Intent, Social Responsibility, and Alternative Facts

The world has felt intensely awful this past week, and a sense of existential dread and foreboding has settled into my knees. And within that, the only real, concrete thing that I feel able to do is teach, and speak, and sometime to laugh at the absurdity of it all, and so here I am.

Kellyanne Conway handed a gift to the comedy and internet meme worlds when she suggested that the Trump administration’s statements about attendance rates at the inauguration should be seen not as lies or misrepresentations, but as “alternative facts”. The Orwellian subtext has so rapidly become text that it is destabilizing to even think about, and of course that is, at least to some extent, the point. But this conversation about Trump and his absolute disregard for truth is not a new one, and watching how we have gotten to this point feels illustrative to me.

This article from the good old days of 2015 gets at some major parts of this matter. The key point:

Donald Trump lied. And yet traditional news organizations can’t or won’t call him that in the name of “objectivity”—appearing to favor one party over another—even if one candidate is spreading a rumor that unfairly maligns an entire race.

Post-enlightenment Western cultures are enthralled with the ideal of “objectivity-as-truth”, and such objectivity requires the observer to stand outside the context of the observation itself in order to get an accurate view. Taking a position internal to the story – one that comments directly on the relationship between Trump’s statements and the actual world – would violate this tenet. “There are three sides to every story”, the adage goes, “your side, my side, and the truth”. This framing places “the truth” in an essentially unreachable place, neither yours nor mine, and validates the idea that wherever it is, it is outside of our rooted positions. The central crack in this nice ideal view of a world in which we have to agree to disagree and collectively navigate our way through inaccessible complexities of reality is that it fails to adequately account for cases in which one of the sides is actually equivalent to the truth.

Fast-forwarding towards ‘alternative facts’, there is discussion now about whether it is appropriate to call Donald Trump (or Conway, or Spicer, or any of nose-156596_960_720the others speaking for him) “a liar”. This NPR piece exemplifies the main principle behind even raising this question, which focuses on the concept of speaker intent as the central relevant point, before concluding that, because we cannot read Trump’s mind, we cannot conclusively declare him “a liar”.

This is, of course, to use the polite term (thanks M*A*S*H*) “grade A, 100% bull cookies”. But it’s both persuasive and pervasive because it ties in to some important common sense Western conceptions about how truth, knowledge, and intent work. While explaining the linguistic/anthropological theories behind these conceptions would take up far too much of your time (Ed.: which you should totally be spending calling your MP and demanding real action instead of reading this, unless of course you’ve done that already, in which case carry on), what I do want to point out is that there are many alternative understandings of the relationship between truth, responsibility, and intent.

The theme of “intent” and how it connects to a lie always makes me think of the way some of my Amazonian friends would use the Portuguese word for a lie (“mentira”) for situations in which the person was, to my mind, much more likely simply mistaken. If a person said, for example, that an event had happened three years ago rather than five, with no motivation to have me believe the former, I felt odd when it was categorized as a lie, but when I explained that fact, I was told it was the same thing. If the speaker didn’t really know the answer, they should’t give information as though they did. I have not had a chance to explore this idea in depth, but I have a hunch it may be connected to the fact that the Indigenous languages these Amazonians speak make use of what are called evidentials – basically, ways of grammatically encoding how you know the information communicated. If the information is hearsay, or if you are uncertain about it, you have to say so directly in your statements. The bare presentation of information without a sense of source and authority, then, appears the same, and functions socially as, a lie, in its insufficient verification of truth.

The question of “intent” re-emerges repeatedly in relation to accusations of racism or other forms of prejudice. A example of this emerged in a recent discussion I had on Twitter about how anti-hate speech laws work, in practice, in Canada (thanks to James Leask for so concisely getting at major issues). By locating the racism so firmly within the intention of speakers/actors, we create a huge loophole in which we can never call any statements racist, because that is a thing that is located in the unknowable, inaccessible ether of their consciousness. It’s because of this that anti-oppression advocates often emphasize the need to interpret speech in terms of its impacts – in other words, to see the existence of racism and assess racist speech as something whose meaning is interactionally produced. not a nebulous beliefs located in people’s minds.

The same thing applies, albeit in different ways, to truth and lies. As we teeter into a post-truth world, where lies proliferate without liars to speak them, I want to tune in to how that is happening, beyond the obvious Newspeak terminology produced by people like Conway. Instead of upholding these ideological notions about where truth is, and how difficult it is to access, we need to dig in to the roots of how a focus on individual intent and a continued belief in the value of detached observation create the conditions for “alternative facts” to become materially significant. Because the material significance, as this weekend has shown us, is huge.

I *Heart* Neandertals Part 1


I’m numbering this post because I’m absolutely sure this will be just the first of many posts about Neandertals. I HAVE SO MUCH TO SAY ABOUT THEM! Seriously.

I’m so excited about this new article and not just because the actual peer-reviewed journal title “An interesting rock from Krapina” made me laugh, but because I love rocks. This should not come as a surprise – many kids collect rocks and a few of us go on to study them.

