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Anthropology As…What?

Anthropology as action. 

Anthropology as applied. 

Anthropology as insight.

Anthropology as a tool. 

Anthropology as f**k. 

We started this blog because we teach, research, live, and breathe anthropology, and we needed more work (Ed: no, you didn’t) opportunities to share what it is and why it matters. We are anthropologists of various stripes – in terms of fields of study, regions of interest, personal backgrounds, and academic positions – based at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. We are passionate about the power that anthropology has, not only as a subject in academic institutions, but as a way of understanding, explaining, critiquing, and possibly even transforming, this messed up complex world we live in.

Our name reflects our belief in this potential. Our posts will all share a theme of demonstrating “anthropology as…”. As instructors at an undergraduate teaching university, we are committed to making what we do accessible to a broad audience, including those outside the walls of academic institutions. We intend to use this site as a teaching tool in our classes, a platform for informally thinking through anthropological ideas, and as a way of starting (or continuing) conversations with folks both currently known and yet to be encountered.

A few quick caveats:

  1. We make no guarantees as to timing or frequency of posts. It is reasonable to assume we might disappear during heavy grading times, and rest assured once we crawl out from under piles of papers, we will reemerge with Phoenix-like energy and passion (Ed: good luck with that).
  2. While anthropology will be the unifying thread of posts here, and we are committed to a four field approach, the content reflects us as individual authors (see our “About” page for descriptions of who we are), not our department, institution, or professional organizations.
  3. Following on #2, while we hope to include voices from many colleagues, the two main authors at the time of this writing share a few common features. We are both white settler women from Canada, we are both feminists (Ed: please clarify this in future posts, because feminism be complicated), and we both place a lot of emphasis on Indigenous rights and decolonization, in however imperfect our ways (Ed: you are also giant nerds).
  4. We are committed to creating safe environments for discussion, including around difficult topics, which means that, should a situation arise, we will have no qualms about moderating comments that are abusive with a very heavy hand. That said, we love profanity, we will use correct anatomical terminology, and we will assume that y’all are grownups about that.

In sum, our goal is to demonstrate anthropology as a force in everyday life, and to unabashedly and unashamedly show that anthropology IS awesome.

Let’s do this, nerds.

 

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Languages, Linguistics, and Legislation: Some Reflections on Supporting Revitalization Programs in Canada

Sometimes, I am amazed at the opportunities afforded to me by my life and work as an anthropologist. I have just returned home after an 8 day visit to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, where I had the opportunity to teach a course on Language Policy and Planning for Indigenous Language Communities, run through the University of Alberta’s CILLDI program. The goal of CILLDI (the Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute) is to provide training in linguistics, language planning, and pedagogy to Indigenous communities in Canada in order to support their language documentation and revitalization efforts. Students are typically members of Indigenous communities, either native speakers or learners of their Indigenous languages, working in various capacities to support these languages (many are language teachers, others are coordinators or staff members of language programs or cultural centres, others are translators, some are students, etc). I could talk for a year – and if you know me in person, you may confirm this is true – not only about the value of a program like this for supporting language work, but also about how being involved with CILLDI is a life-changing experience for students and staff alike, but I want to focus here on what I learned from the opportunity to deliver this particular class in Yellowknife.

In order to better serve the needs of Indigenous language communities, and with the support of various funding agencies, CILLDI has increasingly been offering its courses outside of its standard venue (hosted at the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton for three weeks each July). These new versions mean that the instructors come to the students (or closer to them), at various times throughout the year, instead of always having all the students relocate for several weeks in the middle of the summer, often at considerable inconvenience and expense. The course I taught last week was part of a block of three courses organized and funded by the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) Department of Education, Culture, and Employment, which houses their Indigenous Languages and Education Secretariat. Students were from all over the territory and included speakers of Nehiyawewin (Cree), Dene Zhatie (South Slavey), Dene Yati/Sahtu (North Slavey), Gwich’in, Tɫicho, and Inuvialuktun. They were regional language coordinators, language project workers, teachers, translators, and administrative personnel, some were fluent speakers and others were learners, and ranged in age from Elders to a 24-year-old social media guru. It is a truism of any teaching situation that the best part is always the students, but this was a particularly powerful example, as this group brought energy, creativity, and strong knowledge of their languages and communities. They came with different levels of experience and comfort in project planning and thinking big picture about language revitalization, and each one of them took the opportunity to learn something new about how to best do this work.

It’s always incredible to be in a room where there is so much positive energy and a commitment to action in support of language, culture, healing, and Indigenous autonomy, but it was especially so during a week in which the discourse about Indigenous people in this country has been so ugly, so dismissive, and so violent. There is a need to confront all of that awful reality, but there is also a need to be able to take concrete steps toward improving things, whether the rest of the country wants to come along for the ride or not.

It was also an eye-opening experience to have led this course with the direct support of the territorial government, and to spend time with some truly great public servants who are genuinely dedicated to making Indigenous language revitalization work. The NWT has had an official language policy in place since the 1980s, which recognizes 9 Indigenous languages alongside English and French, and which emphasizes the revitalization of these languages as a formal priority of the official languages act. My work in the Brazilian Amazon, where official language policy has also been used as a strategy for revitalization, has made it very clear to me that while such policies can be important symbolic acts, examining how they work and what they mean requires much more careful consideration of how they are being enacted, taken up, and talked about by the local populations (here’s a recent article I wrote about this, apologies for paywall). To say that colonial governments are inevitably fraught with problems in relation to Indigenous peoples and languages is the understatement of the last several centuries, but one thing I saw in Yellowknife was what it can look like if a government actually wants to see Indigenous languages succeed. The primary outcome, for students, of the course is the preparation of a mock (or actual!) grant proposal for a realistic potential project for supporting their language, and in this case, we were able to get a lot of help and guidance about what kinds of projects would have the potential to receive government funding, and how students could reframe their ideas in ways that would strengthen their chances of success.

I admit: “reconciliation” is a Canadian politics buzzword that is eminently critiquable, both in its overall framework (which implies that there was a positive, healthy, mutually sustaining relationship that we will be able to return to, somehow, rather than an entire foundation of violence and theft) and in its incredible overuse (seriously, doesn’t it seem like people throwing a few coins in the cup of a homeless person who appears Indigenous will then write a Facebook status about their contribution to reconciliation?). But with that caveat in mind, I feel like this course was driven by the spirit that the term ‘reconciliation’ should imply. The foundation for this is, in part, the way that Northern Canada operates on a different set of rules than we do here in the South (Ed: South? Shulist: Why yes, it is weird to call Edmonton the South, but all such things are relative). One of those rules is that movement toward Indigenous self-government is much more of a reality, and several groups have either an established agreement or are working towards one. Indigenous languages also have a distinct presence on signage, on the radio, and in other aspects of public life (this could definitely be strengthened, but it is far more significant than in much of the rest of the country). This was my first visit to the North, and there is much that I don’t know, but I learned enough to know that I want to know more, and to think that lots of others should want to know more as well (just because it was -50 one day while I was up there doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go! It’s actually totally great).

This is an important moment for Indigenous languages in Canada as a whole, as the Trudeau government is currently developing the research around how to create the Indigenous Languages Act they promised after they were elected, and in light of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Sadly, I don’t really have a lot of faith that the federal government is going to create something truly meaningful with this act. I think such an act has the potential to be an important symbol, and while I’m definitely not someone who dismisses symbolic change as meaningless, I think that the primary goal of any Indigenous language revitalization legislation at the federal or provincial/territorial levels should be to get the funding in to the hands of Indigenous people who can do the work of making their languages viable again. And in order to do this most effectively, a genuine commitment to Indigenous self-government is needed. Language programs that rely too much on expensive, university-based resources and researchers*, that are incredibly narrow and specific in their requirements, and that create endless mounds of paperwork people must do, are doing everything they can not to actually work on language revitalization. While this may be the topic of another post (because complicated), we also need to seriously engage with the ways in which official bilingualism and the political influence of French influences our ability to focus attention on the needs of Indigenous languages and communities (again apologies for the academic paywall, but this article by Eve Haque and Donna Patrick, if you have access, is a great primer on this). It is true that the federal government has made funding available through programs like the Aboriginal Languages Initiative, but I’ll leave it to the reader to consider whether the process and requirements outlined on that website really make this opportunity accessible to those that need it.

I left Yellowknife feeling really invigorated, but also angry. Invigorated because the students did such excellent work, and because I think there is the real possibility that their projects will get support, and because taking action to support change is so much better than sitting in the narrative of decay and death in which we ‘tsk tsk’ about

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Your friendly neighbourhood linguist blogger outside the best-named business in Yellowknife, featuring multilingual English/Tlicho wordplay

language loss without ever attacking it as a problem. But angry because throughout Canada, the political story remains one in which Indigenous people and communities are portrayed as incompetent and incapable, requiring oversight and paternalistic intervention. This emerges from both the left and the right, with the difference being that the right places the causes in some kind of cultural dysfunction or backwardness, while the left acknowledges the role of colonialism, but still situates the pathology in Indigenous communities, with the solutions coming from benevolent outsiders. This obviously isn’t just about language revitalization, but that’s my entry point in to it. I’m not sure we’ll be able to get out of the damn way enough to enable real change, but I want to believe that it’s possible. At the very least, we can look to the North for some paths to improvement.

*Yes, this includes me. We definitely have a role to play in this, but we don’t belong at the centre.

