Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Truth and Rumors

I promised months ago that I would review Julien Bonhomme's Les voleurs de sexe: Anthropologie d'une rumeur Africaine (Paris: Seuil, 2009). Now, on the eve of departure for Bangui, I must write at least a few quick words or else postpone months more, as I'm trying to minimize the number of books I lug around with me.

Bonhomme argues that the penis-snatching phenomenon can explain “forms of sociability and modes of communication” in African urban areas. It is a response to the dislocation and uncertainty wrought by moving from a village-based social structure, in which roles and relationships are at least partly determined by family and lineage, to an urban one, in which few have these networks of trust and support. On p. 89, Bonhomme has created a chart to compare penis-snatching to “traditional” witchcraft, of the E.E. Evans-Pritchard variety. Whereas the earlier forms of witchcraft took place at night, within the family, and at home, penis-snatching occurs in the daytime, between strangers, and in public space. Where news of witchcraft in the village travels through gossip, in the cities news of penis-snatching travels through rumors. (Bonhomme is careful to dissociate his argument from negative connotations that the rumor has had throughout Western scholarship – notably in Durkheim – in which rumors have been portrayed as a kind of social cancer.) In other words, penis-snatching is a way of understanding the world that draws from the various stressors of life in the city

Bonhomme's argument is a compelling and useful one, except that penis-snatching is not at all limited to urban areas, as he suggests. After all, it happened in Tiringoulou, which barely even has a market and could hardly be characterized as urban. This oversight is probably due to the bias introduced by his sample: he draws on his own experience and interviews in urban Gabon as well as newspaper accounts from all over West and Central Africa, which report almost exclusively on urban areas. (I should not that the book also benefits from an impressive mastery of both the English and French literatures on occult phenomena.) Moreover, though this point goes somewhat beyond the scope of his book, it bears mentioning that though he sees villages as running on gossip, in fact they, too, are saturated with rumors. A social life organized through rumor is not a new experience for recent city arrivals. And dislocation and uncertainty pervade both urban and rural spaces.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is Bonhomme's discussion of whether people “actually believe” that genitals are stolen in these encounters. He points out that part of how rumors circulate is because people are unsure, perhaps even doubting, of the veracity of an account, and they seek guidance by relating the story and observing their friend's reaction. In this way, the rumor spreads, even though its perpetuation is laced through with uncertainty. This is similar to the scene I described in It's Complicated, and I think it's a useful addition to the debates on witchcraft and belief, which have tended to assume a binary between belief and unbelief. Figuring out what is true is a social process, after all. In addition, people tend to assume that what they want to be true is true, whether or not this is actually the case. For instance, in the run-up to the 2000 election, an email circulated with a series of quotes attributed to George W. Bush, each one more stupid than the last. The email went viral, and I can imagine much tut-tutting over water coolers: “Can you believe this idiot wants to be president...?” None of these phrases issued from Bush's mouth, however; they all dated back to another notorious word-mangler, Dan Quayle. But few if any of those who sent on the email bothered to check. It seemed true because it correlated with what they wanted to be true. Similarly, think of the debates over Obama's religion, whether Nixon was a crook, or whether Christine O'Donnell is a witch. Repudiating the charges (“Obama is not a Muslim”; “Nixon is not a crook”; “O'Donnell is not a witch”...) simply entrenches belief on both sides of the issue. Hypothesis confirmation bias strikes us all, some more often than others.

This observation meanders away from strictly speaking about penis-snatching, but I wanted to mention it because of the initial reactions I tend to get when I tell people about the phenomenon. They usually follow a similar trajectory: “Huh?” → [head-shaking] → “But they don't really believe it, do they?” Part of the strength of Bonhomme's book is that he re-frames the issue around ambivalence. Rumors -- the (in)famous radio trottoir – enable ideas to circulate, but they may circulate more from a “better safe than sorry” mentality than anything else. The phenomenon's progress through the continent, and beyond, hides these variations in degree of certitude about what is happening. The more analytically-minded may regard a failure to always question and test one what one hears as stupidity, but that makes the tendency none the less widespread.

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