How can we understand beliefs?
After quite a long writing hiatus, I’ve finally managed to find the time to resume my writing. I recently came across a fantastic article by Kurt Andersen entitled ‘How America Lost Its Mind’ in The Atlantic, and I thought that I would therefore take this opportunity not only to assign said article with my highest recommendation, but to also perhaps offer a somewhat critical and more ‘anthropologised’ reading of Andersen’s argument.
Andersen’s is essentially concerned with trying to explain the aetiology of the so-called ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’, and ‘post-truth’ era that we are currently witnessing in Donald Trump’s America. Although we could arguably extrapolate Andersen’s argument to other societies wherein grassroots populism has taken root, it is nevertheless useful to think about the exact historical developments that have allowed such an ontological positioning to arise in the heartland of the neoliberal zeitgeist.
It is with great irony, and I therefore echo Stephen Metcalf in this, that such a specific kind of populistic political ideology has manifested in the United States. Friedrich’s Hayek’s apoliticised vision of a world left essentially untouched by government has been transformed into one wherein personal beliefs (designed and optimised to distance the believer from the liberal political mainstream) operate as the catalyst for a new kind of political and social authoritarianism that substitutes classic empiricism with gut-feeling. It is within the crucible of the post-truth moment wherein problematically regressive values are beginning to once again rear their ugly heads, including xenophobia, racial supremacy, transphobia, and misogyny (amongst many unfortunate others).
Andersen argues that the manifestation of the post-truth moment can be attributed to the near deification and cultification of individualism in contemporary America’s genesis. America was always characterised as the promised land of those who were willing to embrace the diligent work ethic of Protestantism so as to guarantee their personal salvage. Over time, as Max Weber ever so beautiful demonstrates, the spiritual undermining of this ‘salvation anxiety‘ has dissipated from the confines of the so-called ‘Iron Cage’, but the fixation upon individualisation has relentlessly persisted. Andersen argues that a series of strategically placed political liberties have allowed for this fixation to intensify, encouraging people to substitute facts with belief as the fundamental guiding principal of social action. What we are therefore talking about is a kind of ontological shift, wherein some people’s understanding of what exists in the world is no longer supported by the idea of a fixed Nature upon which humanity acts through Cultures (as in the minds of traditional Cartesian dualists), but upon a multiplicity of Natures that therefore give indisputable credibility to personal ‘beliefs’ and ‘truths’ of being in the world.
It is clear that time is running out for social scientists and policymakers alike in formulating a solution by which contemporary tensions in the United States can be alleviated, and by which a precedent can be set for approaching the liberal-conservative social chasm that exists in other parts of the world as well (Photo Source: The Jerusalem Post).
The question of belief is an interesting one, particularly when approached from an anthropological angle. Although there are a multiplicity of ways in which the idea of belief can be analysed, I personally prefer the one perpetuated by the functionalist anthropologists of the world, who have recently made a return to the world of academia.
The functionalist school of thought on human belief takes inspiration from the writings of Sigmund Freud on the interpretation of human dreamscapes, wherein manifest social behaviour can only be explained by delving deeper into the latent mechanisms of the human experience and the various social structures constituted therein. Social behaviour, therefore, comes to be interpreted as a function that seeks to address some kind of underlying stress within one’s experience of society that struggles to find explicable articulation in the agent’s mind. In the context of belief, therefore, functionalist anthropologists are of the opinion that, while one must take seriously people’s belief in their beliefs, said beliefs can be viewed as a functional manifestation of deeper latent stressors and conflicts.
This kind of perspective stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by phenomenologists, for example, who take people’s beliefs at face-value with absolute disregard for the more latent mechanisms that inevitably drive people’s sense of being-in-the-world. The beauty of the functionalist approach is that, by addressing the latent mechanisms that drive manifest social behaviour, we are able to hypothesise how someone’s social behaviour and ‘beliefs’ might evolve in light of changes within their respective social, political, and economic milieus. How is it, for example, that an individual raised as a devoutly religious subject comes to disavow faith and institutionalised religion later on in life? In the functionalist’s mind, this would be explained by the particular individual’s changing social positionality. For the functionalists, belief operates as a manifest behavioural proclamation reflecting the fluid latent economic, political, cultural, racialised, and gendered intersectionalities that make us who we ultimately are.
As Andersen insightfully points out, the fact that a third of Americans believe not only that global warming is not a particularly pressing issue, but that the whole phenomenon is a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government, and journalists is a prime example of how ‘belief’ has come to substitute the credibility of empirical reality in contemporary America (Photo Source: Pixabay).
Mobilising functionalist anthropological accounts of ‘belief’
Jean and John Comaroff, two legendary Harvard anthropologists working on contemporary Africa, provide us with an instructive example of how this functionalist approach can be used so as to explain beliefs that may, at face value, seem inexplicable. One of my favourite pieces by the Comaroffs, Occult Economies and the Violence of Abstraction : Notes from the South African Postcolony (1999), is one wherein the two account for the heightened frequency of ‘necklacing‘ killings in the Northwest Province of post-Apartheid South Africa. In this part of the country, young Black men from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds have been known to attack those who have been accused of witchcraft and the practice of other occult traditions, often in the interest of harvesting their organs for sale in the informal ‘occult’ economy. As an example of a belief that can be subject to the critical eye of the functionalist anthropologist, the vigilante mobs speak of proletarian zombies that labour upon the lands of the supposed witch whilst she sleeps so as to ensure that she can continue extracting value from her land as she rests her tired head. Coincidentally, all those who have died at the hands of these vigilante lynch mobs are members of the emergent Black landowning class in South Africa, who have thus benefited from the various land redistribution schemes that were incited by the government after Apartheid was formally abolished in 1991.
