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See here, Ms Truss

The civility of Archaic Man

Has the UK run clean off the rails? First there was Theodore Dalrymple’s catalog of horrors in Our Culture, What’s Left of It, with its report of foul language and fouler habits across wide stretches of the British Isles. Now comes Lynne Truss’s “big systematic moan” (her own words) — Talk to the Hand: the Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life.

People don’t bother to say please and thank-you any more; they disregard one’s personal space and violently react to small remonstrances; there’s disrespect for older people, disrespect for professional people, disrespect for property, and a general collapse of civility in a boorishly bare-skinned tats and Eff-Off world.

But then Ms Truss resorts to a cliché. The surrounding rudeness is seen less as a product of civilized decadence—of hell-bent amoral egos accountable neither to God nor man—and more as a throwback to tribal ways. Talking about the declining use of verbal appeasements like “sorry”, she says we use them to avoid “being brained by a screeching savage wielding a bleached thigh-bone.”

The image is indelible—especially for anyone who may have seen the new King Kong with its travesty of tribal life—but the figure of speech is overwrought.

Surprising though it may seem, it can reasonably be argued that in nine out of ten of the archaic societies recorded by anthropologists there was less screeching and more politeness, less boorishness and more decency and dignity, than you’ll find in some western societies today. And as Lewis Mumford suggested fifty years ago in The Transformations of Man—a book and writer we shall be returning to—due respect should be paid to the courtesies of an older world we have irretrievably lost.

Tripping with Ms Truss: the Mohave

Thinking she might appreciate a quick look at Archaic Man, I invited Ms Truss to take a Time Machine trip back into the past—our first stop being the Mohave Indians in the southwest c. 1920.

To our astonishment, when we arrived in Indian Territory sitting side by side we found that this was strongly disapproved of. The Mohave in 1920 took seating etiquette very seriously: unrelated people of opposite sex were not supposed to share the rear seats of either cars or Time Machines. How could this be, we wondered? As a resolutely modern woman Ms Truss found it faintly absurd—one of her fondest memories was being bundled in the back of a Ford.

But that was exactly the point. As our informant explained, even if a Mohave wife is devoted to her husband, and even if a Mohave man is elderly or senile, unrelated men and women should not share the same car seat because “thoughts or daydreams about travelling with a member of the opposite sex induce amorous desires.”

Nor should a woman talk to any man she meets along the way. “A good woman does not walk with men, nor does she ride with them in a wagon or in a car, unless the man happens to be her husband or a close relative.”

The Mohave view seemed to be that given the fact of a strong sexual interest between men and women—something everyone knows about, and has known about for thousands of years—desire should be subdued rather than excited if everyday life is to be free of needless fuss. They would probably have felt that continuous 24/7 pornovision (all things considered, and making due allowance for variations of personal taste) was not the way to go.

Tripping with Ms Truss: Fiji

Dr Dalrymple somewhere describes people in Britain as “grazing” rather than “dining” at dinnertime. A sort of listless foraging in the refrigerator is now normal—indeed, whole decades have passed since some families sat down together at table for an evening meal. Of course they may not even have a table to sit at. “We eat like animals” said one Londoner.

But they didn’t eat like animals in Fiji circa 1930. Arriving in the evening just as dinner was about to be served we found everyone had bathed and dressed and was neatly attired. When Ms Truss and I turned up wearing shorts, chaos ensued. A Fijian dinner was a formal occasion; shorts were a despised informal dress used by Europeans during working hours; everyone felt insulted, and we had to hastily move on to another village.

Polite behavior in Fiji in olden times was referred to as “chiefly ways”, and such ways were to be distinguished from rude and boorish manners—the “ways of the low-born”. Egalitarians find this provoking, and the democratic Ms Truss took hot exception to such an ideal of well-bred and genteel behavior. “Sod Emily Post” she cried, “and good riddance!”

But that missed the point. It was obvious during our visit that the distinction between chiefs and commoners in daily life was small. But the manners and morals of the chiefs were supposed to be exemplary; acceptance in Fijian society always meant that due respect should be shown for chiefly ways; and these chiefly ways were expected of everyone.

The Australian anthropologist Ian Hogbin once wrote that

Etiquette consists in the rules which regulate the behavior of members of a society towards one another, but which have no further sanction than public opinion. The violation of these rules calls forth disapproval or ridicule, but the offender is not punished by any form of social machinery.

Yet what would he have said about the fate of the Reverend Baker? In 1867 the sanctions for violating etiquette were severe. In Fiji as in many other cultures a person’s head was specially respected, and a chiefly head was sacred. You were never supposed to stand higher than the head of the chief; “walking small” and bowed over was obligatory in his presence; and as for anyone actually touching a chief’s head, whether by accident or design, that was risky indeed.