A Statement on Structural Racism in Canada

Content Warning: This post includes details about the murder of a young Indigenous man. It is directed at Canadian settlers and other non-Indigenous people who may be unaware or dismissive of the degree of racism and violence present in this country. We recognize that our Indigenous friends are all too aware of these stories, and have no need to repeatedly revisit that trauma. In short, if you are already grieving and pained by this week’s events in Saskatchewan, we are sorry, and you probably don’t need to read this post. 

We are writing this point jointly because we are jointly horrified by the outcome of the trial of Gerald Stanley, a white farmer who shot a 22-year-old Cree man named Colten Boushie in the summer of 2016. Many people, both in Canada and outside of it, remain under the illusion that Canada is “less racist” than our neighbours to the South, or that we are a “nicer” people than many others in the world. This story is one that has revealed, through the actions of the RCMP, the court, the jury, journalists, and the general commenting public, how deeply wrong that narrative is.

From the get-go, this story has been one in which the narrative of what happened hinged on whether Gerald Stanley legitimately had reason to be so fearful, so panicked, and in such distress as a result of the car carrying five Indigenous youths arriving on his property, that he retrieved his gun, and that in the chaos and confusion, one of those young people was shot in the back of the head, dying as a result. He was acquitted based on a defense that the shooting was accidental – a magic gun, some are calling it, based on his description – but as the barrage of post-verdict commentary has revealed, the core of jury sympathy rested on the idea that he was defending his property. This justification was established the day after the murder, when RCMP follow-up to the events at Stanley’s farm described their ongoing work as relating to a ‘theft investigation’, immediately giving credence to the farmer’s version of the story that characterized the young people’s presence on his property as based in their desire to rob him. The witnesses in the car explained they had been seeking help for a flat tire — a story fairly obviously supported by the state of the vehicle.

The perspectives on the story are very much racially rooted. White settler Canadians, even after the verdict, are commenting on social media and on news sites saying that the victim and his friends should not have been drinking, and should not have driven on to the property. The events are ‘tragic’, they say, framing Stanley as a victim of circumstance, a landowner naturally terrified of these rowdy young people being present on his property, whose fear and apparently poor gun safety skills led to a death that could only have been avoided by the victim himself (and, often, his entire culture/race, which is blamed for failing to teach its children not to drink and steal, despite the fact that there was never any evidence that the youth were even trying to steal anything).

We are not writing this with any pretense at neutrality: we believe that Gerald Stanley is guilty of murder. We believe his fear and anxiety about the presence of these young people on his property would be better described as racist anger and hostility, built around a lifetime of stories about how Indigenous people threaten white property. We also believe that the not guilty verdict was produced by the actions of a racist police force, who immediately accepted the Stanley family’s story about ‘theft’, who informed the victim’s family of their loved one’s death callously while searching their home for evidence of that theft, and who later cleared themselves of wrongdoing in those actions – saying, of course, that the officers were perfectly reasonable to prioritize a theft investigation based on the word of a white farmer who had just shot one of the accused thieves in the head. The murder investigation was not only secondary, but apparently a fairly low priority – the same police force failed to treat the vehicle in which the victim died as a proper crime scene, turning it over to a towing company without thorough investigation of important evidence like blood splatter patterns that would corroborate or complicate the testimony of various witnesses.

We believe that while the Canadian news media did report on the racist vitriol that emerged on social media in the wake of the murder, and did talk about the experiences of the victim’s family with the RCMP, they have failed to fully interrogate the racialized nature of this crime, and have allowed aspects of the racist narrative to be perpetuated in the name of some form of ‘neutrality’. We also believe that they have used language that deliberately centres the narrative on the victim, rather than the criminal, rarely using the words “The Gerald Stanley trial”, and instead placing the victim’s name in that role. This focus not only erases the actual criminal, the descriptor makes it appear that the murdered man is the one on trial. The media’s repeated use of the victim’s name also constitutes a violation of the spiritual and cultural values of his family, which is the reason that in this post, we use his name only once.

We believe that the system allowed for the creation of an all-white jury in a situation where the question of guilt hinges entirely on whether or not you believe that this white landowner was truly and reasonably fearful of these youth, and whether or not you find his story of accidental shooting to be credible. The defense was able to remove any visibly Indigenous people from the jury without explanation or justification, as many times as they liked, without question. This is a system that favours the perspective of an unmarked dominant position – it is difficult to imagine a story in which an all-Indigenous jury was allowed to decide the fate of a person like Gerald Stanley, or of any defendant for that matter.

