Individuals Matter

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In recent months, because of the publication of my book (with co-author James Springer), Repatriation and Erasing the Past, I have been at the center of ad hominem attacks on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook (for a review of some of the controversy see the pieces at The College Fix and Minding the Campus). Repatriation and Erasing the Past takes a critical look at the repatriation of human remains to Native American tribes. In addition to criticizing NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) for its use of oral traditions as evidence, and the required inclusion of traditional Native American religious leaders in committees, we also criticize the ideology behind repatriation. Repatriation ideology promotes the perspective that knowledge about the past coming from Native Americans is superior to that of non-Native Americans. We, however, support the perspective that the validity of information is not based on a person’s race, sex, age, or any other grouping that one can think of.

A terrible trend that I found in the attacks mentioned above is the repeated chastisement on the basis of my sex and age; derogatory remarks about “baby boomers” and “old white” people are abundant. It appears that cancel culture activists have forgotten the importance of the individual. My thoughts aren’t clones of theirs because I am a female under 50 years of age; and this horrifies them. After all, how could someone who went through the same education as they did come to different conclusions? To support their views, they posted an Open Letter condemning the book as racist, and nearly 900 people signed it — I doubt that even a handful actually read the book! These Open Letters that are signed by scholars — whether it be for climate change or to argue that Donald Trump is mentally unstable — are the epitome of conformity rather than reasoned debate. Of course, bogus claims of racism, such as the ones my co-author and I have faced, undermine the fight against genuine racism.

We support the perspective that the validity of information is not based on a person’s race, sex, age, or any other grouping that one can think of.

Perhaps these activists have forgotten that thinking differently used to be a component of liberal education and was celebrated in popular culture as progressive — remember Apple’s Think Different ad or their iconic 1984 Superbowl ad. Have they forgotten or never seen the scene from Monty Python’s film Life of Brian, in which Brian tells the crowd to think for themselves and that they “all individuals”?

Many great thinkers — Ralph Ellison was one — didn’t want to be defined by the group in which they “belonged.” Ralph Ellison didn’t want to be known as a great black writer but as a great writer. What a difference from the current trend, such as the email sent out to the graduate students and alumni of my department, to encourage the use of the Cite Black Authors database. In the same vein, I don’t want students to say she’s a really good female professor; rather, I want students just to think of me as a really good professor.

Now, however, cancel culture cheerleaders want everyone to think the same; tolerance for diversity of thought is nonexistent. So, as they purport to favor diversity, they have forgotten the number one key to promoting it — individual differences! They have replaced difference with conformity; and, if you don’t conform to their standards, you will be cancelled.

These activists have forgotten that thinking differently used to be a component of liberal education and was celebrated in popular culture as progressive.

One of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes is the famous The Eye of the Beholder. It’s about a woman named Janet who is desperate to change her beautiful face into something grotesque, grotesqueness being considered beautiful because it is currently the norm, and Janet wants to fit in. The episode is not about the beauty of faces; it’s about the ugliness of conformity. As the action progresses, TV screens in the background show the Leader speaking about “glorious conformity”: in the past, it seems, “there was a strange oversentimentalized concept that it mattered not that people were different, that ideas were at variance with one another . . .” Toward the end of his speech, he says, “We must cut out all that is different like a cancerous growth!” Conformity is the weapon of communist, fascist, and theocratic societies. Everyone must wear the same clothing, have the same reactions, pray to the same gods, read the same books, worship the same politicians — there is no room for difference. There is no room to treat people as individuals. This is the world of cancel culture.

The importance of the individual shouldn’t be taken to mean that people don’t need one another. All great thinkers had their influences. Charles Darwin, for example, was influenced by Charles Lyell and Thomas Malthus. Yet individuals have often shaped history. We don’t talk about evolution without mentioning Darwin; we don’t talk about modern art without mentioning Picasso. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (which too is in danger of being cancelled), Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Albert Camus’s The Plague were written by individuals, not by committees who were out to conform to a specific idea. These individual authors showed us how they saw the world, and thus shaped the way we see the world.

In my field of biological anthropology, which involves studying past populations, especially Amerindians from prehistoric cultures, we sometimes assume that those who lived in prehistoric times would have liked to be treated or buried in a single way, but I am sure that there were individuals who thought independently and differently — maybe there were some who didn’t even believe in an afterlife. Thus, I ask you, who are we to say that the current tribes know what past individuals would have wanted to happen after their remains are discovered?

As they purport to favor diversity, they have forgotten the number one key to promoting it — individual differences!