Simply, as has been widely reported on, Neandertals may have been early rock collectors. Now this isn’t even really something new from the perspective of hominin (human and their ancestors) evolution. Oversimplifying a little, archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists have evidence from many sites that many early tool producing/using species selected rocks for their unique and particular qualities and then transported the preferred rocks to a specific location for use. Heck, even nut-cracking monkeys are known to have preference for particular types, sizes, and shapes of rocks (and I believe otters too right?!) so again preferential selection of toolstones is not even a hominin thing.

How do we establish “collection” versus selection? This is an important question because rocks are useful, abundant, widely available resources. What makes this particular rock different is that:

  1.  It was minimally modified, though the modification is not attributed to the Neandertals;
  2. It is unique; it is the only specimen of its kind out of over a thousand other rocks collected from the site. This context is important because other toolstones are present but none have the same visual characteristics of this particular rock; and so
  3. It is very interesting visually – it has branching forms, which caught the attention not just of the researchers but the person(s) who excavated it and the Neandertals who brought it to the site.

Importantly the elaborate natural design of the rock is just something else to add to the increasingly growing body of evidence that argues Neandertals were creative and curious. These are hallmarks of modern human behaviour, of modern human cognition. Neandertals were us…or at least close enough that some of us would “swipe right”.


The Politics of Bilingualism

Last week, 13 of the candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) faced off in a French-language debate. Kevin O’Leary, who has quickly taken the lead in the race [Ed.: WHELP!], is noticeably absent from that list because he didn’t declare his candidacy until a few days after the debate had taken place – a fact that did not register as coincidental for many observers.

Unfortunately for francophone Canada, for the majority of these candidates, the political ideas, commitments, and capacity for engaged discussion were not really available for them to assess, due to the limited French-language skills many of them had. Of the 13, two were native French speakers, and, according to a panel of reviewers organized by the CBC, only two of the non-native speakers demonstrated the ability to, well, debate in the French language (ie. communicate without reliance on pre-written notes).

There are a couple of things this illustrates about the politics of bilingualism (and the bilingualism of politics) in Canada.

  1. Despite the basic premise of official bilingualism, it requires little scratching of the surface to observe that this is a very assymetrical bilingualism. It is possible for monolingual anglophones to achieve a high level of political success at the federal level, while the reverse is almost unfathomable. Prime Minister Jean Chretien comes to mind as an example of a francophone whose accented English was frequently mocked or critiqued in English Canada, but in truth his ability to express himself fluently in both languages was quite strong (and any issues with his pronunciation were also related to his childhood Bell’s palsy, the mocking of which is certainly textbook ableism). In short, though: any candidate for leadership of a nationwide party (the term ‘nationwide’ there communicating the exception of the Bloq Quebecois, which only runs candidates in Quebec [Ed.: Canadian politics is complicated, yo]) that couldn’t debate in English would quite simply never consider a run.
  2. I don’t think it’s a coincidence this linguistic gap is so significant within the Conservative Party in particular. The regionalized nature of Canadian politics is such that the CPC is able to focus on winning seats mainly in the West and in suburban Ontario, and Quebec is not a factor. The Liberal party, and recently the NDP, relies heavily on campaigning in Quebec in order to win a significant number of seats and contend for government. The ways in which this regional pattern of partisanism maps onto language generates a self-reinforcing dynamic that ultimately strengthens the connections between language-region-partisan politics in ways that, to my mind unfortunately, limit the terms of debate. Some analysts believe the CPC needs to pay more attention to Quebec in forthcoming elections, but it’s also possible they could campaign with more force in Atlantic Canada and Ontario in order to gain back the seats Trudeau took in 2015.
  3. Say what you will about the poor showing in French of some of the candidates in the debate – at least they showed up and made an effort to communicate their positions to francophone Canada. Kevin O’Leary, in choosing to completely avoid the debate (by days), dismisses the very notion that the French language, and the concerns of its speakers, matter to his vision for Canada. O’Leary likes to claim that being from Montreal, he is able to understand Quebecois concerns, but detaching Quebecois from the French language seems like a recipe for failure (in Quebec, and with French speakers across the country) to me.
  4. As Celine Cooper observes in the analysis I also linked above, the language skills of each of the various candidates can’t be detached from the way that language policy is organized across the country – with each province taking responsibility for education, and official language teaching incorporated often as an obligation rather than as something that provinces understand to be central to their locally-based needs, it requires some effort for individuals to obtain English-French bilingualism. If widespread bilingualism were to become a real priority, the federal and provincial governments would have to work out a way to implement that; the fact that language policy in Canada has remained essentially static for decades would seem to indicate we are fine with the regionalized distribution of our official languages, and everything this implies for electoral politics.