When the Reverend Thomas Baker arrived in a Fijian village in 1867 he was received with the greatest hospitality, and so far as we know the night he spent there was comfortable. Next morning, when seated on the floor of the chief’s house with his host, he produced a comb, attended to his hair, and without giving the matter a moment’s thought laid the comb on the mat before him. The chief then picked up the comb and stuck it in his own hair. Some items like this were treated as communal property; and in any case Mr Baker should have understood that it was a compliment for a prestigious host to adopt a visitor’s comb as his own.

But he didn’t. Rudely snatching back the comb from the chief’s hair, the Reverend Baker sealed his own fate. For this outrage he was promptly knocked on the head, and dragged away, reappearing some time later as Missionary Pie. “We ate everything but his boots” a villager said.

“There!”, cried Ms Truss triumphantly. “You’ve only been telling me about the manners of the missionized and enlightened. That’s exactly what I was talking about—the screeching savage with his bleached bone club. And that’s what it was like in Fiji as recently as 1867. Don’t tell me about civility before civilization!”

Tripping with Ms Truss: the Aborigines

She had a point. So where could we find Archaic Man untouched by time, yet plainly more decent, companionable, sensitive to social usages and generally well-mannered than the unspeakable modern urban-dwellers both she and Dalrymple describe?

Dr Dalrymple in particular dwells on domestic settings where both incest and the molestation of children by their own parents is common, where aimless promiscuity prevails among teenagers, and where unmarried fathers abandon their infants as soon as they’re born. As for the universal Eff-Off world of Ms Truss… but let’s not go there. Where could one find an ancient people where family values prevailed and both sexual scruple and genuine delicacy of feeling were pervasive—and also where no white man had trod?

How about Australia? After years exploring the far north of the country Donald Thomson wrote that “nowhere are good manners and good taste more important than among the Aborigines”.

And if the evidence of Thomson’s opinion is felt to be insufficient on its own, there’s the personal memoir of Mahkarolla (helpfully recorded by the anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner in his book A Black Civilization) about growing up in Arnhem Land around 1900. In the short excerpts below Mahkarolla tells of his childhood and how he learned the difference between right and wrong; about the role of fathers in a child’s development and about his early feelings of moral shame; about a trip he made when the first white men came to his territory and how, to his embarrassment, he was seduced by a woman in another tribe:

Before we were circumcised we little boys played spear-fighting games, talked about sneaking up and killing a man, and we threw clay mud balls at each other. Later we played being grown men and women with the little girls. We made little fires on the beach. We went out just like our fathers and pretended to spear fish, and the little girls went into the bush and brought home fruit and vegetables. We made little bark huts just like our fathers’ and mothers’. The girls would come and lie beside us as our wives and we were their husbands.

When we were little boys, other boys who were bigger teased us about the wives we were going to marry. This made me feel very ashamed. Girls joked the same way. They also became ashamed. I think I always knew it was wrong to play with a girl of the Yiritcha moiety. I knew it was wrong because I was a Yiritcha myself. I knew it was wrong to play husband and wife with my sister because my future wife should come from the other side of our clan.

When I was bigger we boys always made fish spears and carried them with us. We hunted birds and fish. We learned then to carry our baskets over our shoulders, under our arms, just like grown men do, just as our sisters learned to carry their baskets over their foreheads.

When a boy has been circumcised he sleeps with other boys and the unmarried men and he stays away from his father’s and mother’s camp. It is not good for young people around where married people are. They learn too much. They see women too much. Sometimes today (i.e. about 1925) you see boys sitting down in a camp with the women. They are not learning the right way to live properly. They should be in their own camp and eating and sleeping there.

We stayed a while in the country of Cape Don Tommy. I did not know the language. One night one of their women made a large bark hut and fixed a fire in front of it and put paper bark on the ground to lie on. She told me I could go inside. I went inside, thinking there would be another boy with me.

When I went into that hut the woman crawled on top of me and put her legs around mine so I couldn’t move. I was still young. I did not know what she wanted. I thought she was holding my legs that way and someone would come up and spear me. I could not talk her language and she did not understand Macassar.

I wriggled loose from her and ran outside. I found Cape Don Tommy. I said, What does that woman want? It turned out that girl was his half-daughter. He said, I think she wants you for a sweetheart.

I said, I don’t like that. In my country we don’t make sweethearts that way. We don’t make sweethearts before everyone in the middle of the camp. Boys and girls sneak away from the camp and do it there so that the old people can’t see us and we won’t be ashamed.

I like my children. If a father and mother do not take care of their sons and daughters all the women everywhere start gossiping about them. They say that they are wild, that maybe they have evil spirits in their heads, and they say they are no good.