This is a statement we are writing from our perspective as white settler anthropologists, and it is rooted in our analytical understanding – developed primarily by listening to Indigenous voices, as well as to the voices of Black activists and scholars, whose descriptions of how policing as an institution rooted in the protection of white property have helped us to recognize the depth of injustice in a country that proclaims itself (and is internationally seen as) a human rights champion. Our call to settler Canada, and to anthropologists, in response to this specific manifestation of a very deep, very broad injustice, is this:

That we write, post, and talk about the need for an appeal of this verdict, for the possibility of a mistrial, for a re-opening of this case in a way that may allow for a more fair assessment of Stanley’s actions.

That we demand an external investigation of the RCMP’s actions in this case, both in relation to the material outcomes of the trial and in relation to the emotional harms caused to the victim’s family and to all Indigenous Canadians.

That we become much louder, much more aggressive, and much more insistent on the need to counter the racist narratives that Canadians are taught in schools, in the media, and in general conversation, about Indigenous peoples.

That we constantly remind our friends and family that a 22 year old who happens to be drinking does not deserve to be murdered for getting a flat tire, and that life is infinitely more valuable than property.

That we examine the role that anthropology and other forms of scholarship have to play in re-creating the fabric of how we understand this country, and actively work to correct the colonial injustices that our discipline is built on.

That we talk to our white children about this story, and about the fear that it brings to our Indigenous friends, that we do not tell them fairy tales about how the police will always be the good guys in a story, and that we do not allow them to walk through the world unaware of the implications of their whiteness.

That we oppose the narrative of Canadian exceptionalism that says we are different, better, less racist, and more accepting than any other country in the world, that we respond to declarations that this is the best country in the world to live in with disgust and anger rather than pride, and that we demand that the insights presented in report after report about the ongoing systemic violence of colonialism (of which the TRC final report is only the most recent) become more than descriptors on a page.

That we support our Indigenous students, colleagues, and friends. That we do not center discussions around our own anger and tears and instead that we give space in our classrooms, our offices, and our institutions for those who are rightfully grieving but whose voices, emotions, and actions are already being challenged and critiqued.

 

Symbols, Poetics, and Change: A Quick Thought on the Canadian National Anthem

There are certain situations in which changing just one or two words can become matters of immense political significance. An example of such a situation has been brewing in Canada for some time, with the introduction, by a Member of Parliament who has since passed away, of a bill to change the English lyrics of “O Canada” to a more gender neutral form.

The relevant words are in the opening lines of the anthem (emphasis mine):

Oh Canada! Our home and native land
True patriot love in all thy sons command

The changed version replaces this last phrase with “in all of us command“. Earlier this week, this bill was passed by the Canadian Senate, after receiving “overwhelming” support in the House of Commons when it was voted on last year. This means that, barring some truly unusual behaviour by the Governor General, we will be singing the new form in the very near future.

download (1)Observing both the heatedness and the specific nature of the debate about this has been interesting, as in many ways both sides share certain fundamental positions about language use, rather than coming at it from completely opposite perspectives. The heart of the debate, on both sides, is about the value of the national anthem as a profound symbol of identity, and about the performative function that singing it has. Changing the lyrics is intended to signify an inclusive form of Canadianness, and to allow those of us who don’t identify with the word ‘sons’ to more fully feel the nature of our belonging as we sing these familiar words. In other words, the whole reason to change it is because this song and its words matter a lotRefusing to change the lyrics is also centered in the importance of the anthem, with the claim being that history, continuity, and the aesthetic quality of the lyrics are more significant aspects than transparent inclusiveness. Manitoba senator Don Plett, for example, said that “A nation’s national anthem is not meant to be edited and revised periodically, but rather, it is meant to stand the test of time and to allow us to remember where we came from” (quoted here). The whole reason not to change it is because this song and its words matter too much.

There are obviously some differences in beliefs about language that emerge in each of these positions. Many people who favour the ‘sons’ lyric also express a general belief that it’s okay to use words that are semantically masculine to refer to humans in general (ranging from pronouns to words like ‘mankind’, or even to common expressions like ‘Hi guys’, used in gender diverse settings). Those who prefer the change see these terms as enshrining images of men as the default and others (including women, trans, and nonbinary folks) as marked deviations from this norm. There are also positions about what constitutes “grammatically correct” language, as well as opinions about the aesthetics of the change – the move from an archaic second person possessive reference (thy sons) to a first person voicing (of us) is clearly troubling some people, as that same article above also includes an ‘ardent feminist’ who nonetheless opposes the change as ‘grammatically incorrect’. Plett himself, apparently, was willing to allow for some change to national continuity if it would keep that second person (and archaic) structure, suggesting “thou dost in us command” as a ‘less clunky’ alternative. This amendment move, of course, may simply have been an unsuccessful delaying tactic to avoid passing the bill at all, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

To my mind, what this story illustrates is less about debating moves toward gender neutral language and more about the poetics, politics, and performativity of national anthems and other similar texts that carry immense symbolic power. On that, it seems, there is much more agreement than conflict across the political spectrum.

