Wow, apparently talking about sex inspires comments — who’d have thunk it? On the subject of social norms (and mystiques), indigenous people are also under a mystique — the idea of the noble savage. This is just not true, and every instance of supposedly great features of the Noble Savage have glaring counterexamples (see this book by Steven Pinker for more). Indigenous people are meant to be:
- environmentally friendly — often true but there are often cases of irreparable damage to the environment like the bird species hunted to extinction by the Maoris
- peaceful — definitely false. Any indigenous society studied by anthropologists has a murder rate that exceeds the most violent cities by several orders of magnitude (a factor of over 100). See this summary of Pinker’s talk.
- sexually uninhibited — counterexamples with practices we can only describe as abhorrent are plentiful. See this interesting case (had a “complaint” about my graphic imagery in the celibacy post so leaving this one in the link..!)
- egalitarian — even if we forget about forced circumcision, sexual inequality etc, there are more unusual practices that are enough to get the police in. In this talk a National Geographic journalist describes the “wonderful world” of indigenous people and tells of a tribe in Columbia who train children-destined-to-become-elders from the age of 3 to 18 in caves under glaciers. They’re instructed in the tribal lore without ever leaving the caves. They only see natural light/the outside world when they turn 18. He was raving about what an amazing experience this was instead of reporting this to the authorities as child abuse — I couldn’t believe it!
- wise — again this might be true in many cases but there’s a problem. Someone who says all indigenous people are wise seems to be saying they are wise almost as a matter of definition. Wisdom might then be considered the property of those who are not literate, which isn’t of itself very wise.
So what does this all mean?
- Political correctness and relativism mean almost no criticism of a tribal culture is possible. I saw this episode of Tribe where the host visits a Kenyan tribe involved in constant killings with neighbouring tribes (all armed with kalashnikovs) — no indication that this might not be the best state for them to be in. Of course there’s no point moralising in a documentary and repeating “violence is bad” a la Mr Mackey from Southpark, but still, judgement seems virtually suspended in modern contexts.
- This is of course bullshit — tribal life is brutal, unjust and as “unnatural” as urban life.
- Of course this doesn’t deny the genocides that have occurred. In fact cultural obliteration is far-reaching: of the 6000 languages spoken today, 50% are expected to go extinct soon. But it doesn’t help to romanticise indigenous people out of some misguided universal respect (or the commendable desire not to be imperialist).
- Is all modernisation good for tribal people? No, simply because most of the time it’s been applied in a thoughtless evil manner.
- BUT is some form of modernisation a form of — I dare say it — progress? Absolutely. More people change from “pure” tribal lifestyles to “decadent” urban living than vice versa — because there is something essential about urban living.
- There is much that’s lamentable about the disappearance of certain indigenous ways of life. But not everything is lamentable just ‘cos it’s gone. Human beings aren’t mere inhabitants of cultural zoos for us to visit and marvel at their pristineness (denying them the fridge, car, house etc that WE have) — and that’s what the relativists seem to be saying.