We men talk the same way too. We do not like to see children mistreated. My little son is just the same as my spear-thrower. He is just the same as my right arm. I think it is a good thing for a man to have a lot of children. It makes his tribe bigger and stronger. And when a man gets old they provide all the things he needs. If he has trouble—and all men have trouble—he does not have to go to his mother’s people or his wife’s people for help. He can look after himself.

“That’s all very well”, said Ms Truss, “but I know for a fact there was lots of fighting among those tribes, and your fine Mr Mahkarolla was probably in the thick of it, spear in hand. Or bone club in hand as the case might be. We’re not talking peace and lovey-dovey relationships: we’re talking non-stop feuds and war!”

Though not the whole picture, this was broadly true. War between the Arnhem Land clans may not have been as intense as that described by Napoleon Chagnon among the Yanomamo, but it was common. Yet a more complete view of the situation shows a people just as aware of the dangers of military conflict as today’s politicians—facts as relevant now as they were in the Stone Age.

Lloyd Warner tells on pages 486-487 how he was invited to attend a council of elders to discuss “the perplexities of the great war in which their various clans were involved.” After a long period of peace there had been a sudden and violent provocation. Fighting erupted, and now things were running out of control. Although some men urged peace and negotiations, others were for an all-out battle—“a spear-fight to end all spear-fights.”

At the end of the council most men favored war, and under pressure Mahkarolla finally voted for war too. But he could see no hope in this policy. Warner writes that when the two of them walked back to camp together Mahkarolla spoke as follows:

When I was a boy I saw a spear fight to end all spear fights. Many men were killed. It was no good. We must not have it again. My people did not stop fighting. As you see, we are fighting today just as we did before. Spear fights do not end spear fights.

Altruism and equity

Within the community both altruism and equity were central values. In a paper by the anthropologist L. R. Hiatt discussing the Gidjingali, (neighbors of the Arnhem Land Aborigines described by Lloyd Warner), with whom Hiatt has worked for much of the past fifty years, he analyses the vocabulary in which these concepts are expressed.

In the case of altruism, distinct terms indicate either “a disposition to look after others, particularly by sharing goods and possessions”, and a contrary disposition to harm others, or act in an unfriendly manner. Neighborliness, concern for a relative or friend, kinship love that fulfils responsibilities, was conveyed by the term Gurrurta, while guburrmaymba connoted “an ideology of amity and mutual aid.”

Outsiders were always outsiders, aliens, and potential enemies. But within the group—say on the average from 50 to 150 people—a “good” person was one who cared for and looked after others, and who responded ungrudgingly to requests for aid.

Equity as a Gidjingali value might be seen as even more fundamental, its origins lying in the wider metaphysical field of what is glossed in English as “custom-law”. Hiatt describes this as “the realm and deeds of the ancestral spirits responsible for introducing shape and structure to the cosmos.”

First and foremost among the consequences of their actions was an equitable distribution of land among patrilineal descent groups. Hardly less important were marriage rules inhibiting the monopolisation of women by aggressive and powerful ales.

[The term] joborr provides a foundation for the rights of all men and women: joborr rrenyja, ‘stand on the law’.

Political rights and influence are widely distributed among adults, and in public life there are no formal hierarchies of power and control. Wana negiya, ‘make oneself big’, is an expression of disparagement.

But weren’t they cannibals?

They? But we probably all were once. Evidence for prehistoric cannibalism in the form of bones with cut marks, or bones broken open to get at the marrow, strongly indicates that men have been cooking and eating each other for tens of thousands of years. We must all be glad that with the rise of civilization it declined, but there is probably no-one alive today without genes from some cannibal ancestor of long ago.

As for the Aboriginal case, it’s absurd to mention it in the same breath as cannibalism among the New Zealand Maori, the Fijians, or the Tupinamba in Brazil at the time the Portuguese arrived. True, so-called ritual or burial cannibalism was widely practised among Australian Aborigines, when “portions of a deceased person were eaten by relatives as part of the mortuary process, with strict rules followed as to who might partake.” But so far as we know human flesh was never eaten in Australia for its own sake as an enjoyable and sought-after food—as “long pig” in the revealing Polynesian phrase—and human beings were not killed for that purpose.

Like the club-wielding savage of Ms Truss, the “cannibal” invoked by many civilized folk is a rhetorical cliché meant to cause discomfort. When it occurs, as anthropologist Kenneth Maddock said some years ago, it is often during a struggle for moral ascendancy using “the politics of embarrassment”, the aim being “to soften up your opponents by making them feel bad about themselves or their ancestors.” It is meant to shame your adversary, though of course those who practised it in times gone by felt no shame whatever since they were fulfilling a religious obligation. On this question the anthropologist L. R. Hiatt wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald in 1997:

The assumption of shamefulness needs to be challenged. In many parts of Australia, Aborigines recovered the bones of recently-buried relatives and kept them until the pain of bereavement abated.