It feels a bit indulgent to be writing this during the days after Donald Trump has firmly put down his signpost in the realm of the “English Only” movement in the United States by deleting the Spanish language version of the White House web pages, but I am often surprised at how even Canadians seem to lack understanding of the social dynamics underlying official bilingualism in this country. Language policy, as it turns out, is a complex thing that can’t be reduced to what happens on paper, but has to be understood in relation to what it looks like in practice.

Outreach as Resistance


I may not have many publications listed on my CV but I do think I have a pretty good record of service, of community based engagement and learning, of outreach. During my PhD research I became very interested in public archaeology and community based archaeology. Positive and negative interactions with local community members in my study area would lead me to develop Cultural Heritage in Iringa Research Program (CHIRP). Initially we focused on designing and distributing accessible posters in English and Swahili that outlined what we were doing and why.  As we engaged in dialogue with various people about the posters and our research, we began to change how we were doing and why we were doing archaeology.


At the same time I was regularly volunteering including visiting schools and play groups, doing mini archaeology activities, serving on community league boards, planning events, and so on. Two summers in a row, I also was a Teaching Assistant for a field school that had a large public archaeology component. Now as the Lab Instructor at MacEwan my dedication to outreach has continued. I’ve been honoured to be a part of many Dark Matters events at the Telus World of Science Edmonton including, most recently, being their “Expert” for the launch of a new IMAX film relating to archaeology. (Ed.: Great not-so-humble brag Biittner! What’s the point of this? KB: I have two points! Keep reading please).

Point one:  Most archaeologists are really good at community outreach and overall most anthropologists are too especially in the context of our own field research. But we must do more and be better at outreach. Anthropology doesn’t have the same public branding as it were that other social sciences and natural sciences have. I still get people at outreach events who think I dig up dinosaurs, and the opportunity to correct with kindness and enthusiasm is why my being at an event or at a school is important.

At the most recent outreach event I did, a young individual approached me. They firmly planted their self in front of me, crossed their arms, and loudly stated that as a creationist they wanted me to prove evolution and explain how I could believe in it. I’m not going to recap our conversation, which lasted well over 30 minutes, but know that it was a civil exchange. I was excited that this person wanted to engage in discussion even though I knew very well that I could not change their mind any more than they could change mine. It was important that we had a dialogue and it reinforced why I was there, why we as anthropologists need to be out there.

Point two: Anti-evolution, anti-science voices are not new but they sure are loud and commanding a lot of attention and media and space right now. So we need to be on the front lines of the resistance.

Intertextual Politics in the Trump Era

I have to admit I’ve been feeling a bit shell-shocked as I’ve watched the inauguration of President Donald Trump from across the border. It still seems surreal, and unfair, and like something, anything, has to make it go away. But it’s real, and we continue to wait to see what it will mean.

That includes watching to see what it means for politics in Canada. While we have a different set of cultural expectations, a different political system, and a different team of players, it would be a mistake to assume that it would be impossible for a similar wave of white resentment, regionalized economic anxiety, misogyny against female politicians, and validation of outright lies to take over this country as well. In our parliamentary system, a leadership race happens when it is needed because the previous leader has stepped down, not according to a set electoral clock (Ed: Thank Cthulhu, because I feel like I can’t remember a time when the Americans have not been absorbed in this neverending series of primaries and elections). As coincidences would have it, the Conservative parties of both the country and my province (Alberta) are in the midst of leadership races. Watching the campaigns and the discourses around them, the influence of Trump’s victory, and his tactics, is undeniable, and the use of intertextual references makes the whole thing rather chilling to me.

Let me take an aside to define the term and illustrate what I think is its most powerful manifestation in this political context. Intertextuality basically refers to the way that we use elements of other texts in order to root the meaning of what we are saying in relation to those previous texts. So beginning a speech with “I have a dream”, regardless of what you say next, will always result in having it judged in relation to Martin Luther King’s famous words. During the Trump campaign, and since his victory, the most gutting intertextual reference, for me, has been to his now-infamous “Grab them by pussy” recorded comments. Immediately afterwards, women responded to this by invoking its vulgarity in a message of empowerment. T-shirts and posters appeared saying that on November 8, “Pussy grabs back”. But when he won, his words took on even more power than they had before – women attending protest marches after the election, or women whose bumper stickers revealed them as Clinton supporters, were approached by groups of men using Trump’s very words. The threat of sexual assault – always horrible – became something even deeper as a result of the specific word choice that linked it to the behaviour and implicit sanction of the man who is now running the entire country. Trump’s ongoing aggressive refusal to display even a minimal amount of grace and political decorum is echoed by his supporters’ creation of t-shirts that indicate they intend to violently dominate, rather than governing, the country. On the other hand, the incredible turnout on Saturday for the Women’s March opposing Trump and the violent misogyny he stands 16245029_10154686273846293_614535326_ofor and enables took this intertextual point to the next level with the widespread wearing of homemade “pussy hats” (witness the one worn by my esteemed colleague Biittner in the photo, which also includes an *additional* point of intertextual awesomeness in which General Leia Organa has become an inspiring face of this real-life resistance now that her portrayer, the inimitably fierce Carrie Fisher, has passed). While I think the criticism that the women’s march movement needs to find ways to ensure they are trans-inclusive (ie not every woman has the body part represented here), the potency of the multimodal (knit hats being used to bring words to more tangible metaphorical form) intertextual forms make me loathe to give them up completely.

