An anthropology of low expectations

Eusebius Mckaiser says Mbeki simply chose AIDS denialism.

Readers will recall that last week I took to task the invocation of ‘context' by Johnny Steinberg in order to ‘understand' and ‘situate' the moral failures of political leaders like Thabo Mbeki. Legacy debates will not go out of fashion anytime soon and so it is worth pushing the dialectic a little bit further.

Steinberg responds by claiming that " ... if Mr McKaiser's argument is taken to its logical conclusion, we should never again invoke the humiliation of Versailles lest we excuse Adolf Hitler. Nor dare we mention land hunger as a source of grievance in Zimbabwe lest we give Robert Mugabe succour. We are to still our questions, bury our curiosity and butcher our intellects in order that we may condemn."

Nonsense. But interesting nonsense - a colourful example of a straw man that I could trot out for beginner logic students to play with. In this rejoinder, Steinberg gives examples with which I certainly would agree. Of course one can point out multiple sources of any political or socio-economic problem. That is indeed the point of intellectually curious social science research that aims to offer us a critical understanding of the world we live in. Nothing in my criticism of Steinberg's use of ‘context' to understand Thabo Mbeki's legacy is incompatible with this. It is not rocket science to accept that there can be multiple sources of explanation for any issue.

What Steinberg in fact did, but tries to fudge by pretending he was engaging in subtle intellectual pursuit that I missed because perhaps I was sneezing while reading him, was to poorly distinguish between the contextual facts within which Mbeki had acted as a political animal and the individual moral and political blame that can properly be attributed to Mbeki. Mbeki simply chose AIDS denialism - period. History will and should rightly hold him morally responsible.

The irony of this exchange between Steinberg and myself was brought to my attention by a couple of readers who pointed me to an excellent review by Steinberg of Didier Fassin's "When bodies remember: Experiences and Politics of AIDS in South Africa". Steinberg rather pointedly - and rightly - criticises the excessive attempt on the part of Fassin to understand Mbeki. He calls this "an anthropology of low expectations" and concludes by urging that "we should beware generous anthropologies of African mistakes." Yet, fast forward to late 2009, and Steinberg himself is engaging in a low-expectation anthropology of African mistakes. It is important for researchers and writers to journey into the headspace and social landscape of a subject with critical distance. This does not mean that we must lack empathy. Nor that we should never exonerate someone or diminish the degree of responsibility we attribute to them. Mbeki's ‘leadership' on HIV/AIDS, however, is not such a case in point.  

The bigger debate is ultimately one about structuralism's fate. Our individual beliefs, attitudes, personalities and behavioural patterns are strongly influenced by social, economic, political, familial and other structures into which we are born and within which we become adults. We cannot pretend to live in solitary universes as individuals. These social facts mean that individuals can only be fully understood if the structures within which they were and are shaped are understood equally well. This is the point of much social science. And it is a worthwhile and compelling enterprise.

What too many social scientists get wrong - and also biographers whose works are derivative of empirical psychology and sociology - is to perpetuate two analytic mistakes. The first is a failure to recognise that structures are constituted by persons with flesh and blood and brains and bodies - human beings. Instead, structures are anthropomorphised. Human traits are casually attributed to inanimate things. Then, in a jump of logic, we can, for example, claim that it is not a human being who is racist, but an (inanimate) ‘system' or ‘institution' that is racist, as if systems and institutions are not constituted by persons who take decisions that we can attribute to them as persons. The fetishishing of structures allow leaders to be given convenient space to escape full responsibility for actions and decisions. Structures influence who and what are.  But they do not determine what we do. We are capable of acting differently to how we in fact act. That is why attributions of praise and blame in the game of morality makes sense- even in the face of facts about he context within which we act.

The second confusion is a failure to distinguish between empiricism and normativity. Of course empirical projects are hugely intellectually interesting. New data and facts are the lifeblood of knowledge production. But normative questions - questions about how we ought to behave as opposed to how we actually behave - are equally important. If not, we will never bother to strive towards norms of moral excellence but simply replicate past mistakes well-chronicled in empirical social science works.

Ultimately, our criticism of Thabo Mbeki is a normative one. We take his intelligence seriously enough to blame him for failing to transcend the structures into which he was born. He could have and should have acted other than how he in fact acted as president of South Africa. A softer, later-Steinberg analysis of Mbeki's legacy perpetuates a condescending anthropology of low expectations, one the earlier-Steinberg would have rightly disapproved of.

*McKaiser is an associate at the Centre for the Study of Democracy

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