27 Feb 2013

Tribal People Cop Savage Treatment

By Jonathan Mazower
What connects a new book by Jared Diamond and a legal imbroglio featuring Channel 7? The stubborn persistence of outmoded ideas about the 'savagery' of tribal people, writes Jonathan Mazower
Two apparently trivial events currently being played out in Australia are in fact episodes in a global battle which Aboriginal (and non-Aboriginal) people should be keenly interested in.

The first is American author Jared Diamond's promotional tour for his new book "The World Until Yesterday: what can we learn from traditional societies?" The second is this week's judicial review in the Federal Court of an ACMA ruling that Channel 7 broke the "racism clause" of the Broadcasting Code of Practice in its report on a Brazilian tribe.

The Channel 7 report, broadcast in September 2011, depicted the Suruwaha tribe of the Brazilian Amazon as child-killers, "Stone Age" relics, and "one of the worst human rights violators in the world". Survival International complained to Australia's regulator ACMA after Channel 7 refused to issue a correction to its report.

Survival's director Stephen Corry said at the time, "This was one of the worst reports about contemporary tribal people we'd ever seen. The Indians were made out to be cruel and inhuman monsters, in the spirit of 19th century colonialist scorn for 'primitive savages'."

After a lengthy investigation, ACMA upheld Survival's complaint, but Channel 7 instantly went to court to get the ruling overturned, not on the grounds that the finding was in itself wrong, but rather that ACMA's interpretation of its own powers was faulty. That hearing opens in the Federal Court in Sydney on Wednesday.

What does that have to do with Jared Diamond? Currently on the Australian leg of a PR tour that's already taken in the US and much of Europe, the Pulitzer Prize-winner's latest book is at first glance an uncontroversial look at how tribal societies have much to teach the West on subjects like child-rearing and treatment of the elderly.

But there is a sinister, and not-so-hidden, theme in the book which has received surprisingly little attention. It is that tribal peoples live in a state of constant warfare, are racked by violence, and need state control to be imposed on them in order to bring them peace.

I suspect many in the Aboriginal community would disagree with Diamond's assertion that they've been much better off since the British colonised their lands and curbed their supposed constant violence. Across the Torres Strait, many in West Papua have reacted with outrage: when 100,000 of your people have been killed by Indonesian hit squads, state control doesn't seem wonderful.

Diamond's message, and the message of the Channel 7 report, are essentially the same: that tribal peoples are barbaric, violent killers — savages, in other words. Of course, Diamond's book is phrased in much more nuanced and careful language than the Channel 7 report, but the underlying message is very similar.

Why does any of this matter? For one thing there's the question of violence: there is a clear push on the part of a significant sector of intellectual opinion (Channel 7, I think, was reflecting this rather than shaping it) to promote the idea that tribal societies are much more violent than anyone else. The Harvard scientist and popular author Steven Pinker is perhaps the most prominent exponent of this campaign. Needless to say, this debate has been conducted without any involvement from indigenous peoples themselves.

There's also the question of "today". For Channel 7, visiting the Suruwaha was "literally time-travelling back 10,000 years" (although to everyone else it still appeared to be 2011). For Diamond, tribal people are "yesterday's" people, evolutionary relics who can tell us how "we" lived thousands of years ago.

The logical consequence, of course, of this belief is that the sooner today's indigenous people "catch up" with the modern world, the better. I expect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may have a different view.

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Tom Calthorpe
Posted Wednesday, February 27, 2013 - 19:04

I haven't read Diamond's latest book but I'm familiar with his previous work. Diamond has spent decades observing aboriginal communities and has drawn conclusions accordingly. He is an expert and a scientist, not a philosopher or a propagandist, and speaks from facts, not opinion. Are you sure you're not confusing racism with criticism?

This user is a New Matilda supporter. Tim Macknay
Posted Wednesday, February 27, 2013 - 19:46

You're oversimplifying, Tom. Diamond may well be an expert, but his views are by no means universally accepted by anthropologists and archaeologists. Intepretations of the customs of tribal communities are generally controversial at the best of times, and the line between "fact" and "opinion" in the social sciences is notoriously unclear.

I don't know if Diamond is correct that life in tribal societies are generally more violent than in modern states (he certainly might be), but even if he is correct, his prescription to be extraordinarily naive, given that the impact on tribal peoples of intervention by moderns has generally been catastrophic.

Adrien Sword
Posted Wednesday, February 27, 2013 - 20:45

I don't think Diamond's assertions about 'the world until yesterday' would fit neatly into current political thinking about 'racism' or the way in which indigenous people are regarded. The relationship of individuals to the use of violence will depend on the environment and the 'monopoly of violence' supposedly enjoyed by modern states creates a different environment to that in which hunter-gatherer communities live.

Obviously the idea that civilization is a respecter of human rights and that tribal peoples are not is spurious. Human rights are ideas that come with the establishment of the modern state and thru long struggle and idealistic development. The notion is not pertinent to tribal life.

