Monday, July 02, 2007


Societies which seem to us ferocious may turn out, when examined from another point of view, to have their humane and benevolent sides. Take the Plains Insdians of North America: they are doubly significant - first because some of them practised a moderated form of cannibalism, and second because they are one of the few primitive peoples who were endowed with an organized police force. This force, which also had to mete out justice, would never have imagined that the punishments accorded to the guilty could take the form of severing all social links. An Indian who broke the laws of his tribe would be sentenced to the destruction of all his belongings - his tent and his horses. But at the same time the police became indebted to him for the harm he had been made to suffer. This restitution put the criminal, once again, in debt to the group ... Not only are such customs more humane than our own, they are more coherent, even if we are to formulate the problem in terms of modern psychology. It would seem logical that in return for the 'infantilization' of the guilty man that is implied in the notion of punishment, we should acknowledge that he is entitled to gratification of some sort. If this is not done, the initial step loses its effectiveness and may even bring about results directly contrary to those hoped for in the first palce. The summit of absurdity in this context is to do as we do and treat the guilty simultaneously as children, in that they are meet for punishment, and as grown-ups, in that we refuse them all subsequent consolation. It is grotesque to believe that we have made a 'great spiritual advance' simply because, instead of eating our fellow human beings, we prefer to mutilate them, both physically and morally.

Claude Levi-Strauss, "A Little Glass of Rum" (Triste Tropiques, translated as A World on the Wane, 1961).

Now and again, things happen that remind me of that particular passage and I get to thinking about the way individuals and entire sections of the community are treated as children, yet expected to behave as adults. The obvious motivation for this post is the Howard government's current exercise in conspicuous punishment of aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.

Now go read this post by David Coles at Club Troppo.

(Cross posted at Larvatus Prodeo)

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