“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”

Back in anthropology class, we talked rather extensively about ethics–specifically, What if you write things that hurt the people you’re studying?

Take the Yanomami (also spelled Yanomamo, not to be confused with the Yamnaya.) While there is some dispute over why the Yanomami are violent, and they probably aren’t the most violent people on Earth, they certainly commit their fair share of violence:

Graph from the Wikipedia
See also my post, “No, Hunter Gatherers were not Peaceful Paragons of Gender Egalitarianism.

In 1967, anthropologist Napoleon Alphonseau Chagnon published Yanomamö: The Fierce People, which quickly became a bestseller, both for anthropology students and the popular public. On the less scholarly side, Ruggero Deodato released the horror film “Cannibal Holocaust” in 1980, fictional account of Yanomami cannibalism. I have truly never understood the interest in or psychology behind the horror genre, but apparently the film has been banned in 50 countries and highly regarded by people who like that sort of thing–Total Film ranked it the tenth greatest horror film of all time, Wired included it in its list of the top 25 horror films, and IGN ranked it 8th on its list of the ten greatest grindhouse films–so I assume that means it was very horrific and very popular.

Aside from allegations that the anthropologists themselves gave/traded the Yanomami a bunch of weapons that resulted in a big increase in the number of deaths, there are claims that, due to the Yanomamis’ violent reputation, miners in the area have opted to just shoot them on sight. The Yanomami are a rather small, isolated people with no political power to speak of, little immunity to Western diseases, and a lot of negative interactions with miners.

In a more mundane example, an anthropologist I spoke with referred to widespread illegal drug use among a people they had lived with. No one wants to cause legal trouble for their friends/companions/hosts–getting people arrested after they opened their homes and lives to you would be really shitty. But the behavior remains. None of us is perfect; every group does things that other people disapprove of or that would not look so great if someone wrote it down and published it.

The Thumper approach–that most favored by Americans, I suspect–is to just try not to say anything that might be perceived as not-nice. Report all of the good, and just leave out the bad.

My inner Kantian insists that this is lying, and that lying is bad. Maybe I can gloss over illegal drug use, but if I write a book about the Yanomami and don’t mention violence, I am a baldfaced liar, and you, my reader, should be mad at me for deceiving you. If I am in the business of describing humans and fail to do so, then like a stool with two legs, I am not doing my job.

The other solution I see people employ is to dress up all of the potentially negative things in dry, technical language so that normal people don’t notice. This would be the opposite of making a movie like Cannibal Holocaust. We use terms like “genetic introgression” and “affective empathy” and “clades,” which people who don’t generally read technical materials on the subject tend not to be familiar with.

But there are times when there are no two ways about it–there are no polite, responsible ways to disguise the truth, you don’t want to lie, and you genuinely don’t want to cause distress or trouble for anyone.

We never came up with a solution back in class. I still don’t have one.


9 thoughts on ““If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”

  1. I value truth over feelings. If you dont seek truth, then all your knowledge and all the decisions based on your knowledge will be flawed.


  2. Agreed with Stephen. If you have to have a rule about saying something nice, then an institution of higher learning is not the place to be. Tho’ I’m certain, had I any to lose, I’d lose my tenure for saying that at university today.


  3. […] Good Side of Clannishness, Making Sense of Maps–violence and grain, White Women’s Tears, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” Epigenetics, Whites like Goth and Metal because Whites are Depressives, Women, Math, and the Y […]


  4. Hey evolution theorist.

    The yamna, originators of the proto indo European languages or the Sredny Stog culture? Haak et al showed that the PIE languages originated with the yamna right?


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