“What Am I Not Seeing in These Headlines?”

From a Wall Street Journal Bookshelf column by Tunku Varadarajan about AnthroVision, a book about anthropology by Gillian Tett:

When Donald Trump—gaudy and braggadocious—used the word “bigly” in a presidential debate with Hillary Clinton in September 2016, the newsroom of the Financial Times dissolved into merriment. Gillian Tett was there, and she heard herself laugh with the others. The word, she writes, sounded odd. “It was not the type of ‘proper’ English of the sort that presidents were supposed to use or that journalists employed every day.”

Ms. Tett, who heads the FT’s American editorial board, is the author of “Anthro-Vision,” a book about how anthropology—a subject in which she has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University—can explain the folkways (and speech habits) of non-elite people to professionals trapped in the insularity of their own guilds. The latter’s specialist tools are notably inadequate, she says, when “used without an awareness of culture and context”—without an awareness, that is, of the Big Picture….

Our professionals are curled up inside silos, Ms. Tett observes. Bankers think only like bankers, economists like economists, doctors like doctors, techies like techies. They lack “lateral vision,” she writes, without which they commit blunders of policy and perception that are often as egregious as they are avoidable.

Ms. Tett claims that anthropology—with its empathy for strangers, its principles of listening to someone else’s view, its emphasis on seeing “what is hidden in plain sight”—is an antidote to tunnel vision. Her book, in effect, calls for the anthropologization of the work-spher….

Ms. Tett is  critical of journalists, many of whom, she says, are guilty of the same cognitive narrow-mindedness as the bankers she has met at clubby conferences. The tittering in the newsroom over Mr. Trump’s use of “bigly” revealed an “epistemological split”—a striking difference in the way elites and ordinary Americans process information. “A command of language”—which Mr. Trump, in the view of many, didn’t have—“was one of the few forms of publicly acceptable elitism and snobbery in America.” But not all Americans possessed an Ivy League command of words, let alone money or power. For them, Mr. Trump’s language was comforting, not risible.

Educated elites parsed Mr. Trump in ways that many American voters did not. And in doing so they erred—bigly. Ms. Tett invokes a phrase coined by Salena Zito, the political reporter who famously wrote that the elite took Mr. Trump “literally but not seriously.” His voters did the reverse, taking him seriously but not literally—the way they would watch pro-wrestling. If only journalists had been more like anthropologists, participant observers of American politics who talked to people other than their own kind, they might have read Mr. Trump right.

So what could happen, Ms. Tett asks, if more people embraced some anthro-vision? Her conclusions are bright and buoyant—cynics might say a little blithe. Economists would broaden their lens beyond money and markets (and also acknowledge that the ancient practice of barter is, as she asserts, “a pillar of the modern tech economy”). Asset managers would see how their tribalism worsens risk. Techies might study themselves to see how their “reverence for efficiency, innovation, and Darwinian competition” can seem amoral to others.

And journalists would raise their game, not flunk big stories like Brexit and Mr. Trump’s rise. “The best journalism is done,” Ms. Tett writes, “when reporters have the space, time, training, and incentives to ask questions like ‘What am I not seeing in these headlines?’ ”

A little self-flagellation, clearly, would be good for the profession. And more than a little anthropology.

Mr. Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and at New York University Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute.

Speak Your Mind