Cultural hubris built on borrowed thoughts

Heinrich Khunrath: 'Cosmic Rose' 1595

Adam Etinson writes: In August of 1563, Michel de Montaigne, the famous French essayist, was introduced to three Brazilian cannibals who were visiting Rouen, France, at the invitation of King Charles the Ninth. The three men had never before left Brazil, had just been subjected to a long interrogation by the king (who was 13 years old at the time), and if they had not already contracted some dangerous European illness, they were surely undergoing a rather severe case of culture shock. Despite this, they still had enough poise to lucidly respond to Montaigne’s questions about what they thought of their new surroundings.

The observations shared by the native Brazilians have a certain comical quality. Because they looked on French society with such fresh eyes, their observations make the familiar seem absurd. But they are also morally revealing. First, the Brazilians expressed surprise that “so many tall, bearded men, all strong and well armed” (i.e., the king’s guard) were willing to take orders from a small child: something that would have been unthinkable in their own society. And second, the Brazilians were shocked by the severe inequality of French citizens, commenting on how some men “were gorged to the full with things of every sort” while others “were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty.” Since the Brazilians saw all human beings “as halves of one another… they found it strange that these poverty-stricken halves should suffer such injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throat or set fire to their houses.”

Montaigne records these observations in an essay entitled, “Des Cannibales.” Well ahead of its time, the essay challenges the haughty denigration of cannibals that was so common among Montaigne’s contemporaries, but not by arguing that cannibalism itself is a morally acceptable practice. Instead, Montaigne makes the more provocative claim that, as barbaric as these Brazilian cannibals may be, they are not nearly as barbaric as 16th-century Europeans themselves. To make his case, Montaigne cites various evidence: the wholesome simplicity and basic nobility of native Brazilian life; the fact that some European forms of punishment — which involved feeding people to dogs and pigs while they were still alive — were decidedly more horrendous than the native Brazilian practice of eating one’s enemies after they are dead; and the humane, egalitarian character of the Brazilians’ moral sensibility, which was on display in their recorded observations.

The fact that, despite all this, 16th-century Western Europeans remained so deeply convinced of their own moral and intellectual superiority was, to Montaigne, evidence of a more general phenomenon. He writes:

We all call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits. Indeed we seem to have no other criterion of truth and reason than the type and kind of opinions and customs current in the land where we live. There we always see the perfect religion, the perfect political system, the perfect and most accomplished way of doing everything.

Montaigne most certainly wasn’t the first to make note of our tendency to automatically assume the superiority of local beliefs and practices; Herodotus, the Greek historian of the fifth century B.C., made very similar observations in his Histories, noting how all peoples are “accustomed to regard their own customs as by far the best.” And in his famous Letter 93, which presents an early argument against religious toleration, the medieval Catholic theologian Saint Augustine laments the way in which old customs produce a closed-minded resistance to alternative beliefs and practices that, he argues, is best broken by the threat of punishment. When the 19th-century sociologist William Graham Sumner later named this tendency “ethnocentrism,” the term, and the allegation, became a mantra of 20th-century cultural anthropology.

Since some people might be reluctant to profit from cultural insights provided by cannibals, it’s worth adding some ethnographic detail to Montaigne’s account.

The people here referred to as “Brazilian cannibals” (of course there was no such country as Brazil at that time) would have been Tupinamba, whose population numbered an estimated one million when the Portuguese first arrived. Their practice was of ritual exocannibalism.

(Christians might note that those who receive the Eucharist are participating in a form of symbolic cannibalism. This ritualized consumption of human blood and flesh takes place in the context of a religion whose central motif is a sacred act of human execution following the vilification and torture of the emissary and embodiment of the deity. Whatever theological “yes, but…”s one might want to insert, there’s no escaping the fact that Christian iconography and belief can from the perspective of many other cultures look just as problematic as cannibalism.)

Lending new meaning to the expression, he got a name for himself, Meg Pickard explains:

[I]t is the taking of names which is the key to unlocking the reasons behind Tupinamba anthropophagy. The taking of captives was not to provide a source of slave labour, but rather to provide a fresh source of names for the community. The acquisition of names was extremely important in Tupinamba culture.

A man got a new name after killing a captive (or an enemy in warfare). Sometimes, the new name was that of the slain person. Furthermore, those involved in the ritual handling of the captive also gained new names – the women who dressed the captive, and who bit their arms in a taunting manner following his capture, and preceding his execution, and the men who prepared the arrows to be used, captured the prisoner, or who actually executed him all received new names. Other people surrounding the ritual might also have acquired new names – including, for example, the wife of the executioner. And it was the acquisition of names through warfare and the ritual execution of captives that led to inclusion in such activities as marriage, beer drinking or speaking in public. Without obtaining a name, or a lip-plug, or body scarification in this way, a man could not participate in any of these activities. It was believed that only the brave – and by definition, this meant those who had accumulated many names – would go on to the afterlife.

Furthermore, it was believed by both captives and the Tupinamba that it was actually preferable (more honourable and noble) to be killed and eaten than to die a natural death and be buried in the ground (and perhaps be eaten by animals), and indeed that “to be killed ceremonially and then eaten was the fate for which any brave longed once he had lost his liberty”.

So, having established that Montaigne’s Brazilian cannibals didn’t belong to a culture that prized the taste or nutritional value of human flesh, let’s return to the larger issue at hand: ethnocentrism.

While Etinson notes that ethnocentrism is universal, he neither explores what gives rise to this tendency or why among differing cultures ethnocentrism expresses itself in differing degrees.

As social animals, human beings attach immense value to social acceptance and social status. What facilitates social organization more than anything else is our capacity to mimic one another. We are like herding parrots.

In the chatter of human discourse we prefer to borrow the thoughts of others rather than conjure our own and will gladly mimic whichever thoughts are most popular. Ethnocentrism is a form of cultural group-think in which every participant’s status is elevated through mutual reinforcement of the same ideas of superiority.

Some people — particularly those who pride themselves as independent minded — may balk at the assertion that we are a herd animal always inclined to think each other’s thoughts.

Still, think about it: what is language itself if not the accumulation and sharing of borrowed thoughts? Without the borrowed thoughts out of which language is constructed we would have no thoughts at all!

If ethnocentrism is a form of cultural group-think, a number of factors, if combined, will drive this view to an extreme:

  • where ethnocentrism provides the basis for an ethnocracy;
  • within this ethnocracy there is a governing ethnic ideology;
  • a people already bound together by their own sense of uniqueness speaks a language spoken nowhere else;
  • this culture sees itself as surrounded by an alien, hostile, and inferior culture;
  • and within this embattled mindset an existential divide seems to separate the homeland from the rest of the world.

In such a context — yes, I’m talking about Israel — the need for cultural bridge-building has never be more great and neither has such an endeavor ever been more difficult.

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  1. Very interesting especially when I went and read the linked sources. I would only add that I’ve always thought of humans as pack animals rather that herd animals.