This goes to show how a phrase can first come to mean something much bigger than it did when it was originally said, and how that expansion in meaning plays out in intertextual forms. So what are we seeing creeping across the border to Canadian politics? The one phrase that struck me the most was the chant “Lock Her Up” being applied to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley by a group of people who oppose the recently implemented carbon tax. The significance of that particular expression in that new context is that it only could have been used because it was one adopted by Trump’s supporters in their opposition to Hillary Clinton. While I think the threat to imprison one’s political opponents on, at best, spurious accusations of criminal wrongdoing is among the things that makes this president utterly terrifying, at least they made an accusation of criminal action. Since Notley hasn’t been accused of anything, the only source of meaning for those chanting “Lock Her Up” is its intertextual referent. The implication is less that she’s criminal (no one even said she was), but that she’s a left-ish female politician who needed to be put in her place. Earlier, a supporter of Jason Kenney’s campaign to lead Alberta’s conservatives made a red hat with white capital letter text that said make Alberta debt-free again“. On the website for the Fox-News-but-less-professional news organization Rebel Media, you can buy similarly styled hats that say “Make Canada Great Again”, and the phrase was used in a November 10 headline on the website of the Council of European Canadians (neither of these sites are ones I’m willing to link to), as well as in white supremacist poster campaigns.

I don’t mean to pretend that the use of these slogans necessarily indicates that Canadian politicians are going to adopt policies or practices that are in any way similar to Trump’s. But these phrasings show that, for at least some proportion of Canadian conservatives, invoking the image of Trump, even at his most vile, is a good thing. That’s what those forms of intertextuality are getting at, and for those of us who are on heightened alert of how to prevent a similar political disaster from taking hold in Canada, they’re worth paying attention to.

This past week, we had the announcement of an outspoken, proudly “politically incorrect” businessman-cum-reality-tv-personality entering into the leadership race for the federal Conservative party. While I’ve yet to come across any explicit intertextuality in O’Leary’s campaign, I’ll definitely be on the lookout for it. In the meantime, there’s another set of points to analyze about the discourse patterns these two men share, and how they are seen by their supporters and by their opponents.

It’s been a long week, and its meaning is reverberating. It will for a long time.


Why I Am Not Writing About the New Dates for Bluefish Caves


A drop, then a trickle, then a raging storm. That’s how I’d describe the way the news of new dates from Bluefish Caves broke on my social media feeds. First, a single post on facebook by one archaeologist asking another what they thought of the new dates. Less than a week later and my twitter feed was all “new dates!!! #bluefish #archaeology”. So if there is already so much said and being said about the dates, why would I possibly add my voice? I’m no dating expert, no specialist on the peopling of the Americas. Well, as those on facebook say “It’s complicated”. I hesitated to write this post for several reasons but I realized that those reasons are why I should write this post. So here it goes.

I am not going to actually comment on the site nor the new dates (Ed.: I’m seeing an early trend here KB in how you structure your posts…). I’d drafted a whole post on problems with dating techniques in my head but luckily did not waste time putting fingers to keyboard. Instead what I’d like to comment on is the problem with focusing on dating sites, particularly on dating sites associated with the extremely problematic and political question of the peopling of the Americas.

We must stop focusing on the question of when the first people arrived in the Americas. I get the initial appeal. If all of our current data tells us that modern humans (Homo sapiens) had a single evolutionary origin in Africa, then figuring out when and how they expanded to other parts of the world is a logical line of questioning to pursue. But problems begin with focusing on the when – the quest for the earliest possible date obtained through a valid, objective, tested, absolute technique on a contextually secure sample. This is so hard to do; it is very difficult to get “good dates” never mind interpret them as such. I’m not saying getting absolute dates for sites is not useful nor valid, nor am I saying that we should not be critical of dates. What I am challenging is why are we so focused on those dates?

This is the first point I’m trying to make: We focus so much on the dates that we fail to think about what they mean.

Here is the second point I’m going to trying to make and to connect with my first point: By focusing on the earliest dates for the peopling of the Americas we are constructing and reinforcing settler colonial narratives.

Very simply, perhaps unfairly so, archaeologists need dates because they help us interpret the site. The problems lie in the questions that drive the research and the implications of those interpretations.  There are actual social, cultural, political, and economic consequences for living human beings when we (archaeologists with privilege of degrees, of scientific authority etc.) make statements about the past. We make these statements that are supported by the best science and scientific brains have to offer. Our culture privileges science (I LOVE SCIENCE BTW!) but often does so at the cost of other forms of knowledge, other ways of knowing. This is not a revolutionary idea; anthropologists have been talking about this for a while now and will continue to do so especially as some of us attempt to decolonize anthropology.

