A review of Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony. By Robert Edgerton.

Free Press/Macmillan, 1992.

The tenet of cultural relativism has been around for quite some time. The cold war version went something like this: Liberal/leftists insisted that America in particular and the West in general possessed no innate moral superiority over the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc. Conservatives challenged this notion, claiming (rightly) that Marxist nations and Western nations do not share a moral reciprocity- rule of law, freedom of speech, assembly, press and religion were all virtues found not in the Communist East but in democratic Western nations.

With the end of the cold war, new forms of cultural relativism are emerging. One version is that found on Western campuses, known as political correctness. Among other things, PC dogma tells us that Western civilization is corrupt, sexist, racist, oppressive and exploitative. “Hey ho, hey ho, western civ has got to go!”, the chant goes on many campuses today. Indeed, this is a kind of reverse cultural relativism: not only are all cultures equal, but some are more equal than others.

But today’s exponents of political correctness are not alone in romanticising certain cultures. Various leftists, socialists and utopians have looked at primitive cultures as examples of past arcadias, of more harmonious and more peaceful societies. Such films as Dances With Wolves reinforce this idealised vision of older harmonious societies invaded by modern exploitative and disharmonious societies. Exploitation, competition, sexism, racism, alienation, alcohol abuse, mental illness and social divisions are thought, by these utopians, to be recent inventions, a product of industrial, especially capitalist, societies.

Rousseau’s “noble savage” is a good example of this utopianism. But several questions need to be asked about these past cultures: were they as peace loving, gentle and harmonious as we make them out to be? Or did they have their dark sides as well? Sick Societies sets out to answer these and related questions. In brief, the book states that we have been sold a bill of goods on this issue. Anthropologists are largely to blame.

Says Edgerton, “All societies are sick, but some are sicker than others…. There are some customs and social institutions in all societies that compromise human wellbeing…. For a number of reasons …many anthropologists have chosen not to write about the darker side of life in folk societies, or at least not to write very much about it.” This book examines why the ethnographic record has been skewed, and devotes a great amount of detail to an examination of past cultures. We discover that many of these primitive societies were hotbeds of anger, stress, competition, brutality, warfare, exploitation, greed and torture.

Any number of “modern” problems were rife in past cultures. Take the issue of child abuse. Practices of abandoning, beating, burning, starving, imprisoning and murdering children can be found in many folk cultures says Edgerton. Male dominance was also widespread. “Men have approved wife beating in virtually every folk society,” says Edgerton. In Tasmanian culture, for example, “men clearly dominated women and benefited disproportionately from their labor and risk.” Various Tasmanian bands were also quite warlike, with raids to capture women being a major cause of death.

A number of barbaric practices have been indulged in by primitive cultures, but the doctrine of cultural relativism has tended to mute any criticisms of such atrocities. American college students, so taken by this doctrine, have even been reluctant to pass judgment on the Hindu practice of suttee, in which a widow, willing or not, was called upon to join her deceased husband by being burned to death.

Ironically, the only criticisms now go to Western “imperialists” like the colonists and missionaries who often tried to stop such barbaric customs. Indeed, Edgerton almost waxes theological at one point: “Nowhere have adults found it necessary to teach their children to be selfish, greedy, angry, stubborn, envious, or disobedient; instead, they search everywhere for means to limit or eliminate these characteristics in their children.” The missionaries would have called this the doctrine of original sin! But such is the insanity that prevails amongst Western intellectuals, that to try to make a moral judgment about other cultures is considered wrong, while the brutal practices are said to be merely the product of a culture’s uniqueness.

Edgerton lists plenty of these practices, from female genital mutilation, to witchcraft, torture, human sacrifice, cannibalism and blood feuds. In some societies warfare was so ferocious that entire populations were annihilated. Other cultures, like the Zulus, pre-dated Stalin in becoming experts at sustaining a despotic rule of terror. Other cultures institutionalised barbaric practices. The Aztecs, for example, were estimated to have sacrificed as many as 250,000 people every year-and they ate the flesh of almost all of them. Other even more horrendous practices cannot here be described (Edgerton provides a fair amount of gory detail).

Contrary to the Kevin Costner view of history, many American Indian tribes were also quite cold-blooded. The Cheyenne sometimes gang-raped an errant wife; the Skidi Pawnee sacrificed human beings for religious purposes; and the Chumash were divided between upper and lower classes, with slavery an important part of the culture.

All in all, primitive cultures were often warlike, barbarous, environmentally unfriendly, inept at providing food and clothing, filled with poor health practices, bad nutrition, social inequalities and physical and mental illnesses. Life was “nasty, poor, brutish and short,” to use Hobbes’ phrase. Clearly then some cultures are better than others, or are to be preferred over others. This book should put the final nails in the coffin of cultural relativism.

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