Sometimes, as in the case of small children, they refused to part with the bodies. In rare circumstances, as when young warriors or women fell in the course of battle, their anguished kin first attacked their own bodies and then ate the flesh of the deceased.

An eyewitness account of such an event was given in the 19th century by a Victorian Assistant Protector named C. W. Sievewright and was published in The Victorian Historical Magazine, 1928, pp 168-70.

But isn’t this romantic primitivism?

Not really. Romantic primitivism imagines that we can somehow go back to the past. But there is absolutely no way, metaphysically, politically, or economically, that we can recover the world we have lost.

Or it believes that tribal cultures should be preserved in amber. But they cannot—and the attempt to do so has met with failure everywhere. It should also be emphasized that the dysfunctional ruins of politically driven attempts at preservation, now visible throughout much of northern Australia, can be seriously misleading about the way things worked in the past.

Or, again, it supposes that such cultures were morally admirable, and appropriate models for us all. But many were not, and some were being destroyed by ineluctable processes of degeneration and decay—processes not dissimilar to the more decadent features of western civilization today. Read Jan van Baal on the Marind-anim of New Guinea and see what you think.

It should also be fairly clear that such politeness and order as did exist was upheld by the fear of ostracism in small communities, many of which suffered continual conflict and dissension from sorcery; while attitudes toward strangers, as among the Gidjingali described by L. R. Hiatt above (and attitudes toward strangers are the main concern of Ms Truss), were always warily xenophobic.

Yet this should not prevent us taking a realistic historical view of Archaic Man, or showing a measured appreciation for the manners and morals of a pre-industrial social order that served humanity well enough for thousands of years. Lewis Mumford, in the second chapter of his 1957 The Transformations of Man, suggests that we need to retain and conserve some ethical elements from the closed tribal cultures of the past, while adapting them to the open and ever-changing civilization we have today:

Archaic Man is the conservator of life: he guards the future by holding tight to the past and, above all, to his ancestors. Both in religious cult and in the looser form of general tradition, he worships his ancestors and seeks their guidance when confronted by life’s situations, on the sound supposition that the same difficulties must have occurred before.

He does not for a moment imagine that the wisdom of the race is embodied in the experience of a single lifetime, still less that his own individual fragment of experience would be sufficient to keep him straight. Archaic Man, flinching from the new and the untried, is happy to live in the fashion of his forebears, to maintain the level they had reached, to pass on to his children, unimpaired, the heritage his parents passed on to him.

Hence his respect for age; for only the old have lived long enough to take in the whole heritage and to hand it on. The wisdom of the Elders binds the present to the past and so prevents the future from falling short of the past.

In case of conflict or doubt, it is in the council of the Elders that the living past speaks and lays down, with the least necessary alteration, the ‘eternal’ way. Custom and law, education and work, government and morality, are not separate departments of life: they are aspects of the whole—intuitively grasped because vividly lived—and only within this whole has each separate life its significance.

The ancestors, the burgeoning family, and the household gods, the holy ritual, the cycle of vegetation and reproduction—these constitute the realities of archaic culture. A collective routine devoted to the nourishment and enhancement of every aspect of life; so that no part of human existence grew out of proportion to the other parts.

All the goods of this life, however, fell within the charmed circle of the small community; and men paid a price for this security. The enclosed community produced the enclosed personality, and vice versa. Kindness was a quality one showed to the kinsman, and then by extension to the neighbour: truth, honesty, friendliness, forbearance, abstention from rape or murder, applied only to those within the community, not to those outside.

This long apprenticeship in isolation left its mark, and even now tends to thwart a wider unity. We still associate stability and security with enclosure, and before the prospect of an open world we timidly shrink back with a kind of agoraphobia.

Yet so central has this archaic culture been, so successful in providing norms for human development, that it has preserved itself under successive waves of civilization, right down to the present. In other forms than those created in Neolithic times, its I-and-thou relationship must be carried into every wider community, if that community is to endure.

Sources: Mohave Etiquette, by George Devereaux. Etiquette and Social Sanction in the Fiji Islands, by Dorothy M. Spencer. Donald Thomson’s place in Australian anthropology, by Nicolas Peterson. A Black Civilization, by W. Lloyd Warner. “Cannibalism”, by Kenneth Maddock (Radio talk) Edward Westermarck and the Origin of Moral Ideas, by L. R. Hiatt. Dema, by Jan van Baal (Description and analysis of Marind-anim culture, South New Guinea). The Transformations of Man, by Lewis Mumford.

Posted in For the Record, Tribalism.

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