When we start arguing about when the first people arrived in the Americas, when we focus on giving an exact date for when that occurred, we silence any other voices including those which say “but our people already know this, we’ve always been here”.

Why isn’t “we’ve always been here” good enough?

First because our colonial heritage tells us that “always” is not an acceptable unit of time. It is not an “actual” date. The colonial roots of our discipline argues that absolute dates are always preferable to relative dates. Yet we then turn around and debate about good versus bad dates.

Second because our colonial legal system recognizes the dates generated by scientists when looking at land claims. These dates are often used by both parties in the claim – by our indigenous peoples who can now give an “actual” date for the earliest use of land they’ve “always” called their own, and on the other side by those who state that a few hundred, a few thousand years is not enough time to count as “always used this land”.

Third because I feel like we are a society and a discipline focused on creating history. We may recognize and love myth but we no longer accept myth or other forms of folklore as “fact”, which a) is ironic considering the popularity of such shows firmly and explicitly grounded in folklore like Grimm or True Blood, and b) is problematic because facts, like hobbitses, are tricksy.

Increasingly I find myself turning to my fandom when thinking about dating and peopling, which was itself heavily influenced by myth. The stories I tell about my sites are simply that – stories – and they took place “a long, long time ago”.

And that’s the clever quip where this post should end but it doesn’t #sorrynotsorry.

I get to be sarcastic and, frankly, ridiculous on this site and, sometimes, in my classroom. I get to be casual about the narratives I create. I’m the one with privilege. I’m the archaeologist; I have a PhD and an academic position at a respected institution ffs. I know that if I am challenged on my stories I can back them up with the dates and the data (the facts!!!) that my society (or at least my colleagues) will accept even if they don’t like my particular interpretations.

Our indigenous people don’t have that privilege. Their facts, their stories, are discarded. Stories ARE fact! This means that the real damage that is being done by the focus on dating the peopling of the Americas is the denial of story as fact.”You’ve always been here? Prove it!”. This also denies that the processes and structures of colonialism have erased and eradicated these stories, these facts, and then requires indigenous people to look to another colonial structure (archaeology) to “reclaim their past”.

This means we need to rethink archaeology.




The Authoritative Voice in the Pronoun Debate


I have often said that it can be frustrating to be an expert in language, because our expertise often goes unrecognized. Language (like culture, or society, or education) is something that is a significant part of everyone’s life, and, it seems, it is therefore something that most everyone feels qualified to speak on. This is especially true among the extremely well educated circles of academia. I often find myself trying to unpack the assumptions held by colleagues in other disciplines in a way that I suspect nuclear physicists never have to do, for example.

It’s hard to imagine a more obvious illustration of this frustration than the continuing saga of University of Toronto psychology professor Dr. Jordan Peterson and his crusade against gender neutral pronouns. If you are unfamiliar with the story (ed: If you are, can I come live where you are?), here are a couple of articles from last fall that outline how this became a story in the first place, and here is a recent piece of commentary that outlines what’s happened to Peterson since he first became an international news figure. For a really thorough set of posts on this issue, the Medium site Trans Talk by sociocultural linguist Lal Zimman, who is an expert in language and trans identities, is definitely the place to go.

To be honest, I don’t really want to talk about Jordan Peterson, because he clearly thrives on this negative attention, but he has come back into the news in the last few weeks for a couple of reasons – first, a variety of news outlets praised him as one of the most interesting people of 2016, reveling in what they called his brilliant and brave takedown of the political correctness machine. Second, he is teaching classes for the first time since he declared his refusal to respect students’ requests to be referred to by pronouns of their own choosing, so the possibility that complaints will be lodged has become more likely. And just as with the original rounds of media coverage in the fall, I find a series of familiar patterns in the way the news media reports on Peterson’s claims – while there is generally some effort to critique or present alternative perspectives to his views on gender as an inherently binary concept, his comments about language and how it works are rarely interrogated. As I have looked through media commentary about Peterson, I have not found a single example of a story that references an expert on language, or a public debate at which a linguist or linguistic anthropologist has been invited to offer rebuttals about this aspect of Peterson’s claims. This is not to say that I think the people invited to respond to Peterson, including scholars of gender and scholars who are themselves gender nonconforming, are unqualified or inappropriate. There are, however, dozens, if not hundreds, of experts in language and gender including several located in Toronto, who could provide some very important insights that are, as far as I can tell, absent from most of this discussion.

