Daniel Everett’s book about the Piraha Indians of Peru isn’t what I’d call a masterful work of anthropology. Just a fairly readable account of his time doing fieldwork as a linguist in the Amazon.
It’s not until a third of the way through the book that we learn it’s also a profound challenge to everything we believe.
Typically for this kind of memoir, Everett writes with affection of the indigenous people he met. He takes pains to emphasize that the Piraha, though technologically unimpressive, aren’t barbaric or stupid, just a group of people that has settled down into an unusual but workable cultural arrangement, a rapprochement with the demands of a difficult environment. You might say they’re not so different from us.
And then we learn, in an offhand remark, that “most men” in the village have been involved in the gang-rape of a young girl.
Most men? And people know about it? And freely talk about it? And they haven’t been punished?
That sounds even worse than the situation in America. At least here, when a people conspire to cover up a gang rape, they’re expected to pretend not to know about it. And however common these kinds of crimes are in our culture, it’s considered newsworthy to find a town where most men have been involved in one.
What do we make of this? How do we fit such a fact into the moral framework of contemporary liberalism? We disapprove of gang rapes, sure. But what can we say about this particular gang rape?
In America, anyone who takes part in a gang rape is a bad person. Not just bad. Evil. Monstrous. Beyond the pale.
So what about the Piraha men? Are they inherently bad people? Everett tells us they don’t “approve” of violent acts like gang rapes. But here they’ve gone and committed one anyway, and according to him, no one seems to care. Is Piraha society infected with rape culture? Is their rape culture worse than our rape culture? In their own village, these men have escaped both retribution and condemnation. What does that say about them?
We could challenge Everett’s account, call him a liar. But he’s lived among the Piraha. Most of us haven’t. What grounds do we have for dismissing his account?
We could say the Piraha have a sick society, since for all intents and purposes it condones gang rape. But that would be ethnocentric, imperialistic, jingoistic.
We could say that gang rape is okay for the Pirahas but not okay for us. Different cultures, different worlds. Let’s respect local traditions, including traditions that excuse or sanction gang rape. But that’s patronizing and potentially exoticizing. And it opens a loophole for sexism. Sure, gang rape’s okay as long those people are doing it, but we hold ourselves to a different (higher?) standard.
We could say that gang rape is essentially universal. All kinds of people commit gang rape. Lots of societies (if not all) have this problem, therefore the Piraha shouldn’t be singled out for reproof. Should we then have the same reaction when Americans gang rape each other? Should we say, “Well, that’s terrible and all, but you know, it’s not so unusual.” Can gang rape be shrugged off? Is it “just a thing men do”?
We could argue that the Piraha gang rape only happened because a foreign person came and interfered in Piraha society, and if Everett hadn’t been poking around their village, the rape probably wouldn’t have taken place. Call it the Anthropological Uncertainty Principle: the act of observing a cultural event should be taken as a contributing cause of that event. I think this is an intellectual dead end; it suggests that anthropological study is, strictly speaking, impossible.
In the case of the Piraha, as it happens, we can cobble together a more sophisticated version of the same argument. As Everett explains, European invaders disrupted the society of their ancestors. No one seems to know for sure, but it’s possible the Piraha are descendants of refugees from a Spanish-inflicted cataclysm. Maybe their society was hopelessly twisted by the trauma. Maybe that’s why they’re so casual about gang-raping people.
This seems awfully reductive. Besides, the cataclysm in question was over three hundred years ago. Any society can trace its history back to some disaster or conquest or forced migration. How much time has to go by before we grant a people ownership of their cultural legacy? The Piraha differ in meaningful ways from neighboring tribes with a similar history. Are they all just helpless victims of history? If so, what accounts for the cultural variations?
The easiest solution is to say, “Stop worrying about the Piraha! We have plenty of problems right here at home, not only gang rapes but bigotry and classism and sexism of every flavor. We can worry about judging the Piraha when we’ve cleaned up our own mess.”
In other words, we’ll reserve judgment. But isn’t this just another variety of ethnocentrism? The Piraha might be fine to look at, this attitude suggests, interesting to study, intriguing in many ways, but our real focus should always be on America’s moral failings. America and Europe. Plus Japan and China. Maybe India. You know: civilized people.
Even if we limit our focus to America, we run into new iterations of the same dilemma. Muslim-Americans who discriminate against gays. Gay men who say nasty things about women. Women who are hostile to trans activists. Blacks who are anti-Semitic. Jews who are racist. Rich people who exploit the poor. Poor people who fear foreigners. Religious folks who are anti-science. Atheists who are anti-Muslim.
