Thursday, September 24, 2009

209. Deconstructing the Postmodern Condition 9 -- L'Affaire Turnbull

In addressing the question of whether the !Kung Bushmen "are harmless or, in fact, murderous" (see previous post), Patricia Draper begins in a manner that would appear to outdo Turnbull himself in "idealizing" her subject.
. . . the !Kung are a people who devalue aggression; they have explicit values against assaulting, losing control, and seeking to intimidate another person by sheer force of personality. Furthermore, on a daily basis and over months of fieldwork one finds that overt physical acts by one person against another are extremely rare ("The Learning Environment for Aggression and Anti-Social Behavior among the !Kung," p 33).
However, Draper soon reminds us, as did Turnbull, that the objects of her study are no better or worse than any other people:
If the !Kung succeed in avoiding direct physical confrontation in most instances, they clearly experience the same emotions which, in other societies, would lead more quickly to hostile acts. The !Kung harbor hatreds, jealousies, resentments, suspicions—the full panoply of negative emotions. In fact, their oral traditions are remarkably violent and fratricidal for a people who, on the surface, maintain the appearance of simple communal harmony . . . The difference between the !Kung and other peoples is that the circumstances of their life are such that they must dampen their passions to manageable levels or, that failing, separate themselves from the people whose society they cannot tolerate (p. 34).
In other words, as with the Mbuti, there is only so much aggression and violence such a society can tolerate without literally falling apart.

She continues with an illuminating discussion of !Kung child rearing practices, which are in some ways quite different from those of the Mbuti, though remarkably similar, apparently, to those of the Aka:
!Kung children, like children anywhere, will argue, tease, cry, lose their tempers, and strike out at each other. . . The !Kung, however, have a special way of handling anger and physical assaults by one child against another. When two small children quarrel and begin to fight, adults don’t punish them or lecture them; they separate them and physically carry each child off in an opposite direction. The adult tries to soothe and distract the child and to get him interested in other things. The strategy is to interrupt misbehavior before it gets out of hand (p. 36).
This presents a very interesting contrast to the behavior of Mbuti adults, as reported by Turnbull, who are not above scolding and even beating children when they get out of line.

On balance, it would appear that, for the most part, the !Kung "core values" of non-violence and sharing are usually actualized in "varied and subtle ways":
Although the !Kung lack a system of formal sanctions against wrongdoing, it appears that they have compensated with a host of informal controls which normally work to keep people in line. They have a varied and subtle armamentarium suitable for squelching a variety of infractions; their repertoire is especially well-developed for dealing with arrogance, bragging, and attempts to manipulate others (pp. 41-42) . . .
. . . there are several factors which affect the expression of aggression in this society and in these respects the !Kung contrast markedly with other peoples. Physical aggression is not directly taught or subtly encouraged. Aggressive models are not readily available to inspire children or adults to violent display. Physical aggression and antisocial behavior are costly, given the social and economic interdependence of all people who live together (p. 48).
Nevertheless, despite their gentle methods of child rearing, and the relative absence of violence toward either children or adults, violence is certainly not unknown:
[The !Kung] are extremely wary of persons known to have violent tempers or unpredictable behavior. Such people are openly criticized and censored and eventually shunned. In former times, before the national system of justice impinged on these remote hunter-gatherers, some of the infrequent homicides were in fact political assassinations of people who had proven to be incorrigible . . . (p. 41).
I am here reminded of the old "witch" Sau's fate among her fellow Mbuti, as described in Turnbull's field notes with such disturbing detail. Note that it is not only "persons known to have violent tempers," but also persons who, like Sau, exhibit "unpredictable behavior" that are "openly criticized and censored and eventually shunned," as was the eccentric and unpredictable Sau -- who was also, by the way, suspected of extreme violence, enacted via witchcraft. The reference to "political assassinations of people who had proven to be incorrigible" is particularly disturbing, especially since neither the Mbuti nor the !Kung have ever had legal systems to investigate the circumstances behind such "incorrigible" behavior and arrive at a balanced judgment. Like the old and the infirm, violent or potentially violent troublemakers must apparently be eliminated, one way or the other, for the good of the majority.

Verbal aggression is commonplace among !Kung. In fact, the reason that goods are shared equitably and more or less continuously is that the havenots are so vociferous in pressing their demands. Are these a people who live in communal harmony, happily sharing all among all? Not exactly, but the interpretation of meaning in any culture inevitably founders on these kinds of ambiguities [my emphasis]. At one level of analysis, one can show that goods circulate, that there are no inequalities of wealth and that peaceable relations characterize dealings within and between bands. At another level, however, with some of the anthropologist’s etic conceptual categories put aside, one sees that social action is an ongoing scrimmage—often amicable but sometimes carried on in bitter earnest [my emphasis] (p. 46).
Returning, finally, to the principal question at hand, are the !Kung indeed "harmless" or in fact murderous, Draper recognizes the fundamental ambiguity lurking behind the many attempts to either "idealize" or "demystify" cultures whose values are so different from, yet also, in some strange way, so similar to, our own:
Are the !Kung aggressive or unaggressive? Are they more or less aggressive than certain other groups? Until the omnibus term, aggression, is refined and operationalized a comparison of !Kung and other people in aggressiveness will not be possible on an empirical and quantifiable basis. [my emphasis.] From my observation, the !Kung were extraordinarily successful in discouraging harmful and malicious behavior in young people. During the twelve months in which I lived with different camps in the ≠To//gana and /Du/da areas there were no conflicts between adults which led to serious injuries or homicides. Nor did such events occur among this population at camps at which I was not present . . .
It is possible that serious crimes against persons were more frequent in the past in part due to the fact that deviants, outcasts, and fugitives had nowhere to go and still make a living. They had to be retained within the society and tolerated or eventually assassinated. [my emphasis.] Today the situation is different for two reasons. !Kung can leave the close pressures of the bush camps and move to Bantu or mixed !Kung-Bantu settlements where life is different. In addition the authority of external governments can now penetrate the remotest !Kung band, and punishment for criminal acts can be achieved. (p. 49).
Draper's nuanced response may not be satisfactory to those who want to either assert that such groups do indeed live "happy and carefree lives," or dismiss the many reports of communal sharing and non-violence as "a myth." What interests me most is the striking similarities we find, not only among the various "positive" and "negative" aspects of so many Pygmy and Bushmen groups, but also among the many contradictions invariably encountered whenever anthropologists attempt to reconcile long-standing cultural values with specific, contextually influenced, behaviors.

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