As a result of this omission, some key elements of Peterson’s argument, and the arguments made by those who support him, are left to side discussions on linguistic blogs (ed: so we’re not really helping, then) or social media. For example

  • Peterson specifically decries pronouns like xe or sie because they are ‘invented’, which erases the fact that language is made entirely of items that were at some point invented and that have been conventionalized.
  • Peterson also suggests that moving toward this form of language, instead of using Standard English, is wrong because it is allowing language to be defined by a small set of ideologically-motivated actors. The problem with this position is that counts as “Standard English”, however, has been defined by a small set of ideologically-motivated actors.
  • Peterson says that because male and female are “by definition” binary terms, there can’t be any position in between them. This short thought works as a two for one of confused points. First, he suggests that “by definition” is something that can be pinned down and reified outside of the social agreement about definitions, which change all the time. Second, he misunderstands the idea of linguistic binaries as rendering “in between” states impossible – light/dark, black/white, and good/bad are all binary oppositions, and those binaries work in specific (and kind of fascinating) social ways, but we are also able to imagine “shades of grey” in relation to them.
  • Peterson is apparently willing to use pronouns like ‘they’ upon request, or he claims that he was as he was “not intending to be rude” when he referred to his debate opponent using ‘she’ instead of their preferred ‘they’. He interprets the crowd’s hushed response to this misstep as an example of “power mad leftists” exploiting politeness impulses by trying to reconstitute simple errors as discrimination or violence. But this completely removes his own word choice from the context in which it occurred – he had started an international debate about pronoun use, he had been invited to engage in this debate because of his vociferous objection to the principle, and he was well aware that the people who had been invited to counter his positions were chosen, in part, as a result of their gender identities. To disingenuously detach his own speech from the social context, to suddenly claim that a gendered pronoun choice was an innocent mistaken when he had created this brouhaha in order to defend his “right” to say them, and to ask that his audience interpret his pronoun choices without any reference to directly related positions on their meaning and power…that’s something.

These positions are rooted in Peterson’s personal ideological positions about how language works, and, as each of them shows, they rely upon the erasure of specific types of information that would expose the fragile basis of his understanding. Peterson roots his authority about language in one basic point – he has studied the psychological impact of totalitarianism, which includes widespread linguistic control, and he believes that any hint of linguistic control is therefore diagnostic of totalitarianism. That there are an infinite number of subtle and not-so-subtle differences between absolute censorship of disagreement and terminological planning and being asked, even with the possibility of some form of sanction, to respect what people ask you to call them in a setting in which they receive access to a vital social service (like education), does not seem to register within his expertise.

Whenever these kinds of debates emerge about the nature of language, the trajectory of language change, and the relationship between language and social beliefs, it’s vital to examine what forms of authority are marshalled in defense of each position, and what forms of authority or knowledge are erased and rendered irrelevant. I think Peterson’s positions on gender, power, and culture are abhorrent, but they are far from rare. What I think is even more frightening is that journalists and the general public have no problem tacitly promoting his views on language by failing to call them into question or to interrogate the nature of the authority he claims about it.

Every semester, on the first day of class, I pass out an index card and ask students to write down four things – their name as it appears on the university’s registration list, the name they actually want me to call them (with pronunciation guide if it might help), their preferred pronoun, and a picture or description that might help me remember them. I consider this to be a basic act of respect, and it sets a tone, especially in linguistic anthropology classes, that situates the language we use in a context of understanding dynamics of social relationships and power. Eventually, this becomes a direct topic of conversation, and we engage in a discussion of how the recent spike in awareness about non-binary gender identities has created a need for linguistic adaptation. I talk about how “singular they” was the American Dialect Society’s word of the year in 2015, and what that implies about both language and social change. And since this is later in the term, when we’ve had a chance to get to know each other an establish terms of respect within the classroom, a few students usually share some nuanced reflections on the implications of binary gender in both language and society. It’s a rich conversation, and an excellent, concrete learning opportunity for many people, myself included.

Peterson has received a great deal of both moral and material support for his position, while transgender students at his university receive death threats and violent opposition to their very existence. The one thing that Peterson is right about is that these pronoun choices matter a great deal, and using them is a very powerful act. It is deeply unfortunate that neither he, nor the media, seem to be willing to engage with linguistic experts about how this power works, because a lot could change if they could really hear this.


The Lost


I broke my left clavicle (“collar bone”) when I was 12. It is probably the worst bone to break (we can fight about this in the comments) because you don’t get a cast, you just get a sling. This is incredibly frustrating as no one signs a sling (Ed: It’s just not a thing so stop trying to make it one 12 year old Katie). I can feel a slight bump where the break was to this day when I run my fingers along my collar bone and most of my students know of this injury.

Why would my students know? Because  when talking about the cultural construction of race, sex, and gender, and the use of race as a category of convenience, I use myself as an example. I give them a scenario wherein I go missing immediately after teaching class that day and they are the last ones to see me. As such they are now tasked by law enforcement to describe my physical appearance – from my hair, skin, and eye colour to my age to permanent and non-permanent modifications such as my tattoos and the clothing I was wearing. I note how those listed characteristics may be useful in tracking me down if I’m alive, but how each are not that useful taken on their own or even in collectively. It is safe to suggest there are quite a few middle aged, short, white females, with dark hair and eyes and tattoos running around in western Canada. Further if all that turns up of me is my skeletal remains, they’d need much more specific and unique information about me to confirm my identity. So my broken left collar bone, my chipped and repaired front central incisor, and the dent in my forehead caused by a run in with a coffee table at the age of three, along with information about my age, sex, and height are all useful clues in establishing that yes indeed those skeletal remains belong to one K. Biittner.