 

 

(Re)considering the Genus Homo: Reflection on What was Reported in 2017

So it’s less than a month into 2018 and there’s already controversy over a femur. I started writing this post back in 2017…I’m sorry but I just can’t keep up everyone. I really wish I could and I have so much respect for those bloggers that are cranking out responses to all of the <<startling new discoveries that are shaking the foundation of everything we thought we knew about human evolution>>. So mad props y’all.

I say this because 2017 was jam packed with new articles regarding two of the most controversial members of our genus, Homo floresiensis and Homo naledi, and some new dates for the earliest members of our species Homo sapiens. These announcements have been sensationalized in the media (as I attempted to capture above with my statement italicized and bracketed above) so it can be hard to understand what these discoveries actually mean.  Spoiler alert: no foundations shook, just more confirmation that human evolution is complicated! Here’s a very concise summary of the debates/issues as I understand them followed by some of the thoughts I have regarding the most recent findings. Also I’m not going to comment on the Sahelanthropus debate I started off linking to (at least in this post) as that species is clearly not part of the genus Homo but it does serve as good reminder that even the question of who gets to be a hominin can be contentious.

 

The Hobbits

Thanks to some new publications/articles/blog posts in 2017 (like this one or this one or this one) discussion about interpreting the fossil and archaeological record Homo floresiensis was pretty hot. Homo floresiensis captured everyone’s attention when first announced because of their resemblance to Homo erectus (physically and culturally…well depending on who you ask) yet australopith-like size. Quickly dubbed “the Hobbits” because of their small or “dwarf” size, the debate was on as to how to interpret their unique morphology. Most pathological conditions were ruled out and with the recovery of more remains from a second site in 2016 the general consensus seemed to be that they did indeed represent a separate species from all previously recorded ones. The dates for the material culture from the same sites were interesting but seem to be “good” dates; initially the archaeological record indicated that these small hominins were contemporaries of anatomically modern Homo sapiens meaning that oral histories in the region talking about the little people of the forest are supported by these fossils but the lack of fossils providing an overlap means this is debated too.

 

Naledi

So this species seems to have had Kardashian-level publicity even before it was fully recovered and reported. Let me start by saying I think the whole Rising Star Expedition is very cool; I LOVE and RESPECT how open access, public this research project has been and continues to be. I loved following the excavations on social media. I really respect many of the people involved in this project (note I’ve actually never met them but through their public outreach I feel like they are “my” type of people – researchers who are really trying to do good, accessible work), but this also makes it tougher as there are a lot of personalities and public personas involved and the “dark side” of public outreach is that some academics argue it impacts the quality of the work being conducted. So let’s focus on the data because that should be easy especially considering so much is open access right!?

This is where it continues to be tough. The site, while extremely cool (a cave system with a passage called “Superman’s Crawl” – doesn’t get much cooler than that) is very complicated in terms of both recovery of the fossils and of their interpretation. As I tell my students, context is everything. The context of the finds is complicated. The primary researchers doing the excavation and analyses argue that there was intentional, deliberate, disposal of the remains but this is hotly contested.

2017 brought us the announcement of “Neo” (that the nearly complete remains of one individual had been recovered from the assemblage representing at least three individuals) and dates for the finds. The dates are particularly interesting because they are much younger than the morphology of Homo naledi would suggest, and that they overlap with the earliest dates for the members of our species, anatomically modern humans. So we have a really small brained member of our species running around at the same time as us in Africa.

 

Anatomically Modern Humans from Morocco

Up until this article came out, the oldest known anatomically modern human (AMH) remains dated to 180 thousand years ago (or kya) from East Africa, which is supported by genetic evidence that also places the origin of our species to East Africa. Now the oldest specimens of our species are directly dated to 290 kya from a site called Jebel Irhoud. They are associated with lovely stone tools dating to between 280 and 350 kya. So while this does not blow up everything we know about the origins of our species, it does demonstrate that we need to focus on Africa as a continent.

 

Summary Thoughts on the genus Homo

What links these recent discussions on H. naledi and H. floresiensis is that they both challenge what a “late” member of the genus “should” look like. Importantly both have small crania and it has been long held that we should see an increase in cranial size over time leading to us big brained humans. The Moroccan evidence simply requires us to consider a much broader region for our origins.

Now I’m sure someone has remarked this before, and remember I’m not a geneticist, but what if the reason why humans are the only hominins left is because we were the only ones who could successfully interbreed with other hominins? That successfully incorporating and retaining the genes of other hominins into our genome increased our genetic diversity making us better adapted to life on this planet, period. Further what if evidence for interbreeding really is what we are seeing, that shared genes are not simply just remnants of a shared common ancestor?

