For my “Race and Ethnicity in Global Perspective” class this semester I started out with Ira Bashkow’s The Meaning of Whitemen, which I’m using as I often do as an excuse to read it, based on Rex at Savage Minds’ recommendation. It’s really a terrific book about race, modernity and Papua New Guinea, for a lot of straightforward reasons. This post, however, is tangential, drawing out a thread about the management of other people’s feelings that weaves into an ongoing interest of mine here.
Ira argues that the meaning of whitemen is fully entangled with the Orokaiva cultural world, notably as a highly-conventionalized “vehicle for achieving valued forms of social agreement and unity” (214). Pragmatically, the Orokaiva construction of whitemen as the familiar Other offers a “safe idiom” in which shared understandings can be deployed to challenge and criticize other Orokaiva without creating direct antagonism. Critical discourse is crafted in terms of implied contrasts with whitemen, who are not present to be offended and are outsiders to the discussion anyway. Of course we can easily see this same sort of dynamic at work in many more familiar uses of the near Other to make points while leveraging solidarity and deflecting antagonism, such as the typical ways men talk about women together and vice versa, or the ways workers talk about bosses together and vice versa.
Although the book is about this Orokaiva construction and deployment of whitemen to create and maintain their own unity, Ira spends the second chapter backfilling a more general picture of the Orokaiva cultural world in the context of the postcolonial situation. It turns out that the management of conflict and maintenance of unity is very important to the Orokaiva in general, not least because they value both competition and equality, autonomous individuality and community obligation, fundamental tensions that require elaborate dynamic balancing. As a result Orokaiva are exquisitely sensitive to perceived slights and inequalities, and spend a great deal of effort in formal etiquettes of status smoothing. Orokaiva relations with whitemen are thus complicated by whitemen’s “brightness,” their surplus of cargo and “lightness” with respect to their obligations of correcting for that in their dealings with others. As admirers of autonomy and competition the Orokaiva admire whitemen for their knowledge, accomplishments and swag, but as sticklers for equality think they’re missing something really critical about being together in the world.
Pursuant to the value of equality Orokaiva pay a whole lot of attention to each others’ feelings, but ‘values’ don’t quite tell the whole story. Habit and ritualization ‘operationalize’ values, of course. And no doubt they actually care about each other sometimes. But more materially they inflict consequences on each other for not. Hurt feelings such as jealousy justify retaliation, ranging from ruptured relationships to theft and spoilage to sorcery to violence and warfare.
In class the other day all of this came to an interesting head. We’d been working on how to write an evidence-based analytical essay, and over the weekend I had read draft introductory paragraphs. It became clear from these (as it had been from class discussion) that some of the students were not reading the book and were winging it. I opened class by pointing out that for an evidence-based analysis winging it is not in the game yet. But then I asked why students might choose not to read. Let’s bracket judgment and think of this as a practice that has meaning and integrity for its practitioners, I said. How might ignoring or resisting the instructional materials of the class make sense?
Laziness and poor commitment were cited, and I acknowledged that these could sometimes be fully explanatory without otherwise rewarding this transparent gambit to guess what I wanted to hear. We noted that students are often able to get away with not reading, playing limpy until in desperation or resignation the teacher spoonfeeds them what they need to pass. And of course some teachers just default to spoonfeeding without any particular effort on students’ part. But one student who I knew wasn’t reading was steaming over the conversation, so I asked him what he was thinking about. He said he had no interest in being told he was ignorant by some showoff smartypants [book author]. And there we had it.
This is the conflict of the classroom. “Bright” teachers show up and regale the students with their wisdom; day after day the students are reminded of how ignorant and inadequate they are. Each accomplishment leads only to a new threshold of humiliation. Without any mechanism of reciprocity or status smoothing students’ feelings are systematically subordinated, ignored and trampled. Ingratiation, passivity, smoldering resentment and sabotage are the classic ‘weapons of the weak’ responses.
Bashkow and I, who should have known better, attack the students with a book in which we flaunt our superior knowledge and linguistic facility without offering redress. No wonder they don’t want to read it. I laid this all out and asked the students how the Orokaiva would address this problem. Today I find out what they came up with, although I don’t expect to transform this deeply-embedded disfunction overnight. Since the Orokaiva usually use throwing a feast as their leveler, maybe I should buy them pizza and maybe Bashkow should have included a coupon for it in the book.
Interestingly, this problem did not arise at all in the evening section of the class. Part of it is that those students are mostly older and more intentionally committed to their education. But part of it, they told me when we talked about it Monday evening, is that I told them I was reading the book along with them. It happened to come up with them but not with the day students. The evening folks said that our shared process of discovery created a feeling of solidarity for them and helped them through the difficulties of the text. Something I know, off and on; something to remember.