Angry Toxicologist

I read a couple of critiques of Going Tribal (Or Tribe depending on whether you watch via the BBC or the Discovery Channel) lately that piqued my interest. The first was by The Times and the other was from Short Sharp Science(S^3).

For the uninitiated, the Times gives a pretty good, if rather snarky, synopsis of a show:

Parry lands in remote spot, meets suspicious tribal elders, gets injected with jumba-wamba juice, trips out, vomits and defecates wildly, is accepted into the tribe and finally goes home refreshed and confident in the knowledge that the world’s indigenous peoples are, like, special and stuff.

The Times go on…

[Y]ou almost forget that you’re watching obscene postcolonial pygmy tourism masquerading as eco-entertainment. While, ultimately, his grip is so assured that he makes you forget that Tribe is fundamentally Dirty Sanchez for grown-ups, complete with skin-piercing antics and vomit-splattered money shots, but without the expletives and beer.

On those two critiques, I’d have to partially agree with the second; there are a lot of cheap, dirty, cringing thrills involved. Think: penis turned inside out (I’m with you, reader -> ?). However, there is some value in learning about how other cultures operate. The first critique is common among the critics and it mirrored in a more even handed way by S^3 (which is a great collection of the different responses to the show – kudos to Lucy Middleton). The concern is with the paternalistic tendencies of these shows. The implication is that the show causes us to judge or look down on these cultures and that’s a bad thing. The other concern raised by S^3 is that

There are over 40,000 isolated people that remain today, most of whom (see the Man of the hole and the Sentinilese) do not want contact with the outside world. Now more of us are aware of these people and their rapidly changing lives, the question is: is there anything we can do to stop them from being contacted? Other than building an impenetrable barrier between them and the outside world (which just isn’t practical) and protecting their land (not always that effective in keeping out loggers and oil companies), what else can we do?

I suggest we back up a bit and ask the question, is it a bad thing to contact these people or integrate them into the rest of the world? Assuming this is a bad thing this conveys either a sense of guilt of the developed world that our world is, in fact, of less value and we shouldn’t allow these people to slum down into our material lifestyle or a sense that these people couldn’t thrive in a connected world. Otherwise, allowing them to connect into the real world would be considered a good thing. And if they don’t want to, they don’t have to.

While you’re chewing on that, chew on this: The things that a lot of these tribes do to their members would be considered torture and child abuse anywhere else in the world. If we take the premise that all people are created equal, how is it acceptable for people to treat their children like this in a isolated society but not in Brooklyn? Are we not allowed to look down on those practices? (note I said practices not people) What if we did that for all cultures? What if we told people: “That’s just KKK the culture, they grew up that way and it’s part of their community ritual so let them be”? This arguement was actually used quite often by southerners in the 1700s-1800s to justify slavery.

It seems that in our culture it’s okay to demand change and sling mud against those who are viewed as ‘on top’ and excuse bad behavior by those we see as oppressed. Possibly those who are dominant in society should meet a higher standard. What this comes down to really, is where to draw the line between respect for the different values of a culture and hard definitions bewteen right and wrong. It seems that a lot of western society has gotten too relativist in its outlook. Of course, there is a lot of western society that has gone overboard the other way (seeing the world as evil vs good; black vs white). So, I’ve got no answers but it’s just something to chew on during your friday (aside from your Friday Doughnut).

Men are easy
Sheril Kirshenbaum posts over on The Intersection about a study that basically showed that men will choose for a date anyone over a certain looks threshold, while women are more picky and leverage their attractiveness to get the best guy they think they can (while trying not to over-shoot). The problem with this study as I see it is that this was based on a study of speed dating. Guys also know their attractiveness to some degree it seems and know who is in or out of their league and also after a few minutes, more than looks is needed for anyone. At least with the people I’ve known, males are just as picky but they aren’t as self aware that they are being picky (I like them/ don’t like them vs I like/don’t like x, y, z). Read more here. Unscientifically (it is friday!), I think that what men and women are attracted to has more to do with what they didn’t like about their previous boyfriends/girlfriends than anything else.

Weekly Aural Pleasure:
That seemed a little heavy for a friday morning so hopefully these will perk you up. Talking a lot about supplements earlier got me thinking about the Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (she takes lots of vitamins). The video isn’t too good but the song is one of my favorites. A good example of how if the tune is great the lyrics don’t matter much. Of course, the lyrics are brilliant in their own way.

Bonus Aural Pleasure: In my head today so here is the amazing Belle and Sebastian. It’s certainly got a friday feel.

Happy Friday!

Comments

  1. #1 George Gartley, RN
    September 7, 2007

    After reading your non-science friday comments on “primative” cultures I felt obliged to pass on a great little book on the subject called “Ishmel” by Daniel Quinn. It’a a parable told by a telepathic gorilla and attempts to explain why things are the way they are today and in the process shows just how important it is to help maintain these last few dwindling cultures and what they have to teach us about our approach to life on this planet. It’s a quick read and provides lots of food for thought.

