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Jared Diamond, The New Yorker and the awkwardness of anecdotes

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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.

atLast 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.


  1. posted December 4, 2009 at 10:58 am | permalink

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I might even go one step further. It is very difficult to get the media to publish anything about Papua New Guinea that doesn’t draw on the same set of primitivizing tropes. I think audiences have been largely conditioned to expect this as well.

    Do you think this is a general pattern for reporting on other countries or regions of the world as well, e.g. that stories about Africa are expected to feature corruption, or accounts about the Middle East more likely to focus on religious violence? Is it possible to counteract this tendency?

  2. posted December 4, 2009 at 1:34 pm | permalink

    Although I generally (pun intended) appreciate your posting, your statement that StinkyJournalism.org “has gone after Diamond in a series of essays, including one by media ethicist Valerie Alia (‘Media, Misrepresentation, and Indigenous People’)”–is unclear.

    It was StinkyJournalism.org’s original investigation and report that first uncovered numerous errors in Diamond’s New Yorker article about revenge warfare between two tribes (the Ombals and Handa) in Papua New Guinea as told by his driver, Daniel Wemp. See http://www.stinkyjournalism.org/latest-journalism-news-updates-149.php.

    The series of essays, The Pig in a Garden, that you cite, including the one by Alia, were a response to our report written by me and three indigenous researchers who located Wemp and others Diamond names.

    Imagine our surprise when first contacting Wemp, in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, July 2008, to discover that he had no idea he was to be quoted or featured by Diamond in the New Yorker–despite New Yorker’s claim they had “thoroughly fact checked” Diamond’s article. Wemp last talked to Diamond in May 2006. (Diamond was not contracted by The New Yorker until early 2008).

    Diamond’s mistakes include less serious errors–naming two villages as tribes. However, when he mistakenly names Ombals and Handas as part of the Nipa tribe (untrue)…and then goes on the say Nipa (including Ombals, Handa) raped and killed Huli along a highway after an election, Ombals and Handa were upset. A map confirms that they live hours away from where this actually happened.

    He wrote that Henep Isum was the Ombal leader of a 3-year war between the tribes, who was paralyzed and in a wheelchair for 11 years, after Wemp’s hired assassin’s put an arrow in his spine. Our team of researchers easily found Henep Isum Mandingo–but he was walking, clearing land and carrying a heavy load of dirt. Turns out that he is not even an Ombal but a member of the Henep tribe. He never was a tribal warrior but was a village peace officer.

    If Diamond or The New Yorker would have simply contacted police, government officials, missionaries, tribal leaders–anyone living in the area, or just looked at a map–they would have learned and published the truth instead of accusing innocent persons and tribes of heinous crimes.

  3. Valerie Alia
    posted December 4, 2009 at 2:04 pm | permalink

    Stuart Kirsch’s question is precisely what I addressed in my essay. It raises what for me is a central concern about the ways that journalists cover ‘Others’. Many of us have been trying to “counteract this tendency” for years. I continue to be astounded by the resistance to more conscientious reporting. When journalists are more accurate and respectful, their efforts are often sabotaged by editors and news directors who think they must sensationalize to sell newspapers, magazines, or TV programs.

  4. posted December 5, 2009 at 7:45 am | permalink

    Stuart makes an excellent point about media and stereotyping tropes: PNG primitives, India dowry, Kenya drought and despair, Middle East Islam and violence, Afghanistan tribalism and corruption and on and on. I am going to take a closer look at my anth textbooks and teaching to see if/how I myself am perpetuating such tropist thinking and how to counteract it without resorting to worn out countertropes such as a New Guinea highlander talking on a cell phone or drinking a pepsi.

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