George Carlin had a famous comedy routine in which he recited words you can’t say on television. We could draw up a similar list of beliefs you can’t convey on television. Beliefs that would make coastal liberals fighting mad. Sexism, racism, ableism. Islamophobia. Homophobia. Transphobia. Thinking fat people are funny. Thinking sexual harassment is funny. Thinking it’s sexy when a guy kisses a woman without asking. Thinking it’s okay to poke fun at other cultures.
But a whole lot of Americans hold at least some of those views. A whole lot of people in the world hold at least some of those views. The Piraha hold quite a few of those views. Heck, Everett even tells us they condone pedophilia! What do we make of that?
Forget about looking to the past for guidance. We know those people believed and did horrible things. The best we can say about our ancestors is that many of them were so oppressed and beleaguered they left no record of their views at all. Those who did leave a record profited from systematic oppression, or cleaved to parochial religious beliefs, or were shockingly violent, or are virtually guaranteed to have held beliefs about race and sex that would strike us now as appallingly benighted.
Of course, there’s a stock response to this line of argument. That’s to say, “Yes, but come on. Lots of people in the past believed and did awful things. But we all know that white men were by far the worst. They did the most awful stuff. What’s more, they did it in a uniquely determined and systematic way. And a lot of them are still at it! You can’t temporize by waving your hands and saying, ‘Everybody’s biased!'”
Point granted. White men are by far the worst offenders, and we have been for at least, say, the last five hundred years. White men have proven to be uniquely evil.
But where does that leave us? If we’re taking a broad view of history, what do we say about the white women who were racists? About the black men who were sexist? About the billions of people, privileged or oppressed, who held hateful views toward foreigners and homosexuals and people of other faiths? Do we let them off the hook?
Do we say, “Well, they lived in the past, so it’s natural they believed wicked things”? Isn’t that the same excuse people make for the white male oppressors?
Do we say, “It’s wrong to judge those people; they had no power, or anyway they had less power than others.” Does this mean white male oppressors were the only people with moral agency? That only the powerful can be held to a moral standard? That the underprivileged are essentially amoral–not immoral, not wicked, but incapable of making meaningful moral decisions?
And let’s not even talk about other countries: sexism in India, homophobia in Iran, bigotry and fanaticism and elitism and parochialism everywhere you look.
Here’s what bothers me. By the ethical standards of the culture I’m talking about–liberal, educated Americans, who insists that these same standards be taken as firm guidelines, not just arbitrary ethical fashions–virtually every person who has ever lived has been inexcusably evil. Many of those people have been racists. A lot of them have been imperialists. Pretty much all of them have been cultural chauvinists. Most of the men have been sexists, and quite a few of the women, too. Let’s not even talk about exploitation of children, treatment of prisoners, respect for the handicapped, jokes about weight, handling of mental illness, or animal rights.
Most of the world’s people, past and present, would probably fail prevailing American tests of decency by almost every measure. Millions of Americans fail those tests right now. So if we take current liberal mores as a standard, we have to allow that virtually the entire human race, living and deceased, is not only flawed or wrongheaded or uninformed, but unpardonably monstrous–with the exception of a tiny group of people born during the last thirty or forty years.
That’s over one hundred billion people. One hundred billion people with odious beliefs. One hundred billion people who acted with–or tolerated–unforgivable cruelty. One hundred billion people whose views, habits, jokes, customs, opinions, assumptions, and societies can now only be contemplated with revulsion or contempt.
What does that say about those people?
What does it say about us?
Ignorance, my liberal friends often remind me, is no excuse. History is no excuse. Good intentions are no excuse. It’s not enough to say, “Well, opinions differ.” We’re talking about common decency–or what ought to be common decency. All those racists and rapists alive today? All those racists and rapists alive in the past? They should have known better.
One hundred billion people who can only be considered, in a word, inhuman.
The label for this attitude, in today’s America, is “tolerance.”
How do we make sense of the fact that, in the current worldview of educated Americans, essentially the entire human species is utterly reprehensible? That in our vaunted respect for all kinds of people, we’ve created what may be the most misanthropic and exclusionary subculture in history? That in our insistence on tolerance and humanism, we’re only willing to tolerate the views of, at most, one thousandth of one percent of humanity?
It bugs me.