The CIA and anthropological linguistics

The LingAnth mailing list has been having a discussion of the increasing desirability of anthropology training in CIA recruits. The debate has been framed as the “militarization of anthropology” and discussants have brought up programs such as the PRISP scholars to show what a danger this is to the discipline.

There is another side to this, though, so let me play devil’s advocate. We could think of it as the anthropolization of intelligence gathering. The CIA is going to continue to exist whether or not the AAA approves of it. Wouldn’t it be better to have spies with a basic awareness of the relationship between language and culture, of the effects of extreme duress on the reliability of witness statements, of the importance of foreign language learning and of the world’s linguistic diversity?

This whole issue is a reminder that there are practical applications to the humanities and social sciences (apart from economics, whose practical applications we are already aware of), and that those applications have profound ethical consequences. Many academic disciplines produce results which have potentially both positive and negative consequences. Running away from these issues by saying that we don’t want anything to do with it is, in a word, irresponsible. After all, economists don’t seem to feel personally involved when someone applies game theory to, say, swindling an old age pensioner out of their savings.

Giving CIA agents a grounding in linguistic anthropology is a question separate from appropriating research for more efficient torturing, or, for that matter, of using academic linguistic anthropology as a cover for agents. The arguments on the linganth list seem to be confusing all three of these questions, but the answers aren’t always the same for each. For example, I oppose the use of ethnographic techniques in torture not because I do ethnography, but because I’m opposed to torture on principle. I’d still oppose it even if there was no use of anthropology in it. I oppose the use of academic fieldwork as a cover for agents because of the problems it causes other fieldworkers. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing, in general, for intelligence gatherers to be more culturally aware!

The argument of the AAA policy seems to be that the methods used for ethnography (such as actually, shock horror, learning about the culture you’re investigating)  might be misused in the wrong hands. I find this whole argument rather strange. If one opposes torture, it should be on the principle that causing suffering to others is bad and that it doesn’t produce accurate information. Torture isn’t more acceptable if it’s less informed by anthropology! Which is preferable? Dropping bombs on a university dormitory because of faulty intelligence or dropping bombs on an armaments depot because of good intelligence? (and note that not dropping a bomb was not an option in that particular hypothetical).

Finally, intelligence gathering as applied ethnography has a long history – perhaps longer than anthropology and linguistics as disciplines. An ability to extract information from others, to learn about other people and cultures and to use that information for different purposes is not owned by anthropology – it’s the basis of diplomacy and until recently of spying itself.

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9 responses to “The CIA and anthropological linguistics

  1. I read your post all the way through before following the links, and so I got entirely the wrong idea from reading:

    “I oppose the use of ethnographic techniques in torture”.

    Tell me your creation myths, or out come the hot pokers?

    More seriously, though, I share your bemusement at the arguments being made. Pushing the devil’s advocacy further, I could see making an argument that culturally-informed torture might be, in some ways, less damaging than the “ignorant” version. Given a choice between shoving the aforementioned pokers or clippings from dirty magazines in detainees’ faces, I think most people (or maybe just Americans and Commonwealth members?) would agree that the pictures are less harmful. On the other hand, this might open up a very undesirable argument about whether or not behaviors are considered torture on the grounds that we might consider them merely nuisances, and as you say, torture merits opposition in itself.

    I think to a certain extent, the petitioners are being willfully obtuse about the difference between interrogation and torture, though. The concern with misuse of anthropological knowledge is legitimate, but I didn’t see anything in there about trying to help with interrogations in ways that gain detainees’ trust, or otherwise trying to better existing procedures. I can understand taking the view that any association between anthropologists and the military, however well-intentioned, might create perceptions of endorsement among the groups being studied. But I can also see a counterclaim on the part on the part of governments that providing funding and a stable culture that supports research merits defense as well. I didn’t see anything in the links to suggest that these claims had been weighed against each other, which is unfortunate.

  2. I suspect that what really concerns Gonzalez is the fact that while traditionally anthropology is associated with the noble pursuit of understanding human beings and their relationship to the world, it is now being associated with nasty things like torture. This is hardly a more pressing concern than torture itself, but it is a legitimate concern nonetheless. I would be dismayed to read a university brochure encouraging students to sign up to Anthro 101 with the promise that they will learn how to culturally manipulate others for a military advantage. If government agencies want to train people to do that, good luck to them but don’t call it anthropology. To my mind AAA is justified in setting set some parameters to the discipline, whether through refusal of certain advertisements in their journal. passing academic resolutions or by other appropriate means. It won’t stop torture but it might save anthropology!