Most students chuckle at this scenario or at least play along but that’s when I then hit them with the anthropology. I have fun in the classroom but it’s important to take our discipline, our role, and what we can do for the missing, the disappeared, and the unidentified (who I will collectively refer to as “the Lost” here) seriously. Now this post is not about methods or techniques in biological anthropology, archaeology, nor forensic anthropology, though admittedly that’s kind of where it began. Instead of talking about HOW we identify the lost, I wanted to talk about WHY.

Because we can. Because we must.

Anthropologists have a unique and particular set of skills. We know how to carefully recover and document remains and their context. We can analyse human skeletal remains to help establish a person’s identity and do so within a broader context of understanding of human skeletal variation. We importantly use cultural relativism to understand how individuals become one of the lost – warfare, suicide, marginalization, racism, sexism, etc. We also use cultural relativism to direct how we handle those remains, and how we discuss the lost with law enforcement, representatives from other government and non-governmental agencies, community members, and families. In some cases it is not appropriate to mention the lost by name, in others it is dangerous to speak of the lost at all.

For example, anthropologists are currently working to find out the identities of undocumented immigrants whose remains have been recovered in various conditions and contexts within a state park in Texas. Identifying these individuals is important to the families of the lost. However, there’s a lot of subtext in this project that the article touches on I’m sure the anthropologists are aware of and interested in examining further. Yes, there is the practice of illegally disposing of human remains but what is motivating it? Discrimination against undocumented immigrants is not exclusive to the living. Without documentation it can be extremely difficult and risky/dangerous to even try to legally deal with the remains of a deceased loved one. It is costly to bury or to cremate our dead, which adds to the pressure to find other methods of disposal. But not being able to bury your dead because of financial or legal consequences also has its emotional and cultural cost. Funerary rites are so important. They represent the final rite of passage. Not being able to send off your family member in a culturally significant and meaningful sort of way is hard emotionally and spiritually. This serves to further disenfranchise and marginalize the deceased individual’s kin. In this way the living are pushed closer to becoming one of the lost too.

So if I were to join the lost,  I hope it is a colleague, a fellow anthropologist who is charged with handling my remains with their once-broken left clavicle and repaired front tooth. I know they’ll not only tirelessly work to find out who I am and who I was, but also to explain, to challenge, and to resolve the larger cultural values and processes that resulted in anyone becoming one of the lost.



They Who Shall Not Be Named: Taboos, In-Laws, and the Maintenance of Cultural Order

Cultures around the world use language in richly varied ways to form and define social relationships, hierarchies, and maintain a sense of order. One example of a linguistic practice that seems incredibly challenging and opaque to many Western folks is popularly referred to as “mother-in-law” speech. Bryant Rousseau recently gave a pretty decent overview of what this means in the NY Times, in an article called “Talking to In-Laws Can Be Hard. In Some Languages, It’s Impossible“.

As the article quickly illustrates, it’s less interesting to note that there are specific cultural restrictions on how, or even whether, you are allowed to speak to your spouse’s parents, and that where such restrictions exist they are often applied in gendered ways. What’s more interesting is the fairly widespread practice that extends this restriction to saying the names of in-laws, or even to names that sound like those names – possibly forbidding pronunciation of the same root, or the same opening syllable, or even the same first sounds (the article says “letters”, but that is, of course, an example of literacy-based thinking that doesn’t accurately describe what the author intends). Although the article uses the fear of in-laws as an amusing framing device, name taboos aren’t limited to the names of in-laws – they may even prohibit married women from using their own husbands’ names, or forbid the use of deceased people’s names, or insist that particularly powerful individuals should not be named (as the title of this post indicates, this idea has crept in to English speaking popular literature). To an extent, we can even see this avoidance in our own Anglo North American systems for encoding respect – we restrict the use of first names, for example, and ask that honorifics (Mr. Somethingorother, Dr. Soandso) be used as a substitution.

With any situation of taboo words, there are strategies people use to communicate their meanings that don’t require them to break restrictions. Sometimes this involves simple substitutions, sometimes it involves borrowing from neighbouring languages – it always involves creative practices that allow the speaker to say what they mean without violating norms.

Rousseau’s article does a good job describing the range of such practices in different contexts, but to my mind gives short shrift to the most interesting element of all – why do these practices exist? In other words, what’s the social function of name taboos, and what is being accomplished with the acts of avoidance and substitution that affected speakers use? By focusing only on in-laws, he emphasizes the relationship between these taboos and the expression of respectful deference, but shame and social consequences aren’t the only possible reasons for avoidance. Think again of He Who Shall Not Be Named – in the wizarding world, naming that person is an act that risks giving him power in a literal sense, helping him to be reconstituted into a physical form. These kinds of magical consequences and invocations may also be among the reasons for avoiding certain names.

