Anthropologists are becoming the new academic version of libel lawyers. They like to keep an eye on the public discourse for any comment on primitive peoples that sounds negative. Then the writs start flying.
Recent writs have targeted:
- Jared Diamond’s new book (it generally praises pre-state peoples, but also says they are relatively prone to violence): denounced as dangerous;
- Napoleon Chagnon: allegedly harmed the Yanomomo by describing them as “fierce people”;
- a pair of economists who inquired whether there is a link between human genetic diversity and comparative economic development: deemed malicious and alleged to have “the potential to cause serious harm … their thesis could be interpreted to suggest that increasing or decreasing a nation’s genetic (or ethnic) diversity would promote prosperity.”
Like libel lawyers, their allegations of defamation are often dubious. They see malice where none exists. But the effect, where libel laws are harsh, is a chill or censorship on free speech and fair comment.
Anthropologists should remember the basic principle: the truth is no libel.