Jared Diamond, The New Yorker and the awkwardness of anecdotes
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk, in which she described how stereotypes develop when one community has only a single narrative about another. The post also referenced National Geographic writer Tom O’Neill, who sometimes resists centering a narrative on a single subject when he is reporting from abroad.
Last week in Anthropology Today, researcher Stuart Kirsch chimed in on a similar topic. He wrote about a contested piece from the April 21, 2008 issue of The New Yorker. In the story, “Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?,” Jared Diamond profiles a Papua New Guinea highlander who avenged his uncle’s murder and felt content afterward. Diamond contrasts the highlander with Diamond’s own father-in-law, who in 1945 turned the killer of his mother, sister, and niece over to police in Poland but regretted it the rest of his life.
Diamond draws distinctions between state societies which administer justice, and non-state societies, in which individuals execute justice themselves. The article ran under the “Annals of Anthropology” heading, which gave some anthropologists hives.
The subject of Diamond’s story has filed a multimillion-dollar libel suit, protesting what he says are fabricated quotes. In addition, StinkyJournalism.org has gone after Diamond in a series of essays, including one by media ethicist Valerie Alia (“Media, Misrepresentation, and Indigenous People”).
Kirsch’s anthropological work in New Guinea includes helping indigenous people deal with multinational corporations. His editorial “Moral dilemmas and ethical controversies” first takes issue with some of Diamond’s critics. Then he writes:
But I have my own criticism of Diamond’s essay. I disagree with his use of a single anecdote from New Guinea to generalize about everyone from New Guinea, and by implication all members of non-state societies.
Kirsch goes on to say that Diamond “fails to demonstrate that this particular man’s experiences are generalizable.” And he recounts more anecdotes from Papua New Guinea and elsewhere that demonstrate public renunciation of violence or revenge.
Anthropologist Alex Golub, who was one of the experts used by New Yorker fact-checkers, makes another good point over at SavageMinds.org:
At root, the problem—and it is not a fatal flaw, just a problem—with Diamond’s article is that it teaches us that Other Ways Of Life Have Something To Offer Us, but the only way it can do so is by making Papua New Guineans appear more Other to us than they really are.
Without any idea how the libel suit will play out in the long run, journalists can still use Diamond’s battle as a cautionary tale. Choosing a single cultural representative as a protagonist for your story—especially when cultural mores are central to your concept—can be risky. And you might want to think twice about whether or not you’re overemphasizing the exotic when you spin stories about other cultures, at home or abroad.