At the end of the nineteenth century, James George Frazer published a twelve volume study of various cultural practices from ancient times to our own. The book was titled The Golden Bough and was later brought out in a single volume, much edited, and has had a profound influence on cultural anthropology. Indeed, many regard it as a classic. I recently began to peruse the volume and found the following rather startling passage regarding the treatment of young women in primitive tribes:
“When symptoms of puberty appeared on a girl for the first time, the Guaranis of Southern Brazil, on the borders of Paraguay, used to sew her up in a hammock, leaving only a small opening in it to allow her to breathe. In this condition, wrapt up and shrouded like a corpse, she was kept for two or three days or as long as her symptoms lasted, and during this time she had to endure a most rigorous fast.”
This is only one of the practices enumerated by Frazer; several so-called “primitive” cultures did whatever necessary to seclude these young women from other members of the tribe until they had outgrown their “malady.” This includes the example of young women being secluded for as long as seven years in small tent-like buildings raised off the ground — until it was determined that they were safe to be among the other members of the community. Such passages are among the many Frazer includes by way of enlightening us about the way people have behaved over the centuries. And we might include in this list the ancient practice of Sati in which the husband’s wife is thrown on the funeral pyre at his death. Or it might include clitoridectomies in young women performed by a number of primitive tribes — with no anesthetic and with dull tools — to assure that those women become less promiscuous in their adult years. The list goes on and on.
In our day a postmodern army has taken over the universities and is intent on instructing the young about the crimes that have been committed in the name of Western Civilization; it makes a point of insisting that our civilization is rotten at the core and that, in the name of “cultural diversity,” students should learn about the superiority of other cultures. And all other cultures are ipso facto superior to our own, it is said. I dare say, Frazer’s book is not on the reading list. Nor is any mention made of the practices of the Guaranis. Nor, in all likelihood, are the other practices mentioned above. The idea is to make a point and that point is that Western Civilization is the main, perhaps the only, source of the many ills that have befallen humankind. It is only we, in the West, who are capable of unconscionable behavior to our fellow humans.
I am as aware as anyone else of the atrocities that have been committed — and indeed are even today committed — by our culture. I am aware of slavery and the abominable treatment of women and children for so many years; I am also aware of the genocide that was practiced against the native people of this continent in order to bring “civilization” to the New World. I am aware of the atrocities that are committed, even today in the name of capitalism and “freedom” that have resulted in the widespread poverty of millions of people in this country alone in order that a few can become terribly wealthy. I am, in general, aware of the sins committed by Western Civilization as it spread across the globe in an attempt to “civilize” the rest of the world.
But I am also aware that capitalism has made it possible for many to have so much more than they would otherwise have; that Western medicine has prolonged life and made us healthier than humans ever were before. I am aware of the beauty and the magnificence of the cathedrals that tower far into the sky in the name of God and “peace on earth,” and of the hundreds of thousands of beautiful works of art that are displayed around the world. As noted, I am also aware that the things we have done in the name of civilization are in many cases unconscionable. And it is this awareness, which applies to our own culture no less than it does to others equally barbarous, that is the result of the lessons that have been learned as Western Civilization was aborning. That includes the awareness of human rights — the rights of ALL humans. It also includes the awareness that such practices as Sati and clitoridectomies in young women are barbaric and violate universal moral principles such as the rights of all humans not to suffer needlessly. Finally, this awareness has raised moral outrage to a fever pitch in this country over the forced separation of children from their parents who seek asylum, forcing our would-be dictator to rescind his order and alter his plans — or so he says. That is to say, the awareness itself is the major prize of Western Civilization.
If we are going to teach young Americans to be more aware of the shortcomings of their own culture, it behooves us to also teach them of the strengths of their culture along with the shortcomings of other cultures. There is no such thing as “cultural superiority.” No culture on earth is without its errors, blunders, and atrocities. Ours is not unique in that regard.
I’ll sum it up thus: the creature, species-wide lacks empathy yet to its shame, is aware of the concept.
Good point. It’s not just us or them. It’s all of us.
I enjoyed this post, Hugh. It is important that we strive for balance in our awareness of our culture and that of others – as you say, to learn about the faults and the successes alike. Unfortunately, that requires an open-mindedness that is sadly lacking and not espoused or modeled by our leaders. I commend you on this thoughtful and instructive post.
Yes indeed. Let’s not start on our “leaders.” Thanks, John.
Hugh, well said. I found it interesting that one of the top things we could do to address the impact of climate change is treat women and girls better. Your story of sewing up a girl in puberty illustrates what not to do. The climate change point is the same as the one in “Half the Sky” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Women hold up half the sky; if they are treated better, hopefully as equals, it is not only the right thing to do, it is the wise thing to do. If you do not, then your country or tribe is competing in a world with only 1/2 its intellectual capital. You committing yourself to failure.
There is an old business book called “Play to your strengths.” Yes, even companies and countries have shortcomings, but if we play to our strengths, then we stand a better chance of being successful. One thing is for certain, countries or organizations don’t flourish if they don’t tap all of their resources. Keith
Many thanks for the interesting point. Your final comment is spot on!
I seem to have been missing some brain parts since birth, for the very idea of “superiority” is an alien concept that I will never understand, though some have tried hard to pound it into my head. The value of history is that we learn from it, else we are doomed to keep making the same mistakes over and over again (I will do you a favour and not opine on this right now). History is not intended to be a cudgel with which to beat ourselves for our past mistakes. Thanks for a thought-provoking — as you always do — post, my friend!
The notion that a culture (any culture) is superior to another is absurd. But clearly some folks are superior to others, No? I would guess that Mother Teresa was superior to Eichmann — i.e, a better person. Some comparisons make sense. Others do not.
Well … I fully agree that a superior race or culture is a load of bullpoop. As for individuals being superior … I agree in practice. For example, some of the ‘good people’ I feature on Wednesdays are certainly better people than, say, Scott Pruitt. But in what way? Define superiority. Morally superior? Intellectually superior? Physically superior? But I do tend to think of certain people as being better than others. It just appears that people may set different criteria for what constitutes ‘good’. To me, it is a combination of compassion, energy, and courage. Others may set the standard based on religious beliefs. I must think on this some more …
I tend to think that your criteria for “good people” would be acceptable to most. They are quite reasonable — admitting that there are some who would insist that Pruitt is a better person than Mother Teresa. I would simply ask them why they think so — and I suspect they would have no basis for the judgment at all!