On the the other hand the respectful silence of American Natives in their councils as contrasted by the bombastic discourtesy regularly displayed by members of British Parliament toward one another as noted by Benjamin Franklin in his ironically entitled essay "On The Savages" in addition to the behaviour of the government he helped establish toward these same 'savages' after the Civil War throw a little more light on the supposed pacifistic tendencies of civilization.

As vast as was the suffering rendered on American Natives by the US government was it was not peculiar to it or to modern civilization. Genocidal tendencies toward people who are not 'of the people' is unfortunately a feature of human life throughout the ages. Ask the Canaanites. Oh that's right you can't. Why Because they aren't there anymore. Someone killed 'em.

Tom Calthorpe
Posted Thursday, February 28, 2013 - 12:25

Hi Tim - I probably am over simplifying and I don't disagree with your points. My main argument was and is, that the accusation of racism was way completely unjustified.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. Tim Macknay
Posted Thursday, February 28, 2013 - 13:32

Hi Tom. I agree. It's neither fair nor accurate to call Diamond a racist.

Posted Thursday, February 28, 2013 - 16:01

Jared Diamond is not a reputable scientist when it comes to history, economics, or archaeology but that hasn't stopped him making grand pronouncements, full of errors, nonsense, and simplicticism. He's a physiologist, not a socio-historical scientist. Anybody who knows in depth about the topics he writes on these days is shocked that peope take him seriously. But that's the media/airport age we live in. He's only interested in making money and pandering to a range of prejudices.

Posted Thursday, February 28, 2013 - 16:14

"It is that tribal peoples live in a state of constant warfare, are racked by violence, and need state control to be imposed on them in order to bring them peace. "

Diamond says we all have disputes and we are all potentially violent. In a modern society, violence is ceded to the state and disputes are (mostly) resolved by laws, police and courts. While the state is strong it keeps a lid on violence. That said, every traditional society is different, with different environments, cultural norms and governance, and so levels of violence differ.

I haven't read Diamonds latest book but I don't think that Diamond would argue that they "need" state control in the same Manichean sense that you are using it. He uses a more neutral cause and effect language in his books and when speaking. He would say that if they move into a state system they will typically end up with a lower level of violence which will be a benefit (and this could be a factor in their choice, if they get one.)

‘Primitive savages’ and 'noble savages' are archetypes; reality it complex.

Posted Thursday, February 28, 2013 - 16:21

I've read the book and interviewed Diamond for several media stories. Nowhere does he say tribal people are 'better off' with state control. His message is that there are aspects to modern civilisation (for want of a less offensive term) and aspects of traditional societies (more accurate than 'tribal people') that would benefit us all.

He also isn't talking about everyone who doesn't live in cities in the West/developed world. The basis for his observations of the violence in traditional societies is extremely remote, very small societies in New Guinea who have little to no contact from the outside world. He asserts that's the way humanity lived until relatively recently (ie 5,000 years ago) so extrapolates from there that violence and warfare would have been commonplace in the absence of formal dispute systems like courts and laws.

Posted Thursday, February 28, 2013 - 17:45

God, this smacks of PC claptrap.

Jared Diamond has spent quite a lot of time in New Guinea. I tend to think he knows what he's talking about. You might want to read of Tim Flannery's experiences as well, talking to people who had been on cannibal raids. I don't think he made it all up.

Now is the violence that was/is often present in tribal society worse than the organised wholesale bloodshed of industrial warfare? That's an interesting question. I'm sure that the most hardened Zulu, Apache or PNG highland warrior have reacted with revulsion at the slaughter we civilised folk have engaged in over the last century.

So does that reaction make <i>them</i>'racist'? The proposition is absurd. As it is when posed in reverse.

Adrien Sword
Posted Thursday, February 28, 2013 - 20:26

<em>Jared Diamond is not a reputable scientist when it comes to history, economics, or archaeology</em>

That's good because none of those disciplines are sciences. :)

Posted Friday, March 1, 2013 - 15:28

I am reading the book right now, and have read some of his other books. His writings resonate with me and I find them very thought-provoking.

To label his writings 'racist' is way off the mark.

The term racism along with some other fashionable buzz words (eg anti-semitic or xenophobic) is over-used, more often than not wrongly used, and used as a hate word that rolls easily off the tongue.
It should be banned from the dictionary.

Posted Saturday, March 2, 2013 - 14:03

Writing books to vilify people before you slaughter them for their land etc... is typical of white fellows approach.

Thats why the Jews said the Pen is Mightier then the sword, because the sword you have to use yourself. But if you can get Catholics to kill Catholics or American Indian to kill American Indian, or Maori to kill Maori with the stroke of a pen and a few lies, thats a Bonus.

So, what purpose behind the book, which Corporation or Nation Commisioned it, thats the question.

Read American History and how they got all those brain dead Catholics over their interested in killing other Catholics in Europe.

Ask why did Hitler crawl up the Popes backside for save keeping, only to find the stench of over population and economic colapse by the same said idiots because they couldn't be bothered wearing Condoms. Hence we slaughtered 150 million between 1915 and 1945.

Known knowns and known unknowns or unknown knowns?.