‘The array of distinct assumptions about issues regarding moral variability, the nature of the moral domain, and how individual freedom factors into moral action can all result in the study of different theoretical ideas that end up being cast as if they were the same topic.’
– Cassaniti & Hickman 2014:252.
I read Cassaniti and Hickman’s New Directions in the Anthropology of Morality the other day and really enjoyed it. The authors put forward some great points, chief among which is their argument for a pluralistic approach to moral variation – one which seeks to ‘reconcile humanity’s propensity toward moral realism with overwhelming ethnographic evidence of moral variability’ (253). I also found merit in the argument for better defining the moral domain – figuring out what counts as moral, ‘what kinds of thing are uniquely moral in each ethnographic setting’ (257) and identifying domains of experience that are ‘morally saturated’ in each ethnographic context (with an understanding that domains of experience that become heavily moralised will necessarily vary cross-culturally). The points I found most interesting and compelling, however, were also those that I found myself critically mulling over days later.
This is all well and good, I found myself thinking, but Yolŋu people have been advocating for a pluralistic approach to morality and law since balanda (white people, Europeans) would listen.’† When is anthropology going to start taking Indigenous theories seriously instead of subjecting them to their own analyses and theorising about them? (I’m sure it’s not just Yolŋu people who have been advocating for such an approach or stance.) Beyond advocacy, in fact, Yolŋu have been doggedly persistent in their attempt to educate balanda about the necessity of such a stance – not only how it is possible, but why it is both necessary and just. And they continue to do so in good humour despite our blunt, closed ears. The video below is but one example of this. Continue reading
‘The A’ara word for shame, mamaja, is polysemous: used to signify both the feeling of shame and to refer to genitalia. There is clearly some connection between these senses of the term, because public exposure of one’s genitals is an immediate cause of shame. Yet, interpreting the A’ara notion of mamaja on the basis of this sort of scenario would miss the most important or culturally salient meanings of the term. Rather than signifying an internal feeling of discomfort evoked by an exposure of the self or by a violation of societal standards of comportment, mamaja is fundamentally about social relations. Fleshing out a bit what is meant by “fundamentally about social relations” provides an example of the type of cultural model of emotions associated with interpersonal selves. Mamaja is typically evoked in situations in which a person behaves in a way that breaches or upsets an important or valued social relation. In such situations, both parties are likely to report feeling shame (or, more correctly, being shamed). The prototypic context for eliciting or experiencing shame is the violation of expectations surrounding the sharing or non-sharing of food. Food is a symbol of social relationships. To give or exchange food is to affirm the value of enduring relations. To move about with ease and share food is to not feel shame, to feel constricted and observant of the proper distance or respect associated with a relationship is to feel shame.
The close proximity of mamaja (be shamed) and di ‘a nagnafa (be sad, literally, bad heart) in Figure 1 reflects the similarity of the event schemas that underlie their meaning. To oversimplify, both are associated with moral transgressions between the self and another person with whom the self is in an important, valued relation. Unlike “be angry” (di’a tagna), which is ideally not expressed between closely related people and which implies some form of rupture or break in the relationship, both mamaja and di’a nagnafa pertain to close relations in need of repair. In the logic of emotional meaning for these terms, it is the state of the relation between two persons that is the object of prediction, not the individual and not two individuals. Talk of mamaja constitutes a kind of relational calculus that works to calibrate or mark intersubjective distance and boundaries in social relations.’
– Geoffrey M. White 1994, ‘Affecting Culture: Emotion and Morality in Everyday Life’ (in) Kitayama, S. & Markus, H. R. (eds) Emotion and Culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence, American Psychological Association, Washington DC, pp. 219-239.