Mutts and purebreds

Motivated by Janet Heimlich’s post and the discussion of it here, I’m reading Nicholas Humphrey’s 1997 Amnesty lecture published at Edge. Its subject is childhood teaching and indoctrination. One major theme is the difference between the two; between open and closed.

Donald Kraybill, an anthropologist who made a close study of an Amish community in Pennsylvania, was well placed to observe how this works out in practice. “Groups threatened by cultural extinction,” he writes, “must indoctrinate their offspring if they want to preserve their unique heritage. Socialization of the very young is one of the most potent forms of social control. As cultural values slip into the child’s mind, they become personal values—embedded in conscience and governed by emotions. . . The Amish contend that the Bible commissions parents to train their children in religious matters as well as the Amish way of life. . . An ethnic nursery, staffed by extended family and church members, moulds the Amish world view in the child’s mind from the earliest moments of consciousness.”(7)

The question is…is the preservation of a “unique heritage” worth imprisoning children in a closed system?

I think it’s not, but then I have the benefit (if I’m right that it is a benefit) of having been raised in an open one. I wasn’t raised on a single book, nor was I raised to preserve a unique heritage. I was raised a mutt.

Then perhaps I am, after all, being too alarmist about what all this means. For sure therisks are real enough. We do live—even in our advanced, democratic, Western nations—in an environment of spiritual oppression, where many little children—our neighbours’ children if not actually ours—are daily exposed to the attempts of adults to annexE their minds. Yet, you may still want to point out that there’s a big difference between what the adults want and what actually transpires. All right, so children do frequently get saddled with adult nonsense. But so what. Maybe it’s just something the child has to put up with until he or she is able to leave home and learn better. In which case I would have to admit that the issue is certainly nothing like so serious as I have been making out. After all there are surely lots of things that are done to children either accidentally or by design that—though they may not be ideal for the child at the time—have no lasting ill effects.

But the ability to leave home – including the heritage, the culture, the dogma – is what’s at issue. As Humphrey goes on to say.

Yes, I agree therefore we should not be too alarmist—or too prissy—about the effects of early learning. But, No, we should certainly not be too sanguine about it either. True, it may not be so difficult for a person to unlearn or replace factual knowledge later in life: someone who once thought the world was flat, for example, may, when faced by overwhelming evidence to the contrary, grudgingly come round to accepting that the world is round. It will, however, often be very much more difficult for a person to unlearn established procedures or habits of thought: someone who has grown used, for example, to taking everything on trust from Biblical authority may find it very hard indeed to adopt a more critical and questioning attitude. And it may be nigh impossible for a person to unlearn attitudes and emotional reactions: someone who has learned as a child, for example, to think of sex as sinful may never again be able to be relaxed about making love.

But there is another even more pressing reason not to be too sanguine, or sanguine in the least. Research has shown that given the opportunity individuals can go on learning and can recover from poor childhood environments. However, what we should be worrying about are precisely those cases where such opportunities do not—indeed are not allowed to—occur.

Suppose, as I began to describe above, children are in effect locked out by their families from access to any alternative ideas. Or, worse, that they are so effectively immunised against foreign influences that they do the locking out themselves.

Think of those cases, not so uncommon, when it has become a central plank of someone’s belief system that they must not let themselves be defiled by mixing with others. When, because of their faith, all they want to hear is one voice, and all they want to read is one text. When they treat new ideas as if they carry infection. When, later, as they grow more sophisticated, they come to deride reason as an instrument of Satan. When they regard the humility of unquestioning obedience as a virtue. When they identify ignorance of worldly affairs with spiritual grace. . . In such case, it hardly matters what their minds may still remain capable of learning, because they themselves will have made certain they never again use this capacity.

There it is again – defilement, mixing. It’s the purity concern that Jonathan Haidt tells us liberals don’t have and conservatives do – tells us with a good deal too much sympathy for the concern, in my book.

