But I Am Not To Blame: Witchcraft Among the Azande, Litigation Among the Americans

Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande, by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, is a classic of ethnographic literature, or so I have gathered. Although I have only read part of it as yet, I was struck by the way the Azande use witchcraft to explain misfortune, which distinctly parallels that honored American cultural institution, the lawsuit.

A disclaimer: I will be using the present tense, because that is how one talks about the contents of books, and Evans-Pritchard uses the present tense because ethnography, but he did his research in the 1920s. It is long outdated. However, as a description of ways in which human ideas and behaviors can coherently arrange themselves, I find it fascinating and still relevant today.
EDIT: Apparently they still do the thing actually! I find this more amusing than maybe I should. (Thanks to David Graeber for the correction.)

Necessary background knowledge: 1) What even is witchcraft? Basically a witch (who can be anyone, though usually men use it against other men and women use it against other women or their husbands) can psychically harm someone else, making them sick or otherwise messing things up. 2) How do the Azande use witchcraft socially in Evans-Pritchard’s account? Well, “witchcraft explains why events are harmful to man and not how they happen” (24). Evans-Pritchard describes two incidents attributed to witchcraft: a boy knocked his foot on a stump and got a cut, which became infected; and a man, while checking on his fermenting beer, accidentally lit the roof thatch on fire, burning down the hut. Evans-Pritchard points out that these are two perfectly prosaic accidents, which could have happened to anyone at any time. But it is that very fact which feeds into the explanation “witchcraft!” It could have happened to anyone, at any time, so why did it happen to those particular victims at that particular time?

What [the boy] attributed to witchcraft was that on this particular occasion, when exercising his usual care, he struck his foot against a stump of wood, whereas on a hundred other occasions he did not do so, and that on this particular occasion the cut, which he expected to result from the knock, festered whereas he had had dozens of cuts which had not festered. Surely these peculiar conditions demand an explanation. Again, every year hundreds of Azande go and inspect their beer by night and they always take with them a handful of straw in order to illuminate the hut in which it is fermenting. Why then should this particular man on this single occasion have ignited the thatch of his hut? (21)

To a Zande, witchcraft is an omnipresent possibility:

if, in fact, any failure or misfortune falls upon anyone at any time and in relation to any of the manifold activities of his life, it may be due to witchcraft. The Zande attributes all these misfortunes to witchcraft unless there is strong evidence, and subsequent oracular confirmation, that sorcery or some other evil agent has been at work, or unless they are clearly to be attributed to incompetence, breach of a taboo, or failure to observe a moral rule. (18)

As a result of this ordinariness,

When misfortunes occur [a Zande] does not become awestruck at the play of supernatural forces. He is not terrified at the presence of an occult enemy. He is, on the other hand, extremely annoyed. Someone, out of spite, has ruined his ground-nuts or spoilt his hunting or given his wife a chill, and surely this is cause for anger! He has done no one harm, so what right has anyone to interfere in his affairs? It is an impertinence, an insult, a dirty, offensive trick! (19)

The Zande thus attribute a social cause to all misfortune; anything bad that happens to them is a result of someone else’s malice (for all witchcraft emanates, of course, from a witch, whether they are consciously aware of it or not [this is one of the more fascinating facets of Evans-Pritchard’s ethnography, but outside the scope of this blog post], and obviously one would only use witchcraft against someone upon whom one wishes ill). Evans-Pritchard cautions the reader:

We must not be deceived by their way of expressing causation and imagine that because they say a man was killed by witchcraft they entirely neglect the secondary causes that, as we judge them, were the true causes of his death. They are foreshortening the chain of events, and in a particular social situation are selecting the cause that is socially relevant and neglecting the rest. If a man is killed by a spear in war, or by a wild beast in hunting, or by the bite of a snake, or from sickness, witchcraft is the socially relevant cause, since it is the only one which allows intervention and determines social behavior. (25)

There are two kinds of intervention possible. In the case of death, vengeance or compensation can be demanded or taken; the identity of the witch is determined via use of oracles. When Evans-Pritchard was writing, demanding compensation from a witch for a death was no longer legally possible, nor was execution of a witch by a prince, because the European-imposed legal system did not recognize the testimony of oracles as valid, while the Azande considered it the only relevant evidence. So during his fieldwork, a death was paid for with another death, but this was accomplished in secret. It is therefore less relevant to my argument.
In the case of imminent danger, or when a situation can still be gainfully improved, the procedure is thus: the name of the witch responsible is determined by use of oracles, as before. Then the witch must be asked to stop doing his witchcraft, and the usual procedure is to get a messenger to bring to the witch a wing of the bird that died to the oracle, to which the witch responds that he was unaware that he was causing trouble, that he’s very sorry, and that he wishes the victim health and happiness and so on, and blows water on the wing (41-42). Evans-Pritchard argues that the customary nature of this procedure, the customary politeness, and the layers of factors reducing potential friction between witch and sick man’s relatives, all combine to prevent violence and ongoing ill will between the parties. This is advantageous because after all they have to keep living as part of the same community, as long as the sick man doesn’t die.
In that way, then, witchcraft simultaneously creates and defuses frictions within the community, by providing someone to blame in the event of misfortune but also a way to repair the breach that results (and which probably existed previously, since nobody would use witchcraft against someone they weren’t upset with).

What does all this have to do with the American legal system? I find particularly striking the idea that all death is due to witchcraft. I’m hardly surprised, these days, when a news story about an accidental death is accompanied by a news story about a lawsuit. In some sense I even expect it.