Genes are a critical piece of the puzzle because as with the new dates and location for the anatomically modern humans, they are suggesting a different origin and one that is slightly later.

As always more data (fossils, dates, etc.) clearly does not mean more answers, just more questions. What is clear to me is that we need to reconsider how we define the genus Homo and how we assign species to this genus. Maybe the genus Homo is the problem; it is honestly poorly defined so I say let us start there. Part of this new definition means that we need to decouple the fossil record from the archaeological record; I know how problematic this sounds (humans are humans because of how we think and behave and this is reflected in our material culture) but direct and clear associations between specific types of material culture and specific species are few AND fail to account for other equally plausible explanations. We assume X species were responsible for Y tools because they are found in the same sites and date to the same time periods but there are so many contemporaneous species why do we continue to insist it’s only the largest brain variants that had the culture. This seems so outdated to me and poorly supported by the very large body of evidence we have. What if some of the variations we see in the so-called tool traditions are because differences in WHO was making them?

As a colleague on twitter posted “I’d love to see a fossil discovery that makes things simpler instead of more complicated” because right now the story of human evolution seems already complicated enough.

Saying No: A Quick Linguistic Take

In observing the last several months of public discourse about sexual violence in the wake of the allegations against several powerful Hollywood men, I am both heartened and incredibly frustrated by the way this conversation is happening. It is, for me, positive to see the spaces being created for people to articulate the big and small ramifications of male dominance, rape culture, and gendered economic inequality. The structure of sexual violence is not one in which every attack is equally vicious or harmful, it is one in which there are thousands of constant paper cuts coexisting with just-say-nolife-threatening stab wounds. It is a world where the ability to say ‘no’ to powerful men is undermined not just through their use of physical force or economic coercion, but also through repeated, minor dismissals of our wishes, our pleasure, our consent.

Fast forward to this week, when a woman using the pseudonym Grace came forward with a story about a “bad date” with comedian Aziz Ansari. This story has quickly become the most hotly debated sexual encounter of 2018, as countless people are writing think-pieces about the nature of consent, digging in to the details of the interaction as Grace describes it, considering Ansari’s apology, and offering their conclusions about whether this was criminal, whether it was simply terrible, or whether Grace is just completely over-reacting. Here are a handful of the more well-done pieces on the topic:

But then there is a piece in the New York (won’t link it, sorrynotsorry) entitled “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind-Reader”, and plenty of people are on board with that basic notion.

Here’s the thing – sexual encounters are communicative encounters, and the giving of consent is a socially rooted linguistic/communicative act. The debate about this encounter is fundamentally one about how language, meaning, and understanding work. An important ideological position is being staked out in the NYT article, and it’s one that articulates concepts ‘consent’ and ‘intent’ as properties within the various parties’ minds. Since that is their locus, we cannot possibly access through observation of their actions. How was Ansari supposed to recognize her lack of consent, the reasoning goes, if her communication was only nonverbal, if she was merely hesitating rather than outright shouting, if she didn’t get around to saying ‘no’ until after several rounds of deflection?

However, as all of the sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists I follow on social media have been observing, this interaction reflects very common patterns used in communicating refusals. Conversation analysts Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith published an excellent article on this way back in 1999. Kitzinger and Frith illustrate the way that politeness expectations dictate our expression of refusal, and note that we are very strongly socialized against giving a hard no – and further, that men and women alike are, in general, perfectly capable of recognizing refusals that are communicated through deflection, hesitation, subject changes, and mitigation. We generally don’t even imagine that people wouldn’t be able to see this…except when the interaction in question is one of the most intimate possible.

Think of the last time someone invited you to do something you really didn’t want to do. Did you say “NO!” and run in the opposite direction? Or did you say “I’m busy that night”? Or maybe you gave an explanation, like “I actually really hate mountain climbing, but thanks for the invite!” What if someone offers you a taste of food that they clearly love, but you think looks like warmed up snotballs? Do you say “OH HELL NO”? Or do you hesitate, move your face away, give a bit of a grimace, and shake your head?It’s true, maybe your answer to these questions is that you jump straight to the no. And it’s worth thinking about what makes you able to do that – if you’re in a power position, it’s somewhat easier to say “no” directly, than if you’re not. If you ask your boss for a raise, they have more ability (and actual training, in many cases) to say “absolutely not” in a direct way than you have if said boss comes to you and asks you if you can take on an additional work task. So you can also think about the last time you invited someone over for a party – if their answer was ‘maybe’, you were probably considering any number of other aspects of how they said it (intonation, eye gaze, posture, other added comments) in figuring out whether they meant “I really want to but I have to check my work schedule” or “Don’t actually count on it”.

