Moral order, moralizing, and making it a bad day (the American way)

In my earlier post about some of my experiences at the 2010 meetings of the American Anthropological Association, I talked about the elevators with a parenthesis about students from our programs at Teachers College.  I am now opening the parenthesis to develop something that came to me when listening to the paper by Linda Lin.  Right after listening to her paper, I introduced the session Gus Andrews and Sarah Wessler organized and that they titled “The dark side of legitimate peripheral participation.”  The continuity was striking.  Of course, I liked a title that evoked both Jean Lave and Darth Vader making it a bad day for a galaxy, far, far away (that is the galaxy right around the corner from Teachers College (Columbia University)–if not Teachers College itself.

Darth Vader is my addition, extra-vagantly.  Students have to be more sober and they were.  One cannot take lightly investigations into the ways through which cultures disable.  Andrews, Hung, Kabat, Wessler, wrote about “degradation ceremonies” some “successful” (Garfinkel 1956), some failed, some joking, some even possible restorative of a broader order.  The later is actually an optimistic, if not extra-vagant twist on the pessimism easily triggered by Garkinkel or Lave.  Children yell at each other and call each other names that are direct commentary on their status within the polity.  They can even yell at adults with authority over them, and call them name—all while playing video-games and making it a good day all around.  I have been fascinated by the relationship between play and culture and this is something we will have to pursue.

Linda Lin’s was the darkest of the papers I heard that morning.  She provided another instance of moments she has written about elsewhere (2007): moments in the life of the people in an institution dedicated to helping people talk about race and racism when they themselves do talk about race, and get into serious trouble.  Regularly, their own talk about racism escalates into conflict, hurt feelings, resignations from the institution.  As she showed, conflict while discussing race is extremely orderly given American categories and rhetorical or performative forms.  It is also so painful that one understands why race talk should be so rare.  Touching hot stoves and getting burned is so orderly a process that its consequences can be predicted.  Given this kind of orderliness, it is not surprising that we try not to touch hot stoves, and teach our children not to do so.  It is similarly understandable that I should not want to engage in race talk, and that I should find Lin’s work so daring.

In this paper, Linda Lin also stressed something else that is equally daring.  She argues that one central mechanism in the production of conflict and pain during planned and institutionalized race talk is the moralizing that is an integral part of this talk.  When such talk is indeed planned within an institution, it is generally introduced as something “we” should do because it is the good thing to do.  The introduction develops into how bad it is not to have such talk.  And so on.  Linda Lin, interestingly, was attempting to distinguish moralizing from what sociologists, from Durkheim to Garfinkel, have written as the moral implications of social ordering.  Social ordering produces morality, and thus (this actually is an empirical generalization) breaks in social orders produce calls to moral accountability.  These calls can then take the form of a moralizing that can itself lead to further and more serious breaches (in a process related to what Bateson called “schismogenesis”).

Linda Lin, building on my work with Ray McDermott, dares to write about “America” as a label for the conditions that, in our work, make bad days for people caught within the gravity of the galaxy (I am hereby trying a new metaphor to add gravity to the metaphors about networks and webs we have been using).  America can be fun.  American can be great.  But America, as a field for politics from the most global to the most local, also has a dark side.  And all the papers explored this dark side even if, at times, the darkness is only a temporary tension as the social orders of fun and games is re-established.

All this fits well with my insistence about ongoing practical awareness of social orderings (as against still too common cultural anthropological bromides about culture being shared and unconscious, and as against the usual uses of the concept of habitus).

[For further readings about all this, see “Culture as disability” (McDermott and Varenne 1995) and Successful failure (Varenne and McDermott 1998)]

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