There was a case in which two university students were fighting in the vicinity of a fraternity party; both had been drinking underage and if I recall correctly both of them had knives of a kind not permitted on campus. Certainly one of them had a knife, and killed the other. He was found not guilty of second degree murder by reason of self-defense. The father said after the trial, to a reporter, that he had offered the defendant’s mother congratulations (that her son was not going to prison); that he believed the defendant was not a murderer, but a coward; that he believed the judge had to go, on account of not valuing citizens’ lives; and that he wanted to get the university to adopt zero-tolerance policies on underage drinking and weapons on campus.

Two years later, the deceased’s parents sued the university, the fraternity, and the other boy’s parents, collectively, for over twenty million dollars. Their lawyer said, approximately, that when people suffer a traumatic experience, they deserve compensation, and this is the purpose of the legal system.

If compensation can be made, it must be that someone is responsible.

The Azande lived in a world that, although it was shaped and marked by human hands, was mostly made of the stuff of nature, inhabited by nonsapient creatures, and controlled by chance, physics, and biology. Nonetheless they found ways to attribute chance misfortune to human agency, albeit often (usually? always?) unconsciously controlled. How much easier, then, to identify the human agency whose malice or negligence causes misfortune when nearly everything we touch on a daily basis is made and controlled by human hands, human rules, human agency. Almost any misfortune includes a myriad of choices that could have been made differently. It is not so hard, then, for us to find the entity or entities who are ideally situated between culpability and ability to compensate (that is, there’s no point in suing someone who’s broke).

So what’s the argument? Both Azande beliefs about witchcraft and American use of lawsuits share these features: anything bad that happens must be someone else’s fault, and I can figure out who’s to blame if I care enough. Furthermore, if I can get good results from confronting them and demanding compensation/repentance, then I should do that thing.

Evans-Pritchard notes, “a man never asks the oracles … whether a certain man is a witch. He asks whether at the moment this man is bewitching him” (4); in other words, “a Zande is interested in witchcraft only as an agent on definite occasions and in relation to his own interests, and not as a permanent condition of individuals” (4). Similarly, Americans often only care about corporate culpability when it’s negatively affecting them, and it’s hard to get them to pay attention to issues like whether corporations create unsafe work conditions, as long as nobody they know is in danger as a result.

Any cultural institution that’s sufficiently present is going to leave its mark in some way. “Witchcraft is ubiquitous. It plays its part in every activity of Zande life; …; its influence is plainly stamped on law and morals, etiquette and religion; it is prominent in technology and language; there is no niche or corner of Zande culture into which it does not twist itself” (18). Similarly, litigation has left its influence visible everywhere. Any non-crime-related rule that exists governing use of public or private space is probably in place because somebody died or was injured, and somebody else got sued. Warnings on peanuts that they contain peanuts? Somebody had an allergic reaction, and successfully argued in court that they should have been explicitly warned in the same place every other piece of food packaging has allergy warnings. Neighbors reluctant to watch your kid? If your kid got hurt under their care, you could sue them. No climbing on the trees in the park? Someone, somewhere, fell out of a tree and successfully sued the municipality that owned it. There is a maze of legal rules and precedent determining what is and is not a valid lawsuit; most people aren’t willing to risk it, and quite understandably.

The Azande do not blame everything on witchcraft, of course: “Incompetence, laziness, and ignorance may be selected as causes” (29). However, because people are people wherever you go, “in all these cases the man who suffers the misfortune is likely to say that it is due to witchcraft, but others will not say so” (29). Similarly, some lawsuits just will not succeed, such as the several alleging that consumers were fooled into thinking that Froot Loops or Crunchberries contained actual fruit.

In at least one area, I suspect the Zande implementation of “how to blame other people for your problems for fun and profit” is, hmm, let us say more reasonable.
“As soon as a witch is today slain by magic, or in the past had been speared to death or had paid compensation, the affair is closed” (5). Some Americans, on the other hand, never give up.

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2 thoughts on “But I Am Not To Blame: Witchcraft Among the Azande, Litigation Among the Americans

  1. Humans have an incredibly powerful need to impose meaning on the events that shape our lives, especially negative events. When we’re injured we want to be made whole through compensation and/or retribution, and we call it justice.
    Misfortune without meaning, without intent or even negligence, robs us of that emotional recourse. This is such a painful circumstance that society constantly seeks to prevent such accidents through regulation, or identify fault where prevention proved inadequate or impossible. In general that strategy is remarkably successful; we’ve created an environment where faultless injuries are rare, and there’s nearly always some hope that action can be taken to successfully mitigate harm.
    Places where that just, protective environment break down mark the border between what we consider civilization and the “frontier”. In the same way that we grudgingly accept that “accidents happen” out in the wild, we expect that they *don’t* happen in the settled, comfortable, places most of us call home. Society doesn’t just try to make the world safe and comfortable, it tries to make the world fair.

  2. Agreement, yes.

    At this point I’m simply taking it as given that we seek meaning to underly suffering (this came up in Nietzsche, for instance). Tom-my-former-advisor pointed out some other belief-shaped manifestations of this desire to apportion blame: divine providence, satanic intervention, terrorism attributed to the pure evil of the perpetrators, and theories of vast conspiracies.

    It’s really hard to figure out where “fair” stops being the solution my morality offers and starts hurting people. :/

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