Mixing, defilement, mutts, mongrels. Hybrids, borders – leaving home to go to Oz.

It’s better. The liberal way is better. Having one way of life, one view, one holy book; that’s not just different, it’s worse.

So now have the passage about the Inca girl “sacrificed” by priests.

As we saw, there are several factors that might be considered counter-balancing. And of these the one that seems to many people weightiest, or at least is often mentioned first, is our interest as a society in maintaining cultural diversity. All right, you may want to say, so it’s tough on a child of the Amish, or the Hasidim or the Gypsies to be shaped up by their parents in the ways they are—but at least the result is that these fascianting cultural traditions continue. Would not our whole civilisation be impoverished if they were to go? It’s a shame, maybe, when individuals have to be sacrificed to maintain such diversity. But there it is: it’s the price we pay as a society.

Except, I would feel bound to remind you, we do not pay it, they do.

Let me give a telling example. In 1995, in the high mountains of Peru, some climbers came across the frozen mummified body of a young Inca girl. She was dressed as a princess. She was thirteen years old. About five hundred years ago, this little girl had, it seems, been taken alive up the mountain by a party of priests, and then ritually killed—a sacrifice to the mountain’s Gods in the hope that they would look kindly on the people below.

The discovery was described by the anthropologist, Johan Reinhard, in an article for the National Geographic magazine.(14) He was clearly elated both as a scientist and as a human being by the romance of finding this “ice maiden”, as he called her. Even so, he did express some reservations about how she had come to be there: “we can’t help but shudder,” he wrote, “at [the Incas’] practice of performing human sacrifice.”

The discovery was also made the subject of a documentary film shown on American television. Here, however, no one expressed any reservation whatsoever. Instead, viewers were simply invited to marvel at the spiritual commitment of the Inca priests and to share with the girl on her last journey her pride and excitement at having been selected for the signal honour of being sacrificed. The message of the Tv programme was in effect that the practice of human sacrifice was in its own way a glorious cultural invention—another jewel in the crown of multiculturalism, if you like.

Yet, how dare anyone even suggest this? How dare they invite us—in our sitting rooms, watching television—to feel uplifted by contemplating an act of ritual murder: the murder of a dependent child by a group of stupid, puffed up, superstitious, ignorant old men? How dare they invite us to find good for ourselves in contemplating an immoral action against someone else?

Immoral? By Inca standards? No, that’s not what matters. Immoral by ours—and in particular by just the standard of free-choice that I was enunciating earlier. The plain fact is that none of us, knowing what we do about the way the world works, would freely choose to be sacrificed as she was. And however “proud” the Inca girl may or may not have been to have had the choice made for her by her family (and for all we know she may actually have felt betrayed and terrified), we can still be pretty sure that she, if she had known what we now know, would not have chosen this fate for herself either.

No, this girl was used by others as a means for achieving their ends. The elders of her community valued their collective security above her life, and decided for her that she must die in order that their crops might grow and they might live. Now, five hundred years later, we ourselves must not, in a lesser way, do the same: by thinking of her death as something that enriches our collective culture.

We must not do it here, nor in any other case where we are invited to celebrate other people’s subjection to quaint and backward traditions as evidence of what a rich world we live in. We mustn’t do it even when it can be argued, as I’d agree it sometimes can be, that the maintenance of these minority traditions is potentially of benefit to all of us because they keep alive ways of thinking that might one day serve as a valuable counterpoint to the majority culture.

That’s what I think. Decline all invitations to celebrate other people’s subjection to quaint and backward traditions as evidence of what a rich world we live in.


  1. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?

    -William James
    Only absolute pacifists do not make the sacrifice the Incas did and James imagined. If we are willing to use military means against our enemies we accept there will be “collateral damage”. We can try to minimise it, but there will be uninvolved people who are accidentally killed or whose deaths are regarded as “acceptable” if others die too.

  2. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Only absolute pacifists do not regard the sacrifice of children as an acceptable price to pay to preserve their society.