    Greatly enjoy your blogg. I’m a redhead with fair skin and have switched to your recommended sun screen.

    George

  2. #2 Jolly Bloger
    September 7, 2007

    Two comments about your Going Tribal post. First, I think that if these isolated people were neutral to annexation by the west then you would be absolutely right. By what right should we NOT try to contact them? However, if they explicitly make it clear that they do not want contact, then it isn’t necessarily guilt that keeps us from intruding on their lives, it is respect for their wishes. You could certainly argue though that they simply aren’t aware of the benefits we can offer them, and we have an obligation to help them become fully aware before they make a decision.

    Secondly, I think there’s a big difference between what people do Over There and what they do Right Here. What I mean is that if a group was involved in, say, genital mutilation in Brooklyn, we would not only look down on them, but put an immediate stop to it because they live within American borders and are subject to American law. If a primitive tribe in a far off country practices genital mutilation, then yes there’s absolutely nothing compelling us to respect or approve of it, but we can do nothing about it because we have no legal jurisdiction there (you could declare war on the country, but doesn’t our right to physically intervene in the moral decisions of others end at our borders?). You didn’t say anyone should, but to draw a comparison with the KKK which operated within American borders but outside of American laws is, I think, inaccurate.

  3. #3 angrytoxicologist
    September 7, 2007

    Jolly,
    Agreed that there isn’t much we can do about it (short of starting conflicts – a greater evil to be sure). However, I think the attitude of “let’s not criticize other cultures just because they are other cultures” does effect other actions and attitudes. At the very least, I think that the critisms of the show are unfounded.

    From a philosophical standpoint, I don’t think it’s their wishes that keeps us from contacting them. A simple wish to be left alone doesn’t make much sense. If I moved to the middle of Montana with a but of friends and did illegial stuff, our wish to simply be left alone wouldn’t really cut it (as you mentioned, it has more to do with legal jurisdiction than about morals).

  4. #4 Fnord Prefect
    September 7, 2007

    Just to throw in my two cents, I attended a bullfight in Puerta Vallarta a couple years ago. The inexpert opening matador missed with the sword a few times as the bull, large calf really, screamed in pain for about 15 minutes. Don’t make me out as a PETA fanatic, I was raised in farm country and eat meat. But the whole idea that we have to respect other cultures’ practices is BS. How can we criticize Mike Vick to the nth degree and turn around and say what I witnessed is fine and dandy, just because it is “over there”.

  5. #5 Jolly Bloger
    September 7, 2007

    Sorry if I implied that we should bite our tongues because they are far away. I certainly agree that some cultural practices are deplorable, like bullfighting or forced mutilation. We should criticize and rally against these things as strongly as we would if they happened in our own backyards. My point was that are restricted to academic methods like debate and book writing, and we aren’t able to physically enforce our laws on people not in our countries.

    Love the blog by the way, but my green tea loving friends aren’t so happy I read it…

  6. #6 Jolly Bloger
    September 7, 2007

    Sorry if I implied that we should bite our tongues because they are far away. I certainly agree that some cultural practices are deplorable, like bullfighting or forced mutilation. We should criticize and rally against these things as strongly as we would if they happened in our own backyards. My point was that are restricted to academic methods like debate and book writing, and we aren’t able to physically enforce our laws on people not in our countries.

    Love the blog by the way, but my green tea loving friends aren’t so happy I read it…

  7. #7 Luna_the_cat
    September 11, 2007

    You ask:

    …is it a bad thing to contact these people or integrate them into the rest of the world? Assuming this is a bad thing this conveys either a sense of guilt of the developed world that our world is, in fact, of less value and we shouldn’t allow these people to slum down into our material lifestyle or a sense that these people couldn’t thrive in a connected world. Otherwise, allowing them to connect into the real world would be considered a good thing. And if they don’t want to, they don’t have to.

    Given that many cultures which don’t want outside contact AREN’T actually given a chance to “opt out” if they want to, it is an issue worth commenting on in the show. A lot of these cultures, or people, find themselves in real estate suddenly in demand by the outside world because of the resources in it or under it, or just because the people around them want more land…and then they usually have a choice of signing on with the people who want the resources, or being forcably ejected, or in a worst-case scenario (if they won’t integrate and won’t move) being killed. This isn’t just an issue of whether or not their kids should know about iPods. It’s quite often a survival thing in the most fundamental sense of “survival”. Trivialising it, even with the best of intentions, doesn’t help — but drawing more attention to the issue of a right to remain isolated, might.

  8. #8 snowdahlia
    September 13, 2007

    We in the West have a naive and romantic notion of how wonderfully “auuthentic” primitive peoples are, and those notions would persist until about five minutes after we arrived in their midst and began living by their rules. All societies – theirs, ours, everybody’s – are full of injustice, hypocrisy and difficulties of various sorts, and if we want to fully honor other peoples, let’s simply recognize that they aren’t specimens to be studied, but humans with fully realized, complex and even unattractive characteristics. (And Jolly Blogger is right; we have no legal right to enforce our standards of behavior on people outside our own country, as much as we might want to.)

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