  3. I’m not a linguist, but this article talks about the problems rising from the American Psychological Association’s involvement with the US military:

    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2007/0701.levine.html

    If the time came when a significant proportion of the association’s members were working in CIA-type jobs, a real problem would arise affecting the association’s collective activities, or even the non-CIA activities of non-CIA lkinguists.

  4. I’ts anthtroslaps! Anthroslaps is the basis of diplomacy and until recently of spying itself.

  5. anthroslaps? Is that like pimpslaps?

  6. Sorry… was a bit ge-punch-dronken last nite… accidentally copied and pasted stuff that didn’t warrant same…

    I meant, this is a bitchslap to the anthro ling profession. (Anthroslap.) Is “pimpslap” Strine for “bitchslap”…? ;^)

    You do make a good point that (essentially) the agency of which we don’t speak could benefit from an infusion of more thoughtful individuals who could “make it a better place”. But the slap-in-the-face… imho, is that why for heaven’s sake is this what it takes for the profession to be noticed, let alone appreciated? Why can’t its _inherent appeal & utility be apparent to the greater community with or without any presumption that anthro ling has to “prove itself” by presenting “transferable skills” to be digested/used/exploited in “real world” (vomit inducing or not) settings?

    Why do we have to be satisfied w/ a situation where the general public’s brains keep getting more and more fried e.g. by xbox and anthro linguists end up being on the defensive – apologetic, actually – on behalf of the very existence of their line of work? i suppose the same is true w/ a lot of academic disciplines but it makes me sick nonetheless! (Tho is it really all that surprising when you see how my fellow u.s. citizens kept swallowing garbage re: certain things hook line and sinker until the point where they couldn’t but finally smell the vats of coffee that someone had to dump on their heads…?)

  7. I learnt “pimpslap” from one of my undergrad students when I was a grad at Harvard. It’s an interesting compound, since those Noun+Verb compounds usually have the object noun as the first member (like anthroslap), but pimpslap has the agent (i.e. “slap like a pimp”, not “slap a pimp”).

    The defensiveness isn’t even across even disciplines like linguistics. For example, it seems to be that in general functionalists are much more defensive about their right to be called serious linguists than formalists are, and ethnography has suffered pretty seriously over the last 30 years or so.

  8. I suspect the issue is that many anthropologists object to any new constitution of the discipline as a power/knowledge, i.e. a tool to generate knowledge where power needs it, quite unlike economics (and in particular game theory, a discourse that blossomed at RAND in direct service to the government with explicitly military concerns).

    We’ve mostly overcome the label ‘handmaiden of colonialism,’ and I guess there’s no rush to be the handmaiden of neo-imperialism, even if it means some questions are left unanswered or are answered poorly by non-specialists working for the government.

    If the CIA would like to benefit from anthropological knowledge, let them first benefit from anthropological ethics stipulating the need to advocate for mutual understanding and respect between different groups of people. If they’d sign on to that requirement, then great, maybe we could work with them. But I don’t see it happening.

  9. I have no problem with governments using diverse strategies to improve the quality of their intelligence but I agree with Tarasbulbasaur that intelligence agencies would benefit by ‘signing on’ to a set of ethics. In any field, ethics are not party-pooper rules that are designed to obstruct you from doing a good job. They are, in fact, a *necessary condition* of doing a good job. Any Professional Code or Values Statement will tell you the same thing, and I suspect it’s not new to the military either. A google search returns 113,000 hits for the term “military ethics”. Call me naive but how could an intelligence organisation be trusted to deliver quality intelligence without an understanding of what it means to make moral choices and to accept the practical and philosophical consequences of those choices?

    Anthropology is fundamentally a humanist discipline and is inseparable from humanism as a philosophy. Linguistics and mathematics are not humanist in essence but both have humanistic applications with ethical implications. In circumstances where knowledge is borrowed from different disciplines, these are distinctions that need to be considered .

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