My point here is, there is empirical linguistic evidence about how refusals work in a number of different contexts, and there is additional empirical anthropological work examining how meta-discourses about our ability to interpret different forms of communication can either reproduce or reconfigure relations of social power. My frustration, then, is twofold: first, that these powerful and dangerous ideologies about consent and its elusive, gray nature are still circulating in high-profile contexts as well as in general discourse, and second, that I have seen almost no engagement with work on the linguistics of refusal and consent in any of the discussions. This is an area where our expertise is highly relevant and easily accessible (in the sense that the information presented is generally not hidden behind jargon and complex social theory), so it’s frustrating to see journalistic commentary fail to use the evidence provided to support the arguments they are making. I know linguists and linguistic anthropologists are making these points on their blogs and social media feeds, but they don’t seem (to me) to be cracking the mainstream discourse.

There’s more to unpack here about, again, the recognition of expertise and validation of different forms of empirical research, which I’ll just file away as a side point. For now, I’ll sum up – refusals are always complex linguistic acts, and we use a ton of contextual cues to identify them, because they’re a highly socially regulated territory. This doesn’t mean consent falls into so-called ‘gray areas’ or that we require mind-reading abilities to identify anything other than a direct ‘no’. It means we have a ton of skills around this, the evidence from linguistic research demonstrates our ability to navigate these acts, and we need to think about claims not to recognize refusals in sexual encounters as deliberate acts that go against all social training, rather than as accidents and natural misinterpretations.

Do Better CBC! Thoughts on “Ice Bridge”

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Dammit CBC! You are better than this ffs.

Ok so I’m not the first anthropologist/archaeologist/geneticist/scientist to write about this extremely problematic episode of The Nature of Things but I do want to use this platform to reinforce some key critiques, elevate some important voices, and to SHAME CBC (and all media outlets producing pseudoscience especially pseudoarchaeology) into doing better.

A disclaimer: I didn’t watch it. I probably won’t. I can forgive shows that are meant to be entertaining (though this previous post demonstrates that my leniency towards misrepresentation of science is limited) but I cannot forgive shows that intentionally disregard critiques and concerns of the scientists they are engaging as experts and distort evidence to fit failed, problematic, racist, colonial ideas, and theories.

Here is a brief summary of some excellent critiques and discussions:

  • This excellent article captures not just the problem of poor representation of Indigenous perspectives, which are diverse and not singular, but also how this model and narrative of the past is used to “de-legitimize Native Americans’ connections to their own history”.

  • This twitter thread by one of the experts CBC used for this documentary, Dr. Jennifer Raff, and this blog post outline the evidence (archaeological, genetic) that overwhelmingly disproves the main arguments used to support the model.

  • Other archaeologists tweeted about issues relating to problems with giving outdated, pseudoscientific theories authority, and highlighted the colonial history and contemporary racist uses of this model:

During my first year at MacEwan I did have a student who did an independent research project on the Solutrean Hypothesis. They were very interested in why this hypothesis was usually only briefly mentioned as a disproved hypothesis and glossed over, so they approached me about looking more in-depth at the theory and the data used in support and against it. I said sure and they produced a solid poster about it with columns showing the evidence and arguments used in support and against it, and in which they rightfully concluded that it is not a well supported theory. But in retrospect I failed this student. I didn’t engage them in the broader historic and contemporary context of this theory; I didn’t challenge them to consider how it is used to reinforce colonial, racist narratives of the past. So assisting them in seeking out and critically examine evidence and arguments, and to come to a conclusion on their own is not a failure but I could have done better too.

So if I can see the need, the importance, the requirement to do better, surely the CBC can too.

Literal Nonsense

In recent years, several groups in Eastern Canada, and especially Quebec, have been pushing for recognition as “Métis”, or otherwise Indigenous. Their claims rest on a number of ideas that are, at best, dubious, and that ultimately function to undermine, erode, and erase Indigenous rights and identities. Excellent work outlining both the ideology of “métissage” that they invoke and the anti-Indigenous ways in which they function has been published by scholars like Chris Andersen, Adam Gaudry, and Daryl Leroux (academic book by the former here, excellent and easily accessible article by the latter two here). As these authors illustrate, these “self-Indigenization” strategies ultimately support the agenda of a settler colonial state in which “Indigeneity” is a meaningless concept.

I have little to add to the work that these scholars have done on the historical and political complexities of these claims and their implications for Indigenous (and particularly Métis) people, but I do want to say a bit about the ways in which words and meaning are invoked in this discussion.

