Wednesday 18 February 2009

False dichotomy: you're either with us or against us

That phrase "you're either with us or against us", epitomised by a version in Bush’s speech against terrorism in 2001 but used throughout history, has always seemed to me to have overtones of the playground bully’s "you’re either part of my gang or you’re the enemy" mentality. It makes good rhetoric but its basic fallacy is soon revealed under close analysis. In reality there is nearly always a middle ground.

An example of a false dilemma has arisen in the world of antiquities and there is a danger of getting caught between the extremists.

On one side there are those extremists – typified by a few coin dealers – who advocate thoughtless collecting, demand that there must be no limit to a massive supply of fresh finds, even if it means ignoring or changing the law, pretend that their type of object has little to do with archaeology, downplay the importance of context, argue that ethics are irrelevant, and even take the heady stance that any restriction, no matter how sensible, is an attack on human rights.

On the other side are those extremists – typified by a few narrow academics – who seem to think that no object should be outside the country where it was found no matter how long it has been there, deem every undocumented object as ‘looted’ and insist that every artefact must have documentation for the past forty years regardless of circumstances, or think no artefact should be in private hands and would ban collecting altogether, in some cases even giving the impression that they would prefer to destroy objects rather than letting them fall into the hands of the great unwashed.

It is human nature that it will always be the extreme views that grab headlines; majority views are not sensational. But there is a real danger that even rational people get carried away by the propaganda and falsely see only two polarised camps; they may feel that they can belong only to one or the other. You're either with us or against us.

Are there really only two options? Ignore the propaganda, stand up to the playground bully tactics for a moment, and a whole new perspective emerges. In fact there is an enormous middle ground, the one that doesn’t grab headlines.

A favourite tactic of the camp defending the status quo in collecting is to portray those who question them as "radical archaeologists". The emotive word ‘radical’ implies extreme or fundamental change. In fact, the only real change that most of those concerned about protecting a fragile archaeological resource are asking for is that those who wish to collect artefacts do so more thoughtfully and responsibly than they did in the past.

Is it really only archaeologists who want that change? Thoughtless collecting can easily lead to rampant destruction of the archaeological record. The archaeological record is the source of much of our knowledge of history. Are archaeologists the only people who care about history? That seems a bit dismissive of the intellectual capacity of the rest of us.

A hackneyed tactic of those who would be happy to ban collecting altogether is to portray all collectors as shallow and selfish individuals who are interested only in possessing pretty art objects to put on their mantelpiece, as fiends who will stop at nothing to acquire them. It conjures up an ugly picture but in reality a great many collectors are highly intelligent and kindhearted people with a deep passion for history and for the objects they own, and an altruistic desire to share that passion, often at considerable personal expense. Their genuine knowledge of the past frequently exceeds that of those who criticise them.

Middle ground
Such propagandist tactics can all too easily sway opinion. But neither of those two extreme camps represent or acknowledge the middle ground: the thousands of people, including many academics (and several archaeologists), who enjoy owning a few artefacts but do so responsibly because they also care about protecting the archaeological record.

Despite what the two polarised camps would like us to believe, it is not a question of Collectors vs. Academics. There are plenty of people who are both. It is a question of Extremists vs. Extremists – plus a rather large middle ground. The views of the middle ground are unextreme – so not very exciting or sensational – but perhaps it is time to publicise those views a bit more.


Cultural Property Observer said...

Your blog is interesting, but I think you are being a bit naive. I can say quite forthrightly that collectors and dealers groups have attempted to reach out to the main archaeological groups to discuss the issues, but without any success or even much interest. Unfortunately, the AIA, the main archaeological group in the US, demands provenance information back to 1970. You don't have it and you are said to encourage looting. The current AIA administration is quite a bit more polite than its predecessor, but the message has not changed. The AAMD was basically bullied into accepting the 1970 date and I see no move to suggest anything otherwise for private collectors. One of the truly sad things is that archaeologists that do want to continue good relations with collectors and reach some accomodation have been intimidated from pursing the issue openly. A number of archaeologists I know refer to their bretheren as "radicals" themselves. You may not agree with some or all of the positions of groups like the ACCG, but the ACCG and coin dealers have no power to blackball collectors who disagree. "Hardline" archaeologists do. The prospect of having one's excavation license pulled by a source country based on complaints that an archaeologist is "soft on looting" by being "soft on collecting" has been enough to keep the silent majority in the archaeological community silent indeed about reaching an accomodation with collectors.

Tarquin said...

Excellent blog! There is clearly some ignorance and suspicion on both "sides". Perhaps progress is hindered by an inability to articulate an appropriate goal.

Possible Goal #1 – A common understanding between archaeologists, dealers and collectors

Nice idea, but it's not exactly clear what I as an individual should be doing to promote this. Also, it's very easy to throw one's hands up and blame the intransigence of others for any lack of progress.

Possible Goal #2 – A reduction in the amount of looting

At least this makes it pretty obvious what a collector such as myself can do to help. I can keep my money in my pocket unless I have good evidence that the piece I'm looking at hasn't been recently looted. I can buy from those who are similarly careful, and try to pass on this ethos when I dispose of anything.

I prefer Goal #2 because it directly addresses the big issue and I can do something concrete (though small) to help achieve it. Oh! I've just noticed that this is probably also my best contribution towards Goal #1!

David Knell said...

My reply to the first comment is posted here:



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