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The Anthropologist who Hated Relativism: A Tribute to my Father

December 29, 2017 Featured Today No Comments

By ARTHUR HIPPLER

My father Arthur Edwin Hippler (1935-2017) is known to longtime readers of The Wanderer, for which he wrote during the late 80s and early 90s. At that point in his life he had time to write, because he had retired from his position as a professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska, where he had worked since 1968. My father was a graduate of the University of California Berkeley during the 1960s — with everything which that implies. He was a civil rights activist, a labor union organizer, and leader in a number of leftwing causes. When he moved to Alaska, he founded the state chapter American Civil Liberties Union, and become its first president. And yet, even though he moved away from many of these causes, the moral foundation of his thought made a permanent mark on me. I owe him a great debt which I can never adequately repay.
Even though my father was a Berkeley trained anthropologist, he was never a cultural relativist. He always thought that some ways of life were better than others. This may seem self-evident to most folks, but it made him enormously controversial within his profession. His doctoral research was on Hunter’s Point, a black ghetto in the southeast corner of San Francisco. As he explained it to me, whatever warm fuzzy notions he had of “value free” social science were destroyed in researching Hunter’s Point. What made the lives of its people poor and hopeless was not racial oppression or institutional injustice, but the collapse of the black family. Illegitimacy rates were soaring, and black fathers were casual or absent. In other words, moral choices contributed more to human happiness than political “structures,” however significant those structures might be. (He adopted me, a baby of mixed black/white origin from a Salvation Army hospital in Berkeley about the time he was finishing his research).
When he started his research among Alaska natives, he discovered high rates of “burnt child” syndrome. Generally, this means that the child had received enough physical and/or psychological abuse that he believes himself both incapable of loving or being loved. Indeed, the rates were so high that my father flew in one of his mentors from UC Berkeley to confirm his findings. Some might wonder why my father retired after only twenty years at the university. Probably the most important reason was how depressing it was to watch one generation make bad choices that they would pass on to the next. The Alaska natives my father studied were not just “subjects of research.” He had warm relationships with many throughout the Alaska bush, and he knew their families and their lives in detail. He would come back from his trips visibly grieved to hear of another drunken accident, another impulsive shooting, another teenage pregnancy from a vagrant man.
Many merely blamed the impact of “western culture” for these pathologies. But a significant number of them, especially with regard to childrearing, preceded white contact. Other behaviors, such as the loosening of sexual morals, were not the result of the white contact of the 18th and 19th centuries, but rather the influence of the 60s “social work” volunteers who disdained the Christian belief of natives and the traditional morality that went with it. Even as a fellow progressive, my father considered their teaching disastrous. Once more, moral choices contributed to human happiness, or else ruined the possibility for it.
When I was sixteen, after my father and I had been watching a movie together, he looked at me gravely and said, “At some point, you will have to think through the question of good and evil.” I thought that was easy. “Good is constructive and builds up. Evil is destructive.” I probably had some notion of goodness consisting in civilization and arts and sciences and wealth and so on. But my father pointed out that was not enough. “National socialism was quite capable of ‘building things’. Civilizations and cultures can build without making people happier or better.” That stumped me. I was focused on externals. But my father was helping me to see how all these external things depended for their goodness on internal qualities, most important of which are moral qualities.
I can remember this little confrontation quite clearly because the question bothered me. Even after I came into the Church as a high school junior, and my father came back to the Church shortly thereafter, that question has remained with me the whole of my life. As a teacher, I marvel that my high school students even find moral relativism attractive. Why do they buy into this? I ask myself. They are raised Christian, and yet they believe, or try to believe, that no way of life is any better or worse than any other. How is it that I was raised by an atheist, and had greater moral clarity?
The problem is this — the Christians I teach, for lack of a better phrase, are bourgeois Christians. They live in affluent, crime-free neighborhoods and attend churches with nice people and “positive” messages. Their moral relativism makes them “tolerant” and “non-judgmental.” It is a luxury that costs them nothing. My father, from his research in the black ghetto and the Alaska bush, immersed me in experiences that showed the rewards and costs of moral judgments. That is what the bourgeois children never see.
While I cannot express gratitude to my father for raising me in the faith — he raised me to be an atheist like him — nonetheless I owe him a great debt in giving me the foundation on which my faith would be raised. The more I dwelt on the question “what is good and evil?” the more I realized the inadequacy of my atheist principles for answering that question. Eventually, my father came to the same conclusion. My father had moral blind spots; I suppose we all do. But even in his atheism, he was a social activist because he thought some ways of life were better than others, and some choices noble and others wicked. I can only hope to give my children the same moral clarity, the same disgust for relativism, that my father gave me.
Please pray for the repose of the soul of my father. Requiescat in pace!

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