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The New York Sun


Tribes v. Westerners

October 12, 2006

By John H. McWhorter

Taking some time off from my career as a self-hating shill for the right, I spent last week wearing my linguist hat at a workshop on an obscure language spoken by a small, indigenous people. I promised I would not identify these people in public. Suffice it to say, they are non-Westerners.

One of the researchers showed a video of two women having a conversation in the language. They were confident and witty. One of them was arresting in the precise elegance of her gestures.The other one drew in the viewer with her warm irony.They did not seem "exotic"—they could easily have been two women at a Starbucks. One would imagine they were talking about how cute their kids were or something of the sort.

Except that their conversation was about how their husbands rarely let them leave the house.

This is ordinary in their society: women are expected to stay home to cook and take care of children—of which they are also expected to have as many as 10 or more. To go against the husband's wishes is to risk a beating, sanctioned by the village. To leave the society is to risk being killed.

Thus these women can only grin and bear it. It's all they know. They talk about it with the same resigned "we're all in it together" jokes as casually as we talk about rush hour traffic.

Yet the people speaking this language are exactly the kind that higher learning has long presented as purer, more innocent—better—than Westerners. We are to think of ourselves as greedy, culpable, gray flannel people out of touch with the "reality" of Mother Nature.

The idea goes back to Aristophanes, Durkheim, and Weber, but has been mainstreamed by academia especially since the early 20th century.

Benjamin Lee Whorf, purveying the idea that different languages create different ways of thinking, celebrated the Hopi tribe in Arizona as "subtle, complex, and ever-developing" in comparison to the "bludgeon" of thought channeled through English. Mark Abley, advocating the preservation of small languages threatened with extinction, informs us more recently that "in the Yuchi language, evil is a foreign idea." Anthropologist Richard Shweder reminds us that "Whoever is wealthiest and the most technologically advanced thinks that their way of life is the best," and is unable to propose that any culture serves its members better than another.

Social scientists' embrace of the Noble Savage vision began as a corrective to the casual ethnocentric assumptions typical of the days when even enlightened Westerners were comfortable dismissing most of the world's people as barbarians.

But the corollary notion preached by so much of our thinking class is that being Western is a stain. We are only to praise the West with vague nods to abstract concepts such as democracy and freedom, hardly as viscerally meaningful as the "realness" and "harmony" ascribed to indigenous peoples.

Upon which ideally we would consider that among the Jale tribe in Indonesia, disputes and murder were common until foreigners encountered them in the 1960s. The same has been true of countless small groups.The Maori wiped out half of New Zealand's forests in five centuries. In the highlands of New Guinea, a boy's initiation ceremony has often consisted of having barbed grass pushed up his urethra until he bled, performing oral sex on an older man, and then being sodomized by another one.

Some bar mitzvah.Contrary to a common assumption that indigenous people are only driven to counterproductive practices in response to Western imperialism, all of these tribes' practices predated contact with Westerners.

So, we can acknowledge colonial slavery, global warming, every second person on the Upper West Side being in therapy, J. Edgar Hoover, Columbine, and its copycat spawn such as the shooting spree in Amish Country last week,the TV Show "Who's The Boss?", and so on. However, I see no grounds for celebrating small, obscure societies as having a direct line on truth and beauty that we urbanized, IPod-recharging automatons lack.

Small tribes are no strangers to xenophobia, brutality, and sexism, which is just as "real" among them as their folk songs. "Nasty, brutish and short" pretty much captures the life of Early Man as well as life in today's isolated tribes.To be sure, "alienated, selfish and long" captures equally well what a Western life too often is. But the lesson is that as often as not, "reality" is not just colorful dance costumes and an extensive knowledge of medicinal herbs, but exactly the lesser traits of humankind that are often portrayed as detours taken only by the evil West.

Watching the video of the women, for example, it occurred to me that in just about any indigenous culture that appeals to us with its close extended families and rich oral culture, the women are treated in ways that would nauseate most of us. The women in the video indeed live amidst a warm, thick community cohesiveness that many Westerners might rightly envy.

But they have to ask their husbands' permission to leave home.

As often as not, reality bites. If small groups living close to the land have some things to teach us, we Westerners can also be proud of many of the ways in which we have become artificial.

Original Source:



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