At face value, proclamations of a supposed zombie proletariat and economically scheming witches may seem bizarre, but when you situate the comments of these men in a political context wherein the socioeconomic fruits of the post-Apartheid moment have been concentrated in the southern metropolitan centres of the country, it is hardly surprising that these men take their anger out on those who they view as having benefited unfairly from a system that initially promised them unprecedented kinds of social emancipation and economic mobility.
Contemporary South Africa is riddled with racialised poverty, even in light of the promises for socioeconomic emancipation that were made by the African National Congress in the run up to the abolishment of Apartheid (Photo Source: Pixabay).
So why am I telling you about this?As insightful as Andersen’s article proved to be, the pessimism with which Andersen approaches understanding contemporary American society perturbed me to a great degree. What the Comaroffs’ article demonstrates is that seemingly inexplicable forms of ‘belief’ and behaviour can always be situated within a particular context that is constituted by specific latent social intersectionalities. Why is it that we cannot interpret the somewhat bizarre proclamations of America’s post-truth advocates with the same kind of functionalist criticality that we approach the proclamations of the socioeconomically disempowered Black youth of northwest South Africa?
‘Because witches distill complex material and social processes into comprehensible human motives, then, they tend to figure in narratives that tie translocal processes to local events, that map translocal scenes onto local landscapes, that translate translocal discourses into local vocabularies of cause and effect. In rural South Africa, the recent rise in witch finding and exorcisms has coincided with an efflorescence of other magical technologies that link the occult and the ordinary by thoroughly modern, even postmodern, means-means that evoke, often parody, and sometimes contort the mechanisms of the “free” market.’
– Jean and John Comaroff, 1999: 286
I can only assume that someone like Arlie Russell Hochschild would very much agree with the analytical approach that I am advocating for here. In her fantastic ethnographic account of Tea Party supporters operating in the backwater bayous of Louisiana, Hochschild argues in Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right that anti-regulation and government skepticism have found an ideological heartland here in light of protracted socioeconomic disempowerment. In the eyes of Hochschild’s informants, ethnic minorities have been allowed to ‘cut the line’ to the American Dream on account of the sympathies that they receive from the federal government. The movement’s intense manifest ideological convictions in the purported inferiority of immigrants, the deification of hyperindividualism underpinning the American Dream, and the dangers of mixed-market economics strongly correlate with the members’ protracted isolation from enjoying the fruits of the contemporary American economy. In this state of disempowerment, it is therefore not particularly surprising that these people bandwagon behind a political force or figure that seeks to recognise these individuals as being deserving of the same economic fruits that their urbanised counterparts have been enjoying for decades. What we ultimately have here then is a powerful commonality that connects what the Comaroffs’ observed in northwest South Africa to what Hochschild has identified in the ideological heartland of Trump’s America.
Instead of simply acknowledging Andersen’s observation of the surrealistic nature of contemporary America, we need to take a note from the Comaroffs’ and Hochschild’s functionalist work so as to try and determine how different latent mechanisms have forced people to use such ‘bizarre’ beliefs as a means of reconciling the ontogenic conflicts that currently plague their lives. Only when we start looking at the disseminators of these perplexing beliefs as people with a specific socioeconomic, political, racial, gendered, and sexualised subjectivity can we hope to start understanding why such phenomena like the permeation of ‘post-truth’ mentalities and ‘alternative facts’ can thrive in Donald Trump’s America.
The social conflict that we currently see in the contemporary United States is characterised by a discord between two ontological schemas that view human selfhood in fundamentally different ways. The answer to resolving this ontological conflict does not lie in manifest expressions of this ontology, but more in the deeper latent mechanisms that constitute people’s respective positions in society (Photo Source: This Renegade Love).
In the context of the United States, the tensions between contemporary White Supremacists and the Black Lives Matter movements respectively, for example, are not just based on an ideological disagreement (wherein disagreements would arise as to what kind of things can be considered valuable), but a fundamental ontological discord by which the two seem to disagree as to what constitutes ‘reality’ and a legitimate way of being-in-the-world. Whilst White Supremacists see race and skin-colour as the ultimate claims to respectable selfhood and ‘belief’ as the ultimate form of knowledge, the Black Lives Matter movement looks beyond this so as to try and conceptualise a more comprehensive way of defining who is subject to the laws and expectations of humanity, and to continue defending facts as the vanguards of reality. What we are thus ultimately dealing with is a set of alternative claims as to the factors by which respectable selfhood can be prescribed.
The important question that we as social scientists must ask now is whether we can somehow intervene in the latent mechanisms of these people’s lives so as to align their ontologies more succinctly? In raising this question, therefore, we can begin to formulate far more sustainable models of socioeconomic governance that can be grounded in some kind of common belief in a relatively fixed reality that can not only be understood by all to a certain degree, but that can also be benefitted from equitably by all. Although this call may be interpreted as a form of ontological supremacy, it is quite clear that standing idly by is not getting us anywhere, re-invoking classic anthropological debates as to whether or not being-in-the-world is a matter of universalism or relativism?
Cover Photo Source: The Indian Express