When I was in graduate school, I had a strong reaction to Susan Harding’s ethnography of American evangelicals. Partly but not entirely for the sake of argument, I wrote a critique where I claimed that this was a case where an anthropological approach amounted to unilateral disarmament in vitally important social struggles, that accepting the framework of Harding’s scholarship made it impossible to respond oppositionally to the cultural and social political campaigns mounted by religious conservatives.
That was a salad-days argument for me: I’m much more inclined to take Harding’s approach today. But I think there’s still a complicated perspectival choice between trying to study a group of people or an institution ethnographically and engaging them as fellow citizens with whom you intensely disagree. If I set out to understand a group in their own terms, to gain an emic understanding of their rhetoric and practices, if I see the world as they see it, I achieve insight at the potential cost of having a permanently asymmetrical, insulated relationship to that group and its goals. That is, unless they take a similar interest in understanding me and my world in a similarly curious, open-minded, investigatory fashion.
There are times where I think it’s more honest and in a roundabout way more respectful to just come out with your dukes up and straightforwardly fight against initiatives or ideas from socially or ideologically distant groups that threaten your own values, no matter how much their ideas are rooted in an authentic habitus of their own. There’s a kind of equality in that struggle, an acknowledgement that you’re engaged in a fight over institutions or policies with people who have an equal right as citizens to push their beliefs.
I was thinking about this choice while reading this liveblogged account of a meeting of the Texas Board of Education. There’s one part of me that wants to think about why and how history matters to a man like Don McElroy, and to consider how he speaks for an entire constituency’s understanding of how the past and the present relate, to see things from the inside out of that perspective. There’s another part of me that reacts with white-hot anger at my perception that McElroy and his allies have contempt not just for specific historical truths that I think matter but for the entire enterprise of a reasoned, fair-minded, methodologically transparent, standards-driven investigation of the past.
There’s a muddled impulse in me to split the difference, too. If I thought I was in an honest dialogue with people unlike me, and there was some respect towards me and my world, there are points that McElroy raises that I could see as reasonable enough. No reason, for example, why high school American history shouldn’t focus on the resurgence of conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s. And so on. But I wonder what the point of conceding ground might be when some of the other insertions and demands seem so aggressively dishonest or distorted. The side of me that wants to just wage an unqualified battle against this kind of culture-war campaign despairs at the perpetual and circular quality of these debates, at the life sentence of a thousand tiny cuts that they seem to promise.