Wednesday, August 12, 2009

184. An Overwhelming Question -- Part 3

Just in case the point has not been made with sufficient force, I'd like to toss some direct quotes into the stew (with particularly apt passages highlighted in bold lettering). First, from Kisliuk's Performance and Modernity among BaAka Pygmies: A Closer Look at the Mystique of Egalitarian Foragers in the Rain Forest:
Ongoing, informal negotiation and disputed expectations are part of BaAka social dynamics and are highlighted in performance. An "egalitarian" sensibility, coupled with individual autonomy, makes for a cultural climate of constant negotiation (p. 30).

Like other BaAka songs, the texture of interlocked voices and rhythms in "Dumana" might also be seen as a performed example of BaAka egalitarianism -- or at least nonauthoritarianism -- wherein each voice and body acts in semiautonomous interrelationship with the others (p. 35).

Coming from a relatively competetive and sexist culture, I did not see that Motindo, a man, had good-naturedly made himself look silly so that a woman -- in this case me -- could follow and look good (pp. 39-40).

Dingboku and Elamba could be seen as subversive insofar as women performatively define and assert their gendered experience within a relatively egalitarian but still male-dominated environment. Nevertheless, BaAka also show a flexibility and malleability of gender roles and gender relationships . . . in response to changing circumstances . . . (p. 43).
From Kisliuk's book, Seize the Dance:
I was learning the hard way that the idea that a leader can "stand for" a group is in fact counter to the individualistic egalitarian social life that BaAka usually maintain (p. 73).

Hewlett . . . has observed that BaAka men participate in child rearing to an extent far greater than men in most societies (p. 141).

On another occasion I brought a tomato to the Bagandou camp . . . I gave a wedge to Bandit sitting beside me, expecting him to pop it in his mouth. Instead, he proceeded to call for a knife and cut the wedge into about sixteen tiny pieces, sharing it with everybody in sight (p. 132).
Barry Hewlett, a professor of anthropology at Washington State University in Vancouver, has made extensive studies of the various forest peoples of Central Africa. Here are some quotations from the second chapter of his book, Intimate Fathers:The Nature and Context of Aka Pygmy Paternal Infant Care:
There are few Aka status positions. There is no chief in the sense of a person commanding ultimate authority, yet there is the kombeti, who is generally more influential in subsistence and camp movement discussions. He is often a liaison between Aka and Ngandu. The farmers show deference to the Aka kombeti (e.g., saying hello to him first, giving him more cigarettes) yet the Aka themselves do not show any such behavior toward him (intergenerational inequality is minimal).

The Aka are fiercely egalitarian and independent. No individual has the right to coerce or order another individual to perform an
activity against his/her will. Even when parents give instructions to their children to collect water or firewood, there are no sanctions if they do not do so. Aka have a number of informal noninstitutional methods for maintaining their egalitarianism. First, they practice prestige avoidance; one does not draw attention to his or her activities.
There are certainly exceptional hunters, dancers and drummers, but individuals do not brag to others about their abilities. Second, they practice the rough joking described by Lee (1986) among the !Kung San. For instance, if a man boasts about the amount of honey he collected, others will joke about the size and shape of his genitals. And third, they practice demand sharing. This simply means that whatever one has will be given up if requested.

Sharing, cooperation, and autonomy are but a few other of the Aka core values. The community cooperates daily in the net hunt, food hunted is shared with members of the camp, and decision making is the reserved prerogative of the individual; if one is not content with living conditions, for instance, one moves to another camp. As a result, camp composition changes daily.

. . . similar to Turnbull's (1961) portrayal of the Mbuti, the Aka view the village (mboka) as a dangerous place, whereas the forest (ndima) is perceived as comforting and protecting. Aka express their fears about bad spirits and aggressive farmers in the village, and their demeanor in the village clearly communicates this fear. In the forest, Aka sing, dance, play, and are very active and conversant. In the village, their demeanor changes dramatically-they walk slowly, say little, seldom smile, and try to avoid eye contact with others.

The great respect for autonomy is consistent with another Aka value -- intergenerational equality. This is a positive description of what villagers would call a lack of respect for elders.

Besides being indulgent and intimate, Aka infancy also lacksnegation and violence, which are relatively common in American infancy. Seldom does one hear a parent tell an infant not to touch this or that or not to do something. As already mentioned if an infant hits another child a parent will get up and move the infant to another area; the infant is not told no no! Violence or corporal punishmentfor an infant that misbehaves seldom occurs. In fact, if one parent hits an infant, this is reason enough for the other parent to ask for a divorce.

In summary, Aka infancy has the following characteristics: constant holding and skin-to-skin contact, high father involvement,
multiple caregiving, indulgent care, lack of negation, early training for autonomy and subsistence skills, parents as primary transmitters of culture, and precocious motor and cognitive development.

Aka male-female relations are extremely egalitarian by cross-culturalstandards. There is little agreement on how to determine gender equality/inequality (Mukhopadhay and Higgins 1988), but in all domains that are consistently mentioned in the literature, the Aka fall on the egalitarian side.

Physical violence in general is infrequent and violence againstwomen is especially rare. The lack of violence enhances female autonomy and encourages husband-wife cooperation and trust. It is rather remarkable that after working on and off for fifteen years with the Aka I have yet to witness a violent act against a woman. I have asked colleagues who have spent considerable time with Aka, and they are also unable to report a case of violence against a
woman. Husband-wife conflicts do of course occur but they are usually resolved through talking, rough joking, leaving camp for a while, or mediated assistance from other camp members.

In summary, Aka male-female relations have commonalities with male-female relations cross- culturally, but the Aka are probably as egalitarian
as human societies get.
For comparison with African Bushmen groups, I'd recommend the writings of anthropologist Richard Lee, or the well known book by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Harmless People. Somewhat less authoritative, but more readily accessible via the Internet, are the following observations, via Wikipedia:
Traditionally the San were an egalitarian society. Although they did have hereditary chiefs, the chiefs' authority was limited and the bushmen instead made decisions among themselves, by consensus, and the status of women was relatively equal.

In addition, the San economy was a gift economy, based on giving each other gifts on a regular basis rather than on trading or purchasing goods and services.
I'll add another set of quotations, also readily accessible via the Internet, from a summary of an article by William L. Ury, Conflict Resolution among the Bushmen: Lessons in Dispute Systems Design, as published in Negotiation Journal vol. 11, no. 4 (October 1995):
Bushmen children are taught to fear and avoid violence. They are also taught to avoid disputes. For instance, parents and elders emphasize sharing good fortune as a way of showing appreciation for that good fortune. Adults continue this practice of sharing through hxaro--the systematic practice of gift exchange.

The above techniques attempt to avert the use of power-based strategies for resolving disputes.

Bushman society is fairly egalitarian, with power being evenly and widely dispersed. This makes coercive bilateral power-plays (such as war) less likely to be effective, and so less appealing. A common unilateral power play is to simply walk away from a dispute which resists resolution. Travel among groups and extended visits to distant relatives are common. As Ury explains, Bushmen have a good unilateral BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement). It is difficult to wage war on someone who can simply walk away. Trilateral power plays draw on the power of the community to force a settlement. The emphasis on consensual conflict resolution and egalitarian ethos means that Bushmen communities will not force a solution on disputing parties. However the community will employ social pressure, by for instance ostracizing an offender, to encourage dispute resolution.

All adult male Bushmen have a bow and poisoned arrows. The poison is deadly and agonizing, but is slow acting and so allows its victim time for retaliation. The Bushmen then have very good reason to contain violence, since it can easily escalate to deadly levels. . . War is unknown.

(to be continued . . . )

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