Monday, November 3, 2008

Return of the noble savage

I was in a meeting the other day, and happened to sit next to an anthropologist. We got to talking about the wonderful rock art in Nine Mile Canyon, and I expressed my viewpoint that it was probably bored teenagers tagging the neighborhood.

He replied archly that his group was trying to overcome such ethnocentric thinking.
I never got a chance to answer that, because the meeting began. So, I'd like to do it now. "Ethnocentric thinking" is the buzzword for a concept that each culture sees the world through a special set of lenses, and that what we see in another culture's artifacts is probably inaccurate. So, I look at rock art and see graffiti, while the truly cosmopolitan person knows that they aren't. They're .... well, they aren't graffiti.

I see two problems with this approach. First, it's a resurgence of the old "blank slate" hypothesis, which says that we are only compilations of our experiences and that we bring nothing with us into the world. I wonder that it still pops up, though here it's in disguise with a false beard and groucho glasses. There is a growing body of evidence that says we are pretty much alike, after all, that while each culture sees things differently, the differences are limited and actually minimal. I like this approach. It says that people are people, regardless of their culture, and though culture does influence the way we see things, it does so in a limited fashion.

The second problem is another hoary old notion -- the idea of the noble savage. Our graffitists are uncouth, uneducated louts while the Fremont taggers were expressing noble and profound thoughts as they chipped away at the rocks. The fact that we can't decipher the noble and profound thoughts is beside the point. These were pre-industrial peoples and therefore wise beyond our ability to understand. It's a kind of reverse-spin racism that's very hard to combat.

Both the blank slate and the noble savage need to travel in disguise these days, since some attention to the accumulation of new data makes them seem slightly ridiculous, but they are alive and well amongst those for whom data is not a valid basis of argument.

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