George Walford: Us and Them

Edmund Leach has written an article on racism (ANTHROPOLOGY TODAY, August 1988) which substitutes thoughtful enquiry for the well-intentioned waffle so often elicited by the subject. He finds its earliest recorded appearance in Genesis Chapter 9, verses 18-19:

And the sons of Noah that went forth from the ark were Shem Ham and Japheth … these are the three sons of Noah: and of them was the whole earth overspread.

‘Japheth’ referred to the races living to the north of the writer, and the word ‘Ham’ at first meant the black soil of the Nile delta but was soon transferred to the skin colour of those living to the south and east. The names distinguish two groups of ‘people not like us.’ From Genesis Leach moves rapidly through early attitudes to the American Indians, the bizarre ethnology in the early work of A. C. Haddon, and changes in British attitudes as first the British Jews and later immigrants from farther East increased in number, (with a sideswipe at Colin Turnbull for speaking of the Ituri pygmies as a race when their identity is cultural), to the present centre of interest for anti-racists in South Africa. Noting that (as IC has pointed out) in South Africa many of the police enforcing apartheid are black, Leach points out that the 1987 strike of black gold-miners was more successful than the 1984/5 strike of British coal-miners. The laws on apartheid are not simply concerned with keeping black and white apart, but take account also of the Cape coloured and the Indians, they set up a. hierarchy which (as Gandhi was well aware) differs from the caste system of India in little besides its lesser complexity. When the intense racial prejudice found in Israel is also taken into account, one begins to wonder why the anti-racists focus their attention so much upon South Africa. And, Leach adds, what are the grounds for supposing that everyone, or anyone, would be better off were racism no longer to flourish?

After all there are lots of other thing to quarrel about: religion, land boundaries, economic exploitation as a start, but sex relations above all. By setting up rigid barriers between ‘races’ … a great many other kinds of ‘problems’ are kept out of sight.

Leach sees that racism is one solution – a crude one – to the universal problem of objectifying an assumed distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’. Speaking as an anthropologist he defines these two categories as the marriageable and the unmarriageable.

Leach and other anthropologists are certainly right in recognising the connection between marriageability and the us-and-them dichotomy; endogamy and exogamy both involve making such a distinction. But the insight does nothing to explain the strong and universal tendency to divide people into two groups, one more readily acceptable than the other.

The earliest experience of each one of us impresses the assumption that comfort, warmth, food, security, all the good things, come with one’s own social group (consisting, at first, of only mother and infant), while cold, pain, hunger, thirst, all the evil things, belong to the outside world. We all continue, throughout our lives, to deal with the intense emotion that experience arouses, and the presence of considerable numbers of people of skin-colour different from one’s own comes as a strong indication that the outer world, the evil world, is intruding and must be got rid of, or at least suppressed. It is an unsophisticated reaction, but all of us begin our adult lives innocent of sophistication, and only a minority acquire enough of it to overcome these original simplicities.

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WE ALL know the Jingo refrain:

We don’t want to fight,
But, by Jingo, if we do,
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men,
We’ve got the money too.

There was also another version, which may be less familiar:

We don’t want to fight,
But, by Jingo, if we do,
We’ll stay at home and sing our songs
And send the mild Hindoo.

(Quoted by Michael W. Doyle in Empires, Cornell U.P. 1986, p. 287)

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The readers of IC are, of course, all wealthy capitalists. Even so, they know something of the way the poor live in Britain today. Which of these cartoons shows a lively grasp of present realities, and which of them uses an empty rhetoric left over from the days of Marx and Engels?

The Cause of Starvation



Kronstadt Kids

IC often follows the common practice of speaking as if ideology affected attitudes towards an objective world independent of the observer. The approach works well enough in the ordinary course of life, but close thinking calls it in question, suggesting that the real, solid, material phenomena we handle are more accurately regarded as appearances we create for ourselves, mostly without intending to do so or realising we have done it. Consider, for example, this view of Copernicus’s achievement:

astronomy had started from the assumption, dictated by common sense and daily experience, that the earth is at rest. All the phenomena observed in the heavens, then, are real motions. Copernicus proposed instead that heavenly phenomena are in part mere appearances which arise from the motion of the earth. (R. S. Westfall, Never at Rest, a Biography of Isaac Newton, Cambridge U.P. 1980 p. 2)

The earth is not the only object whose motion affects our observations. We too are mobile, and while the motion of the earth affects our observations only of heavenly phenomena our bodily motions affect all our observations. This perception introduces an element of assumption into all our observations and underlines the need of understanding how we come to make the assumptions we do.

from Ideological Commentary 36, November 1988.