It was through Leroux’s Twitter feed that this (especially heinous) example came to my attention. In this case, the leader of a white supremacist organization claims the label of “autochtone” (translated as “Aboriginal”) for himself because all it takes, in the “literal sense of the word”, is for you, personally, to have been born in the territory you wish to claim. This is, as Leroux and others make clear, a way of directly undermining the rights of Indigenous nations by rendering “autochtony” or Aboriginality something that essentially anyone can have access to. This also occurs through efforts to “prove” a shallow time depth for Indigenous presence in the Americas, a topic that Dr. Biittner dives into from the archaeological perspective in this post, and through discourses that situate Indigenous people as “just earlier settlers” in order to invalidate their positions.

In addition to dubious grasp of politics and history that these claims represent, they also draw on a view of language and meaning that is both flimsy and incredibly common in mainstream North American contexts – the idea that meaning is best determined by examining origins, etymology, and the breakdown of components of a word. Jane Hill refers to this as a “baptismal ideology” and shows, in her fantastic book The Everyday Language of White Racism, how it shapes a variety of positions in relation to the use of slurs (I unpack this a bit here). It emerges in slightly different ways here. The attempts to gain power of a particular form depend on enregistering a very specific definition of the words that are involved . “Métis” must be “directly” translated as ‘mixed’, so that Métis identity is not a political category, but rather one determined within white Euro-American biological categories. “Aboriginal” must be broken into its component parts to say that it is based on a personal – again, in contrast to a legal and political – ability to place oneself as an individual within the history of the land. Other borrowed words are allowed to undergo changes of meaning –  the story that the name “Canada” derives from a word meaning “village” does not cause anyone to object that it can’t be a real label for an entire nation, for example, so why are the Métis asked to be so beholden to etymology?

In making this claim, then, people are articulating a position on the politics of Indigeneity, and about the nature of language and the source of its meanings. And this latter element is remarkably prevalent, despite the fact that many who disagree with these political claims see it as transparently ridiculous when applied in these cases. In this example, it is further intriguing that the journalists translate the word for which the writer offers a “literal” definition (“autochtone) into English (as “Aboriginal”) and, in doing so, imply that his claim about literality and meaning transcends the linguistic boundaries. I would suggest that in translating and then uncritically repeating his claim, the authors of the newspaper article are doing even more work to assign authority to his view of how meaning works, and further revealing assumptions about some kind of permanent core to semantic connections that hold no matter what transformations happen in space and time. [Ed: What now? SS: Sorry. That’s probably more complex than I can manage for a blog post].

Mainstream dictionaries ultimately help to support this position, whether they want to or not, in the degree to which they refer to etymologies, origins, and first uses, which are then taken as markers of authoritative meaning. So, too, do linguists providing glosses of unfamiliar languages, where we love to show how we can work out a morphological puzzle and reveal how the word for ‘computer’ in some language is built out of words for, say, ‘brain+machine’. This is fun to see, but, especially as these linguistic stories are popularized for mainstream audiences, can lead to the perception that speakers of these languages perceive these objects in terms of those components, when in fact this is simply a widespread pattern of word formation.

You-keep-using-that-word“What a word really means” is a powerful rhetorical tool. The “literal” definition, often invoked by referring to “the” dictionary (a topic I looked at, along with Lavanya Murali Proctor and Michael Oman-Reagan, from another angle in this Sapiens article), by pointing to the “original” meaning, or by deconstructing the morphemes in a word, is something that North American English speakers believe in very strongly…when it suits them and upholds specific types of political beliefs. The word “literally” is a good example of this in and of itself, as many people insist that the movement to using it as, essentially, a qualifier, is the current crisis in the English language (but hint: think about the breakdown of the word “really” and ask yourself whether you always use it to describe that which is straightforwardly real).

The meaning of words (and expressions, and any number of other symbols) comes from a number of different places, and it’s difficult to pin down the notion of a single ‘true’ or authoritative meaning. What we can see well in these discussions isn’t necessarily the ‘true’ meaning of the words themselves, but in fact the beliefs that people hold about where that meaning comes from, and what they do both to the meaning of the words and their political implications by making those claims about meaning. It isn’t an accident that there is a relationship between these political positions and the perception that semantics must work in a particular way, that there is a ‘rational’ (read: rooted in white masculinist literate thought traditions) way of understanding ‘meaning’. Indigenous people and those who seek to support Indigenous rights are forced to argue not only about the political enactment of their rights, but about the very conceptual foundation of their existence, represented in the availability of terms that can describe the legal relationship that they have to the land on which they live.

I was pithy about it in my response to this tweet on Twitter, where I said “that’s not how words work”, but the point holds – this isn’t how meaning works. The so-called ‘literal’ meaning of a word is a construct, just as a legal, political, or yes, dictionary descriptive, definition of a word is a construct. The relationships of specific meaning, and the nature of meaning in general, is a highly political project, and it is one that right wing organizations like La Meute clearly understand as having power. Disrupting that power is necessary, and a lot more significant than simply “arguing semantics”.