Morality and Discourse in Serbia


Keith Doubt on Eric Gordy's Guilt, Responsibility, and Denial: The Past at Stake in Post-Milošević Serbia, in Berfrois (Belgrade, Serbia. Photograph by Jamie Silva):

The intellectual integrity of cultural anthropology is based largely on its commitment to cultural relativism as a principled notion. Cultural relativism is the principle from which the discipline achieves its sense of empirical objectivity. Cultural differences are cherished as just that, cultural differences. No difference is stipulated as superior or inferior, better or worse. The commitment guards against ethnocentric judgments, colonizing prejudices, and, worst of all, grand theorizing with metaphysical pretense. This ethos in the discipline of cultural anthropology guides the recent book by Eric Gordy titled, Guilt, Responsibility, and Denial: The Past at Stake in Post-Milošević Serbia.

While cultural initiatives rarely investigate and never sentence, they offer some of the keys to understanding that have been missing from political legal projects: the ability to hear and identify with the lived experiences of individuals, a route to engagement that participants in the public can understand, and openness to interpretation that constitutes an invitation to dialogue. (p. 179)

There is a contrasting notion in the social sciences to the principle of cultural relativism, namely, the assumption that social science has a valid knowledge-base and ethical responsibility from which to demonstrate how some societies are healthier than others and how some social structures are better for community life. Social science depicts certain normative orientations and collective sentiments as more functional for the vitality of human life and sociability. For example, human rights scholars assume that a genuine respect for the principle of human rights is good: good for people in society, good for their communities, and good for their governments. Gordy understands this perspective but recognizes its unintended consequences, given his political knowledge of what Max Weber calls the ethical irrationality of the world in his famous lecture, “Politics as a Vocation.” In politics, it is necessary to employ force in realizing one’s values. When, however, force is employed, no matter how good the intentions behind the use of force, bad results follow or evil consequences occur. Weber calls this the ethical irrationality of the world which is the reason for the sense of disenchantment that characterizes the spirit of the modern world. In politics, actions whose motives are seemingly good can lead to bad results. The reverse is also true; actions whose motives are seemingly bad can lead to good results. Weber calls this the paradox of consequences, an ever-repeating empirical and historical pattern, and Gordy understands this matter well. There is a hubris that informs the forceful use of law and legal process at both the national and the international level, and Gordy wants to debunk this hubris that guides international interventions in societies experiencing conflict and social violence.

To introduce the structure of his book, Gordy writes, “the ordering of the chapters is meant to lead readers through the logic that brought the study from apparently clear and relatively simple moral questions to greater complexity and uncertainty, and to an insistence on the importance of the cultural and social context” (p. xv). After relatively simple moral questions implode upon themselves when confronted with empirical scrutiny and historical accounts, the significance of cultural variables within their own milieu and within their own historical context assume their rightful place.

More here.