Raised Eyebrows over Keynote Choice

Many anthropologists find the military's Human Terrain System ethically flawed. Its chief architect was selected for prominent role -- seen as inappropriate honor by some -- at a scholarly meeting.
November 26, 2008

At the American Anthropological Association’s massive annual meeting last week, a few attendees passed out fliers for a smaller, regional conference – which will feature one of the most controversial figures in anthropology as keynote speaker.

The president of the Southwestern Anthropological Association invited Montgomery McFate to give the keynote address at the association’s spring conference in Las Vegas. As an architect of and senior social scientist for the Human Terrain System, an initiative that embeds social scientists with U.S. Army units in Afghanistan and Iraq to help them better understand local cultures and populations, McFate’s scholarly reputation is hitched to an initiative that has been formally opposed by the AAA’s executive board. In a statement issued last year, the board determined that HTS raises concerns on such fundamental ethical issues as voluntary informed consent and the protection from harm of populations being studied.

Few anthropologists would question the value of inviting McFate to speak -- or the importance of having free speech and scholarly engagement on such controversial topics. In fact, many were critical of her failure to appear at a scheduled speaking engagement Saturday at the AAA conference.

Some at the Southwestern Anthropological Association (known as SWAA), however, are facing questions about the particularities of the platform they’re giving her, and a perception that the keynote speaking slot implies an honor -- distinct from the panel where she was to have appeared at the AAA, alongside her critics.

“I have encountered opposition from people who don’t want to give Mitzi McFate a platform and they see this as a kind of honor that she doesn’t deserve. And I simply disagree,” said Liam D. Murphy, an associate professor of anthropology at California State University at Sacramento and president of SWAA. Per an organizational tradition leaving discretion over annual conference matters to the president, Murphy alone selected McFate as the keynote speaker. SWAA is not affiliated with AAA, although there is cross-membership between the two associations.

“This is what we do as academics. We provide opportunities for people to speak, among other things, and we provide venues for them to write, and we do not shut down alternative perspectives,” said Murphy -- who has done some teaching for HTS.

“When Liam told us he was going to invite Montgomery McFate, a number of us were quite startled,” Kathleen Zaretsky, SWAA’s treasurer, said of the executive board’s reaction. “I believe the people on the board feel the way I do, which is, ‘It’s the academic world; it’s important to hear all sides,' ” said Zaretsky, a lecturer at San Jose State University.

It being a small, laid-back association – and “not something which is highly sensitive to prestige issues” -- she hadn't considered the implications of the word "keynote" until confronted by a student at the AAA conference "who was really angry about what she saw as the honoring of McFate," she said.

"Of course, it does carry an implication of an honor,” Zaretsky said. “We on the board are going to have to confront that and perhaps even say something about it, because I think the majority of us on the board feel quite strongly that we don’t want to honor her and that it was quite naive of us not to see this earlier.”

In explaining his choice, Murphy cited a number of reasons, including his personal friendship with McFate (they went to graduate school together), a desire to stimulate conversation on this controversial but relevant topic (the conference theme centers on relevancies and public anthropology), and a hope that the selection will increase interest in the conference and, in particular, the banquet during which McFate is scheduled to speak (participants will have to pay extra for banquet tickets). “I see this as something of a coup, actually, that she would come and speak to a small, regional organization like this,” said Murphy.

He added of any associated prestige or honor: “SWAA exists at a different level of operations in a sense than the AAA, and while we use the term ‘keynote speaker,’ we might as well use the term ‘after-dinner speaker’ or ‘invited speaker.’ ”

"It really is a question of the president working his or her personal networks. That's pretty much what it comes down to," Murphy said.

Fearing hostility from fellow anthropologists, however, Murphy did not want to discuss his own personal connections with the Human Terrain System, for which he has done part-time instruction domestically. Asked how frequently he’s taught for HTS, he said, “I don’t do it often; let’s put it that way.” He added that he has not been on a team or been overseas with the program, but said little more about what he has done. He hopes to edit a book on HTS, including positive and negative perspectives.

“I’m a supporter of the general ambition of the program to humanize the military…and to save lives,” said Murphy. (He added that there are problems that need to be addressed, as HTS is still in its "infancy.")

“I wouldn’t expect that anybody who didn’t share some of the same ethics, or some of the same beliefs about the purpose of the program, would invite Montgomery McFate to be the keynote speaker. I don’t believe that Hugh Gusterson would do that,” Murphy said, in reference to one of the most visible leaders of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, which has opposed anthropologists’ participation in counterinsurgency efforts.

For Gusterson’s part, “I think it would be unfortunate if her critics put her in a position of trying to prevent her from speaking,” he said. “I always think the solution to bad speech is good speech.”

However, added Gusterson, a professor at George Mason University, “When you invite someone to keynote, you are conveying that message that they have something special to say to the whole membership."

“When someone is the architect of a program that’s been officially condemned by the AAA executive board and you then invite them to be your keynote speaker, there is something awry there.”

But is being asked to give the keynote (or, depending on your terminology, “after-dinner”) address an honor being conferred here on McFate?

“An honor has become kind of a vague term,” said Bill Fairbanks, the SWAA board chair. As chair, he oversees association operations while Murphy devotes himself to the conference.

“I guess anytime you’re invited to speak, you may consider it an honor. For example, I recently retired; I taught at Cuesta College [a two-year institution in California]. About a month before I retired, the president called me in and asked me to do the graduation speech, and I did. And I think I was supposed to consider that an honor and I guess I did, but at the same time I was trying to wind up my teaching, I was trying to clean out my office, and it was a lot of extra work.”

Fairbanks, who was at the AAA meeting where McFate canceled her appearance, said he was looking forward to hearing her talk this spring. Several interviewed mentioned lingering concerns over whether McFate, who can be called overseas, will fulfill her commitment to speak at SWAA. (McFate did not return a message seeking comment for this story.)

"On the positive side, I have to say that whether Montgomery McFate herself shows up or not, the very act of inviting her may encourage people to attend and engage in these debates. Even without her, there may be a lot of very good panel discussions, as well as informal discussions, on a wider range of issues, including the ones represented by her ideas or her professional activities,” said Hilarie Kelly, a SWAA executive board member and lecturer at California State University at Long Beach.

As for attendance, “A good number for us would be topping 200,” Murphy said. “This is a small conference, but I think that this year hopefully we’ll get more. Not so much because of our keynote speaker, but because it’s in Las Vegas.”


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