If you are like me, you probably have a wide range of friends on Facebook. This is a good thing, because you, like I, are exposed to a variety of view points. This saves us by the grace of god from the trap of the echo chamber. But from time to time I see something that irks me for simple reasons like “is it true?” and “what is it saying?” Something like this:
Image of Massai Warriors Jumping with the following text:
An African tribe does the most beautiful thing.
When someone does something hurtful and wrong, they take the person to the center of town, and the entire tribe comes and surrounds him.
For two days they’ll tell the man every good thing he has ever done.
The tribe believes that every human being comes into the world as Good, each of us desiring safety, love, peace, happiness.
But sometimes in the pursuit of those things people make mistakes. The community sees misdeeds as a cry for help.
They band together for the sake of their fellow man to hold him up, to reconnect him with his true Nature, to remind him who he really is, until he fully remembers the truth from which he’d temporarily been disconnected:
“I AM GOOD.”
This was posted by someone who is very liberally, feministly, and compassionately minded, as one would probably guess from the content. But when I see a post like this, I feel an overwhelming urge to respond, because there is something wrong here. Often I don’t, but sometimes, like this, I do, and I always regret it. This was my response:
“If it is the Massai, as the photo implies — the text is frustratingly non-specific, and not some other tribe, then the use of the male pronoun throughout the article is appropriate, since in that culture women are property and they still practice genital mitigation. So, I guess it’s beautiful for the men?”
And this was the rebuttal:
“The beautiful part is the cultural practice of reminding the individual who did something hurtful that they are indeed a good person and that life is about giving and receiving the good in the world. As far as I can tell there isn’t a culture on earth that doesn’t have both beauty and terror in it. If you find one, let me know!”
Now this was kind of the point, that all cultures that have both beauty and terror in them, but there are different levels of beauty and different levels of terror. How offensive would it be to talk about a culture that had managed to embrace equality for all and brotherhood for everyone under a photo of Stalin? Here, the photo and the talk of “an african tribe” use code-words to set up a frame of reference that infers existing prejudices that fill in the blanks.
So let’s say you picture the pastoral tribe, and the intent and beauty that’s intended from the rhetoric of the framer. It’s a nice story, but is it true? There’s no way to know. The tribe isn’t specified, the narrative itself is vague, it doesn’t even mention what crimes would fall under this sort of restorative sentencing. Property crime? Violent crime? A rape? A murder? Copying DVDs for sale in a downtown Dar Es Salaam market? In smaller groups violent crime can be rare, but not unheard of. The bottom line is that there’s no way to easily tell if it’s real or just a nice folk tale.
As a mental experiment, let’s assume for a moment that it is true, and we can infer that the tribe is the Massai, the tribe in the photo. If this were the case, then the use of the male pronoun throughout the description is apt. After all, the Massai are a patriarchal society of warriors: women marry young into polygamous relationships with older men. The Massai practice genital mutilation on women. A warrior tribe of this sort would need to ensure group cohesion in order for the warriors to be able to rely on one another, and so easily forgive one another for transgressions. If it were a rape, would that matter if a woman were just property? Now re-read the story and tell me how beautiful it is.
When code words like “tribe” and “nature” are sprinkled under a photo of tribal warriors, we trigger racism: the reduction of people to a narrow set of prejudicial ideals, and racism is racism regardless of it’s political utility. When you are no longer seeing an individual as a human, but as the projection of one’s own ideals of what that individual should be based on his or her race, then that is racism.
There are those who, for whatever reason, believe that tribal people, be they aboriginals, africans, or whichever group, are some how more “wise” and “in touch with nature” than others. They see the exceptionalism of the noble savage, and rather than see a complex people with needs, wants, flaws, and loves, they see a non-person, a group painted with an unfair brush, a hypothetical perfection that drags with it other unfair stereotypes. This group has achieved something beyond the compromises of civilization, they practiced neither war, nor slavery, were excellent stewards of the land, and were healthier than we are today. All historically incorrect, and a simplification of a very complex people with a long history, and multiple cultures with different practices and values. They were people, with needs, wants, flaws, and loves. They were as imperfect as anyone else, and shouldn’t be delegated to non-personhood because of a prejudicial idealism.
Aboriginals, of the Americas, or Australia, or Africa, are people, and both the racism that tells you they are all drunks and the racism that tells you that they are all wise stewards of the land, are both racism. They are people, equals to you or I in the law of our society, in the law of basic human rights, and in the law of nature that makes us human.
Of course there is wisdom in the practices of tribes, but there is also wisdom in the practices of modern society, too. There is wisdom in every people and in every person. The wisdom is found in the practices of the culture improve the values of the society, for good or ill. In my society, Canada, our values have been spelled out in the Charter, and in the history of the English Common Law tradition. Those who see the wisdom of the tribal elders should like common law: it’s a system whereby appointed elders sit in rational judgement based on values and tradition, and can overturn even laws passed by elected officials that violate our core principles. In fact, the Canadian system has even adopted something very much like the restorative justice spelled out in the article above.
Even with all it’s flaws and it’s racist undertones, it’s a beautiful idea. But I think the system we have is even more beautiful, it gave us women’s suffrage and gay marriage even when public opinion was having none of it, against the mob-rule of the tribe. Protecting people’s basic rights even when it’s unpopular? That’s kind of beautiful. Is it perfect? No, but what is?