We’re facing a great extinction of human indigenous cultures and languages and peoples and wisdoms. More than most people I’m focused on this subject, and on learning what we can and what we must from the great variety of traditional, hunter-gatherer, ‘close(r) to nature’ tribes and nations and wisdoms that are threatened or that have disappeared.
(we, the world mono-culture, as well as we, the Jewish/Israeli subculture I most identify with.)
But among those who are also highlighting this issue and fighting for indigenous rights–I’m right now thinking of Wade Davis’ lecture on TED on behalf of his role as National Geographic photographer, but it applies in general to most people who write on this subject– is an unexamined belief that we should preserve as many, or all, of these remaining cultures as we can. That we should embrace a certain kind of radical equality of cultures, at least of all of those who didn’t fall into the generally congruent sets of ‘sins’ that encompass the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, colonization.
Usually I’m the one making an argument along these lines– that some of these cultures were superior in many ways to civilizational or modern or our cultures, that we all should consider those values as alternatives, etc.
I want to agree, passionately, with the plea to stop destroying the world’s remaining indigenous cultures and habitats, yes, to stop wrecking the ethnic diversity as well as the biodiversity of the planet.
But there’s a caveat. I found in Davis, as with others who make the multiculturalism argument, a dangerous presumption of moral relativity. Study the following statement carefully: All Cultures Are Not Created Equal.
There are some values, some practices, some ideas, some moralities that SHOULD be destroyed, that are NOT ok.
From cannibals in the Ecuadorian Amazon (see Schneebaum’s “Keep the River on your Right”) to the New Guinea tribe where initiation for teenage boys includes brutal homosexual violation (mentioned in Gladwell’s “Blink”) to honor killings of girls by Muslims in a number of locales, we must remember that human cultures do have distortions that are not mere relative and arbitrary distinctions.
Certain customs should not be allowed to continue, even if we don’t fully understand the meaning and context of how and why they do what they do, even if certain rituals or wisdoms will be lost forever. I’m quite happy that the Aztec mass-sacrifice-cannibalism ceremonies will never happen again, even if I have to thank a conquistador for that. It is often forgotten that the British Empire, certainly guilty of great disruption and devastation to more of the world’s land, peoples, and cultures, than just about any other people or entity, was also almost single-handedly responsible for ending slavery on almost all the Earth.
What this does imply is that there is a universal standard of morality. This is different from a universal morality, such as the Christian missionaries or crusaders, or today’s al Qaeda or Ayatollahs, would impose.
In a world of globalization and global awareness and global ecological interdependence, all of us are now at least minimally interested in all others. Rather than being dictated by a Pope or by the pathetically ineffectual UN, this standard needs to be more like the communal, consensual standards of behavior that govern (or used to govern) most indigenous polities around the world. Plenty of room for each to do his or her own thing, but with limits… when one culture is out of line, there needs to be a real mechanism for the consensus of peoples to change it, to not accept it, to provide safe havens and alternatives for victims. In the worst cases, let’s face it, there does need to be conquest and de-Nazification of errant cultures. The world has become too small for us each to ignore the other’s dirty laundry.
Many nation-states are corrupt dictatorships or worse, therefore the UN is doomed to failure, as it is only a representative body of those particular nations’ regimes and their interests. Many peoples and nations– particularly indigenous– are not represented, and can’t be effectively empowered without destabilizing a great many nation-states. (That might need to happen…)
We need to think out of the current boxes– but not with mere platitudes and an uncritical belief in equality of cultures, values, and moralities. And we need to have this conversation soon– because the world’s ecological crises are inextricably bound up with these issues of power and land-based wisdom. Maybe we need to solve this first before worrying about carbon footprints…