Rebutting Jared Diamond's Savage Portrait
Paul Stillitoe and Mako John Kuwimb
International Media Ethics News
[Blog note: This article was published in response to Jared Diamond's article in the New Yorker "Annuls of Anthropology: Vengeance is Ours".]
"How do tribal communities in developing countries without functioning police, judges, law courts and prisons ensure social stability? This question is of perennial interest to anyone familiar with tribal societies. It is difficult for those of us familiar with such state institutions of law enforcement to imagine how people in tribal environments create order, particularly in dense populations like that of the New Guinea Highlands which also prizes individual political autonomy. The popular image – traceable to Renaissance times, when Europeans first encountered tribal peoples – is of savages condemned to disorderly, even anarchic lives of constant violence and frequent bloodletting. A recent example of this image is portrayed and promulgated by Jared Diamond in “Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?” published in the The New Yorker,April 21, 2008.
"We seek to refute this portrayal in general and Diamond’s article in particular, which we believe amounts to nothing less than a betrayal. We were prompted to do this by the defamation of friends and relatives in the Was Valley of the Southern Highlands Province (SHP) of Papua New Guinea (PNG) who have, in Diamond’s article, been cast in such a caricature of tribal life as inveterate murderers, plunderers and rapists living in virtual chaos.
"It is astonishing that media outlets still grant space to such a view of tribal life after a century of anthropological research has debunked it. Stateless or acephalous (headless – i.e. without authoritative officeholders) polities have long attracted attention and we have accounts of fascinating arrangements that substitute for central government. The Highlands of New Guinea have featured prominently in furthering our understanding of such tribal constitutions. So here we go, yet again, to rebut the savage misrepresentation.
"We are not contending that disputes, aggression and killing are unknown – tribal people do not, any more than Westerners, live in a utopia. But an informed understanding of what happens in such conflicts challenges any sense of state smugness. After all, when it comes to the mayhem of their violent disputes, “civilized” states outdo all comers, as the current sorry Iraq and Afghanistan tragedies show. And if you value liberty, tribal constitutions maximize individual freedom beyond anything imaginable under democracy’s elected governments . . .