While certainly oversimplifying, the idea that names carry exceptional power is a robust enough cross cultural pattern that we can make a few generalizations about why it happens and what it tells us about language. First, we use avoidance to define specific relationships, and because personal names refer to specific individuals, this category of word is especially ripe for exploitation in this regard. Second, there is a relatively common pattern that sees power expressed through the use of the particular sounds, not in relation to the meaning those sounds refer to. This is why you see items that are phonetically associated with the taboo names also restricted, but not, generally speaking, semantically associated ones (and in fact, it’s those semantic and descriptive connections that speakers draw on for substitutions). Even though “He Who Shall Not Be Named” has come, in the Potterverse, to function as a referent to one particular individual, and thus indicate the exact same meaning, Harry still shocks everyone by defiantly choosing to utter the synonymous sounds Voldemort. Finally, the practice of taboo avoidance works to performatively create, reinforce, and structure the meaning and nature of power in multiple senses of the word, including social hierarchy, spiritual distance, and, well, magic.

Language is central to the maintenance of order in given cultural worlds, including both appropriate expectations for behaviour in certain relationships and deeply-rooted spiritual meanings connected to the boundary between life and death, the protection of health and well-being, and the bringing into being of desired effects (or the avoidance of undesired ones). It’s not just about your in-laws – not being named can be an enormous form of power.

(For those with academic access, several examples and some of the analysis used here come from the following article: Fleming, L. (2011) “Name Taboos and Rigid Performativity” Anthropological Quarterly 84 (1):141-164



On Curses


What is more fitting for Friday the 13th than a post on archaeological sites and curses? NOTHING I SAY!

I’m inspired by this post, which describes the horrible experiences of the archaeologists who “discovered” the cursed City of the Monkey God in Honduras. Without rehashing the article here, that the experiences of these archaeologists was deemed worthy of a news story is likely because of one simple truth: 1) archaeology is sexy af.

But seriously, popular culture loves the idea of the brave (usually white, usually male – another post!) archaeologist who finds a lost city/tomb/temple. Of course this mysterious yet incredibly valuable site was left untouched through the ages by indigenous populations because of tales of curses and traps associated with it (Ed: how can something be “lost” if local people are aware of it? KB: Yeah that’s absolutely another post!). Many of us end up in archaeology because of these popular depictions…

A brief example: The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb. The allegedly”early and unnatural” deaths of Lord Carnarvon and several other people associated with the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb have been attributed to the “Pharoah’s Curse”. While few Egyptian dynastic period tombs have been found inscribed with curses, no such curse-related inscription was ever found in Tut’s tomb. Many of the deaths were of older individuals  with tenuous connections to the project, who never went near the tomb. But google”Curse of King Tut’s Tomb” and you’ll get over 269,000 results including links and references to dozens of films, comics, and books. Clearly we love this story.

To be fair, most explanations of the “curse” do not focus on nor attribute deaths of people associated with tombs or other archaeological sites and project to supernatural causes. It has been shown that ancient mummies, for example, do indeed carry mould, such as the genus Apergillus, that can be deadly. But the connection between the illnesses or other misadventures of the archaeologists is always made back to the curse if possible.

The reality is archaeological field work IS dangerous! Every archaeologist has their stories. At my very first field school, on a Friday the 13th (no lie!) I climbed down into my excavation unit (2 m below datum) and found a dead mouse and a black widow spider. Ominous signs indeed! I once lost twenty pounds in just three weeks as a 19 year old consulting archaeologist thanks to illness caused by giardia (don’t drink unfiltered, untreated water kids! This is NOT a recommended weight loss plan). In Tanzania, I was stung by a large black wasp three times in thigh after it crawled up my pants; I was in a moving vehicle at the time so once I driver stopped I hopped out and dropped my pants in the middle of town to free the wasp. While my thigh and dignity were hurt, I was relatively unharmed by the vicious attack but still carry a reminder of it – the three spots where it stung me still “raise” up every time I have an allergic reaction to something. So infections, illnesses, diseases, and animals (don’t get me started on bears, and moose, and earwigs…) do pose serious threats to our health and safety when working in the field.

We are also put at risk by the places we work in and the very things we do. We dig. Trenches can collapse. We utilize dangerous vehicles (quads, trucks, helicopters) to get to areas that can be far from medical care or intervention. Archaeologists actually have so much to worry about do we really need to add “curses” to the list?

Well maybe.

As an anthropologist, I understand the value of curses. Curses can be used to explain misfortune, to threaten individuals, to prevent and/or to justify certain behaviours or actions, or to exercise power, particularly when one feels powerless. Curses are powerful whether you believe in them or not. For example, you don’t have to believe that Friday the 13th is a day of misfortune, but if a series of unfortunate events (*wink wink*) were to befall you on this very day, you may be more inclined to chalk it up to the date than just a typical bad day. This illustrates that it is not just that curses make for a sensational story (about a project that is already pretty darn interesting imo) but that curses are important and valued in many societies.

May your Friday the 13th be curse free.