Cannibalized Free Speech

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Oklahoma University officials cracked down on a geophysics professor who wrote a letter to the editor backing gun ownership but showcased an anthropologist who thinks cannibals get a bad rap.

What Dr. David Deming, a geophysics professor, did was respond to a column written by a gun control advocate. The woman who wrote the column claimed that possession of a firearm made every gun owner a potential murderer, Dr. Deming remembers.

“I pointed out by way of an analogy that her possession of an unregistered sex organ made her a potential prostitute,” Dr. Deming writes. Dr. Deming delivered his unfortunate broadside in a letter to the editor of the school newspaper where the original column had appeared.

Dr. Deming received an immediate letter of reprimand from Dean John T. Snow. The university also cancelled three of his four classes and moved him to an office in the basement.

Although, at first blush, it looks like the school simply drew a line in the sand on boorish behavior, a look at the university’s calendar of events indicates otherwise. In late February, the school sponsored a talk by an anthropology professor who takes a unique view of a practice that most people find abhorrent.

On February 26th, the school sponsored a lecture by Beth Conklin, an associate professor of anthropology and religion at Vanderbilt University, entitled, “Making the Exotic Familiar: Compassionate Cannibalism in Lowland South America.”

A look at Conklin’s published views on the subject gives an even more vivid idea of her take on this practice. “We assume that cannibalism is always an aggressive, barbaric and degrading act,” Conklin told Exploration, Vanderbilt’s online journal. “But that’s a serious over-simplification, one that has kept us from realizing that cannibalism can have positive meanings and motives that are not that far from our own experience.”

Conklin based these conclusions on her study of the Wari people of the Amazon rainforest. “The Wari are unusual because they practiced two distinct forms of cannibalism in warfare and funerals,” Conklin explained.

“Eating enemies was an intentional expression of anger and disdain for the enemy,” Conklin said.

“But at funerals, when they consumed members of their own group who died naturally, it was done out of affection and respect for the dead person and as a way to help survivors cope with their grief.”

As a way of coping with his own setbacks, the tenured Dr. Deming might contemplate this idea: He could thank the dean for lightening his course load and giving him time to pursue other interests, such as writing letters to the editor.

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.