Some people assume that the focus on individuality is “selfish,” but nothing could be further from the truth. It is the conformers who want your mind and your life, not the individualists. In a recent op-ed letter from the Arizona Daily Star (Your life is yours, not society’s), Jim Douthit stated that, by contrast with the ideology of Marxism, “our Founding Fathers held that your life belongs to you, not to society or to the state.” He concludes by saying, “Your life belongs to you, and that’s the solid truth.” Giving people the freedom to live their lives without constant harassment is crucial to generosity and what some call “selflessness.” In a society trending toward conformism, when you don’t fit into a perceived category, you will be mocked and bullied — made to cower before the other people’s thoughts — and those other people will take the thing that matters most: oneself.

What happens when we lose the right to be individuals with unique thoughts? In the short term, we will have laws that may provide people with more reason to rebel. France, struggling to deal with radical Islam, has decided that all children three and upward should go to schools that will prevent further influence from Islam, but this may backfire, causing those individuals to double down on their religious beliefs. I am an atheist; and, yet one of my best memories of church is when we visited my grandmother and she sent my sister and me to Sunday school. She knew we didn’t believe in God, but she thought that Sunday school would do us good! Funny thing is that it did in an unexpected way; the preacher and his assistants were smart and kind enough to realize that my sister and I didn’t belong, but welcomed us, let us be, and said that we could join in the activities as much or as little as we wanted. This level of tolerance made a lasting impression on both of us.

Conformity of thought will greatly hinder progress. Fewer scientific discoveries that require thinking out of the box of conformity will be expected; art will turn into propaganda.

The de-emphasis on the individual and the focus on groups and labels will certainly lead to more hirings on the basis of group characteristics — race, sex, sexual identity, age, whatever — regardless of individual qualifications. Incompetence and incapacity will continue to seep out of the governmental sector (think: Post Office) and into the private sector. Those who answer diversity questions in the “wrong” way won’t be hired, no matter what their fitness may be for the job. It used to be considered a good answer to say that you treat all people with equal fairness, as individuals, but that is hardly anti-racist enough today. One has to virtue-signal and check through a veritable buzzword bingo of ever changing but politically correct words, phrases, and concepts.

In the long run, I think that conformity of thought will greatly hinder progress. Fewer scientific discoveries that require thinking out of the box of conformity will be expected; horrendous buildings, created by committees, will be erected; art will turn into propaganda. It will be a bleak future indeed. In fact, we see these things happening now.

So when the cancel culture activists argue, as they did in the tweets that attacked my writings, that it is “their” turn to speak — “their” being whichever group (Native Americans, blacks, Hispanics, women, young people) is the currently chosen one — they forget that each individual’s voice deserves the chance to be heard.


  1. William H Pound, PhD

    Our universities, the media, and the Democrat Party lead the charge to political correctness and groupthink.  We must have uniformity of thought, language, and behavior.  Uniformity, uniformity, uniformity goes the cry.  I spent more than 40 years in manufacturing, all of it involving technology and quality assurance.  A saying in my field considered to be profound (Attributed to Edward Deming) is:

    Uncontrolled Variation is the Enemy of Quality

    We’re all in favor of quality aren’t we?  He is surely right so let’s control or eliminate variation.

    There is another side to that coin (my own formulation):
    Uniformity is the Enemy of Knowledge

    Scientists learn by conducting experiments in which they change input conditions and study output results.  A new volleyball player may learn by violating rules and getting penalized. If our schools succeed with their current drive to uniformity, they will simultaneously defeat their primary purpose, the discovery and propagation of knowledge.  We taxpayers should not allow government to continue pouring  money into our current education system.  Uniformity in hiring is not helpful, nor is tenure.  Peer review is of no value once reviewers are weeded to be of like mind. If “publish or perish” is the maxim, no one will care if published work can’t be reproduced.  Professional societies are of little value if they serve only to enforce conformity, say by having outgoing officers serve as a nominating committee for future officers, or by nominating single individuals for each office, i.e. no real choice.

  2. Robert

    Her commentary is totally devoid of any defense except “they’re trying to cancel me” (she uses the right-wing dog-whistle “cancel culture” over and over and over again). OK fine, she dared to think differently- good for her. But she fails to do anything to defend herself except claim they’re ad hominem and trying to “cancel” her. Lame on both counts.

  3. Alfred

    Frau Weiss: “ argue that Donald Trump is mentally unstable – the epitome of conformity rather than reasoned debate”

    Donald Trump: “I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it [covid-19] out in a minute…is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside”

    “I will be back as president by August”

    Similarly, to Elizabeth Weiss, MAGA = Make Anthropology Great Again.

  4. Ken Honma

    Hello Elizabeth, its refreshing to read a professor advocating scientific diversity and encourage reasoned dialog. I worked with government research scientists for almost 40 years and my observation was a parabolic decline over time in the ability of each new PhD generations ability to engage in the discovery and identification of factual paradox’s in order to make scientific breakthroughs. I don’t know when science became consensus driven, anyone not in the club of consensus was ridiculed, ostracized and unfunded. You seem to be able to handle these challenges and I commend you for your tenacity, your students will be better scientists because of your efforts.

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