Late afternoon bled into early Friday evening. I was still woozy from the late stages of an April flu I picked up in New York. I was sitting in a chair that catches the western sun when my phone rang. It was Professor James Boster trying to contact me.
Both of those are the byproducts of this video:
Boster was not happy with me, but he was not unpleasant. I should add that I had tried to reach him earlier in the week at his university email, with no success.
Boster began to talk. He’s a talker. I stayed on the line with him for 40 minutes, saying very little. He’s an interesting man: very smart, very passionate and a little ridiculous. He spoke at some length about the way he incorporates evolution into his teaching of anthropology; and, in my weakened state, I found myself closing my eyes, letting the sun light up my face and enjoying the private, eloquent lecture I was getting. And one point he said something quite stirring and beautiful, and I wish now I had been taking notes. The gist of it: To understand the connection between the single-celled organism and the Archbishop of Canterbury is to understand that all things are joined in the great eternal flux of matter. “And striving to be man, the worm mounts through all the spires of form.” (Emerson) Or as Sagan said, we are starstuff pondering the stars. Once you understand that, the rest is just details.
Boster had several explanations for his behavior. The most entertaining was that he was “in character” — specifically as the Rev. William Robert Brown, a/k/a Billy Bob, a scientific Darwin-praising counterpart to the fire and brimstone religionists who attack evolution. Boster says he developed BIlly Bob as a form of street theater while teaching in Kentucky.
But at another point, he claimed to have been acting on an ingrained, ursine protective instinct. The undergraduates are like his cubs, he said, and when they were menaced by itinerant preachers who denounced them as “sodomites” and “fornicators,” Boster’s instinct was to rear up on his hind legs, paw the air and roar his grizzly roar.
Boster said he had received the thanks of a grateful student body, especially the LGBT segment. Preachers of this type visit the campus regularly and are considered, at best, a chore. Boster’s nemesis on that day, Don Karns, seems a bit of a provocateur. Boster was interested to hear from me Don Karns has been arrested at least once, in New Jersey. I’ll give Boster an additional lagniappe: On the infamous video, right before Boster delivers his little shove, Karns takes a full step toward him. The shove is still going to be a problem for Boster, but he could argue that it was preceded by an invasion of his own personal space. Then — and this is fascinating — Karns walks backwards as Boster pursues him. First time around, I read that as alarm and retreat. Watch again. Karns is pretty clearly maneuvering himself and Boster into a different position, closer to the camera, and maybe also creating a video record of having backed away from the crazy man. This is a subjective call on my part, but it looks more like kabuki than actual fear.
Boster asked me where I got the whole thing about his research into the Shuar tribespeople. I explained that I read one of his scholarly papers — on the correspondence between language systems and emotional states. The paper is startlingly germane to Boster’s current pickle. He lays out the ways in which our understanding of emotions is conditioned not only by the words we have available to describe them but also by the way that our particular culture apprehends that emotion.
According to Lutz, the Ifaluk locate emotions as occurring primarily between people rather than
within them. Similarly, it appears that the Shuar often interpret facial expressions
in terms of publicly observable interactions and behaviors rather than in terms of
internal psychic states, as Americans generally do.
So for people from those two tribes — in Micronesia and Ecuador respectively — it would be difficult to evaluate Boster’s anger (etser, to the Shuar) as a thing of his own making and discrete from Karns. It takes two to tango. Three if you count Billy Bob as a separate person.
After we spoke, Boster sent me an email asking me to re-read my column and ask myself what I would have said differently, if I had spoken with him first. The answer is: almost nothing, although I would have had more material to cram into my 700-word hole. I don’t think the “It was Billy Bob talking” defense will get him very far. And, as I told him on the phone, I really dislike the protective bear analogy. I told Boster I have a college-aged son, and I’ve spent countless hours talking to him about the value of civil discourse. He has a bad temper, and I’ve have stressed, time and again, that he must keep his hands at his sides and his voice in a normal decibel range. Our children don’t need a bear-man to protect them from spoken words, and God knows, they don’t need a professor setting a terrible example of intimidation and buffoonery.
Boster’s lack of self-awareness was surprising. He had indeed attended the Richard Dawkins appearance and quoted back to me Dawkins’s contention that it’s a mistake to debate in public with creationists because the suggestion that there’s a legitimate playing field and a game to be won or lost is exactly what they’re looking for. It seemed not to have occurred to him that he had made a comparable error by playing right into the hands of Karns.
Still, I liked him. I have a special fondness for brilliant idiots. Some would say I myself am such a person.
At the end of the conversation, I told him it was too bad he was being judged for, according to him, the worst two minutes of a two-hour encounter. (But this is the age we live in. Ask Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling.) I assured him that “anybody who gets his picture taken with a tapir can’t be all bad.”
“What?!” he spluttered. He made me say it twice and still seemed not to understand me.
From his website: