ECSF Alum Speaks at Anthropology Commencement


May 20, 2007

Joshua Rosenthal '07, one of the 2006 Ethics Center Student Fellows, gave the keynote address at the Anthropology Department's 2006 Commencement Ceremonies. A double major in Anthropology and Politics from Akron, Ohio, Joshua is a Justice Brandeis Scholar, a past president and current programming coordinator for Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, an active member of the Brandeis Labor Coalition, and a founding member of Waltham Links (a club devoted to developing connections between the Brandeis and Waltham communities along political, artistic, and social lines). Active in the political realm, Joshua was an intern for the Deval Patrick for Governor Committee. He spent the summer of 2006 working with the Access to Information Programme Foundation in Sofia, Bulgaria, assisting with civic education and government transparency in this developing democracy.

The text of Josh's speech is below:

Sometimes, especially after talking to friends of my parents, or parents of my friends, I start to wonder what the point is of studying the incredibly specific topics that we study in each of our disciplines.

Why bother examining representation by Bulgarian NGOs or Oaxacan videographers?

Why bother learning about Nicaraguan Pentecostals or Andean gender ideologies?

Why bother researching generational differences in use of tag questions or the syntax of N-drop?

And for goodness sake, why bother learning about Sambian male initiation rites??

Well, I only have 3-5 minutes, so I'll only try to give one reason why I'm glad that I bothered.

Every day, we are confronted by a status quo that claims to be inevitable, especially with regard to its flaws.

Although their methods are often more environmentally sustainable than large-scale farming, small-landholding farmers are being forced off their land around the world by rising supply costs and plummeting prices. Natural resources are being privatized or polluted to the extent that in many regions, Coca-cola is cheaper than clean water. Workers in Dominican Republic and Kenya are told to be grateful for the urban, higher-paying jobs that corporate subsidiaries offer, rather than organizing to ensure that national labor standards are enforced. Yet we are told that this is the natural outcome of the unencumbered market, merely the inexplicable forces of the aggregate of rational actors (in other words, all of us).

In the Balkans, Darfur, Israel/Palestine, and Iraq, we hear similar stories of civilian violence, terrorism, and genocide. We hear only a fraction of the news and know only a tiny segment of the violence that occurs or has occurred in these regions. But whether the groups are Bosnians and Serbs, Arabs and Blacks, Muslims and Jews, or Shia and Sunni, we are expected to accept that the conflicts at play are permanent. That the histories, ethnicities, or natures of these groups necessarily prevent the possibility of coexistence.

Across the globe, girls are educated at far lower rates than boys. Domestic violence, in its many forms, often persists behind closed doors, with justice systems unable or unwilling to deal with survivors of violence. Women form an easily expendable workforce across the global supply chain. And even in the United States, mothers are much more expected than fathers to sacrifice career advancement and social opportunities to invest their time in childrearing. If we ask why, we hear that women naturally are nurturers, or too sentimental to learn, or good at sewing, cleaning, and fine dexterity.

But whether we've studied other cultures around the world, focused on neighboring societies in the Western Hemisphere, or examined the conventions of language, each of our disciplines calls on us to question "natural" or "necessary" aspects of human society, poking at them to find the constructed aspects underneath the veneer of permanence.

By looking closer at the problems that we face as a global society, we can see how temporary and historically specific they are. The Oaxacan filmmakers and the societies they try to represent illustrate how the corporate capitalism that characterizes modern-day globalization is only one of many economic systems that humans have participated in. By studying how the Hutus and Tutsis, among other groups, were created as ethnic categories by European colonialists, we see that ethnic groups in conflict often have more in common than they differ, and periods of violence frequently have more to do with economic or political stresses than permanent tensions. And the Andean gender ideologies (and yes even the Sambia) show that although neuroscience and evolutionary psychology may find statistical differences between genders, these differences manifest themselves so differently around the world that much generalization about men and women's natural inclinations quickly seems silly.

Our disciplines have taught us to critically examine every situation for the ways in which its specifics have been constructed according to the historical and cultural situation. This understanding gives me hope. It means that we aren't stuck with the way things are. And that's the reason why to bother. In the past four years, I doubt that we've learned exactly how the world needs to be different, but thanks to our professors and our peers, we've started to see that it can be changed. Thank you for giving us that understanding. I have faith that we can use it productively, and start making some changes.