Monday, 28 April 2008

Vengeance In New Guinea

If your pig eats the vegetables in my garden I'm going to spear you in the eye. In fact, I don't think I could live with the dishonour of not doing so. At least, I might feel that way if I were born in the New Guinea Highlands. The complicated relationships between the clans that have lived there for numerous generations create an aggressive culture of compulsory and violent retribution. The graphic history of the wars between the clans is engaging enough, but what makes this typically in depth New Yorker article by Jared Diamond exceptionally fascinating is the contrasts and comparisons he draws to contemporary global society and and our system of states. He convincingly challenges Rousseau's concept of the evolution of the social contract, which inspires reflection on our expectations of actors in both international and interpersonal relations. Though I disagree with some of the conclusions he infers at the end, (he bases them on an isolated example that could be otherwise explained) it is really worth taking the time to read this lengthy article for a valuable and not commonly considered insight into human nature. Here are some excerpts;

' Daniel described what happened next: [...] "Only one arrow hit Isum, but it was a bamboo arrow, flat and sharp as a knife, and it cut his spinal cord. That’s even better than killing him, because he’s now still alive today, eleven years later, paralyzed in a wheelchair, and maybe he’ll live for another ten years. People will see his constant suffering. Isum may be around for a long time, for people to see his suffering, and to be reminded that this happened to him as proper vengeance for his having killed my uncle Soll.” When I asked Daniel how he felt about the battle in which Isum became paralyzed, his reaction was unapologetically positive: a mixture of exhilaration and pleasure in expressing aggression. He used phrases such as “It was very nice,” and his gestures projected euphoria and a huge sense of relief. “I felt that it was a matter of ‘kill or else die by suicide.’ [...] If I had personally seen the arrow go into Isum, I would have felt emotional relief then. Unfortunately, I wasn’t actually there to see it, but, when I heard that Isum had been paralyzed, I thought, I have everything, I feel as if I am developing wings, I feel as if I am about to fly off, and I am very happy. After that battle, just as after each battle in which we succeeded in killing an Ombal, we danced and celebrated and slaughtered pigs. '

' Daniel [...] concluded that, despite his former passionate waging of war against Ombals, the Western state system of adjudicating disputes is preferable. Why, then, didn’t New Guineans give up a way of life that obviously made their lives miserable? A striking feature of New Guinea’s history is that New Guineans traditionally practiced unchecked violence against each other, yet they offered only limited resistance to the imposition of state government and the ending of that violence by European colonial powers. That wasn’t just because Europeans had guns and New Guineans didn’t; the number of armed Europeans involved in “pacification” was often absurdly few. Daniel’s view points to another reason: as more New Guineans were exposed to the benefits of state-administered justice, they saw that they were better off living without the constant fear of being killed, though, of course, no tribe could ever have followed that course of peaceful dispute adjudication unilaterally. This question of state government’s recent origins, and, conversely, of its long failure to originate throughout most of human history, is a fundamental concern for social scientists. '

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