavior happened in the context of Yanomami society where he had long resided, are French cultural attitudes and values regarding sex completely irrelevant? It appears that Lizot's literary style in writing his main ethnographic book is influenced by French culture. Might some of his attitudes toward sex be influenced by his parent culture as well? Shouldn't anthropologists consider the possibility of culture being a relevant factor? Also, do any of the French organizations Lizot has been affiliated with have a code of professional ethics? Are any other standards of French society applicable?

If the Task Force is interested in placing the alleged case of Lizot's sexual misconduct in comparative perspective, then should individuals be considered such as Carleton Gajdusek, Tobias Schneebaum (1969, 2000), and Colin Turnbull (Grinker 2000)? Also, in the matter of the allegations against Lizot, why not consider the book by Mark Ritchie (1995) as was mentioned by Tierney?

In identifying such problems and concerns I do not intend in any way to condone the pederasty and other misconduct alleged about Lizot. At the same time, intelligent and fair minded individuals should be able to keep separate this scandalous controversy from the superior quality and contribution of Lizot's basic and applied anthropology which must remain extraordinary in comparison to that of most others. (For example, see Lizot 1975, 1985, 1989, 1996). As Tierney (2000:147) asserts, the professional and personal Lizot are quite different: "...Lizot was publicly doing more good than anyone else while privately satisfying his appetites on Yanomami children." The Task Force does not really address let alone acknowledge the basic and applied anthropology of Lizot. Does this reflect oversight, ignorance, or bias?

One issue which the Task Force raises that I completely agree with is the enormously more dangerous situation for the Yanomami of military personnel introducing prostitution and sexually transmitted disease. The Task Force, or more appropriately, the Committee for Human Rights, should request that the government authorities in Venezuela thoroughly investigate this matter and take appropriate legal action for those military individuals who are guilty. Appropriate preventive measures should also be taken by the government, including educating any governmental personnel visiting or working with the Yanomami. Today the Yanomami in Venezuela already face growing problems of health and epidemics with far from adequate medical care, and sexually transmitted diseases from foreigners could trigger an epidemic of HIV/AIDS and very seriously compound many health problems. Apparently Lizot was careful about avoiding the possibility of introducing HIV/AIDS (Tierney 2000:145). At least one Catholic missionary, Jose Bortoli, believed that there was no serious lasting harm to the boys from Lizot's alleged pederasty and that he had done many other good things for the Yanomami (Tierney 2000:146-147). (One of the criticisms I have of Tierney's book is that he does not give due credit to the numerous positive and sometimes heroic things that many anthropologists have done to help protect and promote the survival, welfare, and rights of the Yanomami).

It is certainly most appropriate to provide guidelines for any anthropologist to carefully consider regarding any sexual activity they might engage in during fieldwork as the Committee on Ethics has done recently in its briefing papers on the AAA web site. However, is it appropriate to discuss the sexual behavior of individual anthropologists by name if no harm was done? Is sex any less private and personal for an anthropologist in the field than for any other human anywhere, if no harm was done? Does the Task Force actually have any hard evidence that harm of any kind was done to any Yanomami by Lizot?

The Task Force asserts that behavior by any anthropologist reflects on all anthropologists. Is this a valid statement, or is it stereotyping? The misconduct of a few members of a group doesn't automatically make the entire group guilty, unless the latter ignores the former in which case they are guilty of complicity. To take an extreme example, does the behavior of the fraction of Americans who are members of white supremacist hate groups reflect on all Americans? Probably most Americans would answer that it certainly does not. However, all other Americans should think seriously about such elements of racism and take constructive actions to counter them. Likewise, the misconduct of Lizot and others alleged by Tierney should not reflect on all anthropologists. Also all anthropologists need to seriously think about the allegations, and especially about the broader concerns, problems, issues, and questions they raise. The failure of the silent majority of anthropologists to actively engage in constructive discussion and debate about this controversy, even just over the broader matters, should also be a cause for reflection. Indeed, is such apathy itself unethical?

Finally, yet again it must be asked if the Preliminary Report of the Task Force really demonstrates a systematic, serious, accurate, impartial, and fair inquiry of a scholarly and moral kind? If not, then is the Task Force guilty of complicity in the misconduct?


References Cited

Ferguson, R. Brian, 1995, Yanomami Warfare: A Political History, Santa Fe, NM: School for American Research Press.

Golding, William, 1971, The Lord of the Flies, London, England: Faber.

Good, Kenneth, 1991, Into the Heart: One Man's Pursuit of Love and Knowledge among the Yanomama, Englewood CLiffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Gregor, Thomas, 1985, Anxious Pleasures: The Sexual Lives of an Amazonian People, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Grinker, Roy Richard, 2000, In the Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin M. Turnbull, New York, NY: St. Martin's Press.

Hershkovits, Melville J., 1972, Cultural Relativism, New York, NY: Random House.

Jahoda, Gustav, 1999, Images of Savages: Ancient Roots of Modern Prejudice in Western Culture, New York, NY: Routledge.

Lizot, Jacques, 1975, Diccionario Yanomami-Espanol, Caracas, Venezuela: Universidad Central de Venezuela.

Lizot, Jacques, 1985, Tales of the Yanomami: Daily Life in the Venezuela Forest, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Lizot, Jacques, 1989, No Patapi Tehe: En Tiempos de los Antepasados [Yanomami-Spanish cultural school primer], Puerto Ayacucho, Venezuela: Vicariato Apostolico de Puerto Ayacucho.

Lizot, Jacques, 1996, Introduccion a la Lengua Yanomami: Morfologia, Caracas, Venezuela: UNICEF Venezuela and Vicariato Apostolico de Puerto Ayacucho.

Peters, John F., 1998, Life Among the Yanomami: The Story of Change Among the Xilixana of the Mucajai River in Brazil, Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press.

Ritchie, Mark, 1995, Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomamo Shaman's Story, Chicago, IL: Island Lake Press.

Schneebaum, Tobias, 1969, Keep the River on Your Right, New York, NY: Grove Press, Inc.

Schneebaum, Tobias, 2000, Secret Places: My Life in New York and New Guinea, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Strong, Bryan, and Christine DeVault, 1995, The Marriage and Family Experience, Minneapolis, MN: West Publishing Co.