Consummate dilettantism!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Is It "Ethnocentrism" If They're Barbarians?

I say no. Via CNN:
A city official in the remote Brazilian Amazon village of Envira told CNN that five members of the Kulina tribe are on the run after being accused of murdering, butchering and eating a farmer in a ritual act of cannibalism.

The village's chief of staff, Maronilton da Silva Clementino, said Kulina tribesmen took the life of Ocelio Alves de Carvalho, 19, last week on the outskirts of Envira, which is in the far western part of Brazil that bumps up against Peru.

Portal Amazonia newspaper reported that the Indians escaped after being held for a few hours in the city's police station.

No arrest warrants were issued. Brazilian law does not allow the military or civil police to enter Indian lands, Portal Amazonia reported.

It is still unknown how many people took part in the alleged cannibalistic ritual, although several Indians have fled into the jungle fearing prosecution, the newspaper Diario do Amazonas reported.

Clementino said the victim was herding cattle when he met with a group of Indians who invited him back to their village.

"They knew each other and they sometimes helped one another. They invited him to their reservation three days ago and he was never seen again," Clementino said.

"The family decided to go into the reservation and that's when they saw his body quartered and his skull hanging on a tree. It was very tragic for the family," he said.

The news of the incident came from the Indians themselves, who apparently bragged about eating the man's organs, Clementino said.

Members of the tribe told residents of Envira -- where 190 Kulina families brush shoulders with non-tribal Brazilians -- that they held a cannibalistic ritual in which they cooked the victim's organs, Clementino said.

He said Kulina Indians began surrounding the police station where the suspects were briefly interrogated.

Villagers told authorities they are incensed by the lack of response from FUNAI, Brazil's National Indian Foundation.

"The family is very frustrated with the law here, which protects the Indians and doesn't help protect us," he said. "They start drinking and local farmers here are afraid who could be next."

Clementino said groups Indians -- often outnumbering police -- pose a security threat to locals.
In other news, please don't go on and on about the superiority of your culture because of its alleged antiquity. There is a number of problems with this line of reasoning:

1. Most obviously, the antiquity of a culture does not imply its superiority. Most of us would deem liberalism superior to despotism, but the fact remains that liberal "cultures" are much younger than despotic ones. (Whence the scare quotes? See my next points.)

2. It is often hard to define what a culture is and what continuity is. Can we call 3,000 years of Judaism, for example, a unified culture? In some respects, perhaps, but not in others; the original Semitic Hebrews would have little in common with the reformed Caucasian German Jews of today. The two are bound by a book and some language (classical Hebrew can usually be understood by speakers of resurrected modern Hebrew), but the former would strike us as closer to the Muslim Bedouin than the Germans in dress, culture, philosophy, and even religion. In fact, the vast majority of cultures barely share language with their predecessor cultures; in what respects can modern Indians be said to share culture with their ancestors when Hindi is as related to Sanskrit as Italian is to Latin? In what respects the Chinese when spoken classical/old "Chinese" (for it shares mostly the script, and even that becomes less true before the 5th century) cannot be understood by most speakers of modern Mandarin? The modern Indians are indeed far more culturally similar to the ancient Indians than the modern Chinese are to them, but it is important to realize that a continuum is present; it is exceedingly difficult to call 2,000 or 3,000 years of various religions, philosophies, dresses, languages, and ideologies one culture.

3. There is no such thing as a culture that does not borrow from others. Chinese culture was profoundly influenced by Buddhism for thousands of years, and it is now almost inseparable from it. Buddhism, however, originated in India; its earliest, post-pre-sectarian form is Theravada Buddhism. But what is most common in East Asia is Mahayana Buddhism, a somewhat different religion from what the Indians established. The mark of Persian and Arab culture on India runs deep; to use an example other than the obvious Arab/Muslim conquests of India, the Delhi Sultanate, which ruled northern India for centuries, was very much a Persian institution. There is no progenitor civilization (important for our purposes, that is): Nearly all advanced "cultures" are extraordinarily impure.

My point is not that there is no such thing as superiority and inferiority in cultures, nor is it that some cultures can be called superior or inferior to others. What I mean to say is that some aspects of cultures can rightly be called barbaric, just as we call criminals barbaric. I would not be called ethnocentric for calling Jeffrey Dahmer an anthropophagic pig; why, then, might I be called ethnocentric for calling the cannibalism of the Kulina tribe disgusting, or the appallingly common female genital mutilation of Somalia disgusting?

N.B.: I am not calling the Kulina barbaric; I am calling these cannibals barbaric. Cannibalism is probably more common in this tribe than in others, but surely not every Kulina is a cannibal.

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