  3. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    The number sacrificed and the precise children sacrificed varies, but the underlying principle is the same. As James’ friend Oliver Wendell holmes said

    Between two groups of men that want to make inconsistent kinds of worlds I see no remedy except force… It seems to me that every society rests on the death of men.

  4. Latverian Diplomat says

    @3-4 I think it’s a mistake to so glibly conflate the sacrifice of consenting adults in the defense of their country with the harm inflicted on children by oppressive indoctrination.

    The history of the first is very messy indeed, but not without some examples of the strong (young, healthy people from all walks of life) voluntarily sacrificing themselves in defense of the weak (the remainder of the civilian population).

    In the 2nd case, the weak (young children) are diminished in freedom and happiness to serve the interests of the strong (the community leaders who so benefit from the status quo).

    When a culture asks for sacrifice from some of its members, then age and consent matter. To lose that distinction is to lose the ability to judge how any society treats its children.

  5. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    I wasn’t thinking of the contrast between the cases you cite, Latverian Diplomat- the adult volunteer who knows what they are doing and the compelled or cajoled child, but rather of the acceptance that war invariably means the death- the sacrifice- of children to kill the enemy adults. If it is wrong for a society to kill its own children for is its own good, how is it right to kill children in a society they are at war with? Is it morally better- or less bad- that may be a better way to look at the question- to kill enemy children than one’s own for the good of society? If it is, why is it so? If it is not, how do we preserve what we think is a better society? If we have to calculate the “value” of children compared with adult enemies, how do we do so?

  6. John Morales says

    Latverian Diplomat @5:

    When a culture asks for sacrifice from some of its members, then age and consent matter. To lose that distinction is to lose the ability to judge how any society treats its children.

    Children are treated as a special case, though — but ritual human sacrifice is also in a class of its own.

    I suspect that would not be considered lawful no matter how consenting the victim was, and therefore consent is not sufficient.

    If consent were so very important, the state would not prohibit recreational drugs for consenting consumers.

    (I think that whether religion is more akin to tobacco than to marijuana* is debatable, but it’s practitioners tell me it gives them a psychic high)

  7. John Morales says

    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d @6:

    If we have to calculate the “value” of children compared with adult enemies, how do we do so?

    Wrong question for this topic; the issue at hand is the subjection of children to inculcation, rather than about asking them to be a sacrifice.

    Better question: Would a society allow its children to do recreational drugs?

    (Important, because children’s psyches are in a developmental phase no less than their bodies)

  8. smrnda says

    I think children and civilian casualties of war would be a somewhat separate issue to whether you can raise kids in a totally insular fashion.

    I agree that Haidt gets giddy over virtue like ‘in group loyalty’ and ‘sanctify’ and such; virtues that he’s pretty well exempted from having to apply to his own life. I suspect this is the same deal that people have when they look at some closed society and note how neat and quaint it looks from the outside, but knowing they’d never *choose* to live that way if they ever understood there was a choice.

    On the whole idea of cultures dying out, plenty of cultures have adjusted to a more open approach and they simply grow and change and evolve while accepting outside influence.

  9. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    the issue at hand is the subjection of children to inculcation, rather than about asking them to be a sacrifice.

    Up to a point, John Morales. This point:

    this girl she was used by others as a means for achieving their ends.

    …which starts a passage which raises the question: do we have the right to use people in other societies to achieve our ends? That’s apart from whether the girl concerned was asked to be a sacrifice,

    Thanks for the story, Relevant.
    Another writer to add to my “must read” list.

  10. John Morales says

    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d @11:
    <blockquote?…which starts a passage which raises the question: do we have the right to use people in other societies to achieve our ends?</blockquote?

    How is she being used to achieve "our ends", other than as a datum (an empirical example) of someone abused — if anything, the bit you quote amounts to judging a society on the basis of how it achieved its ends!

    (Omelas indeed)

  11. says

    I’m about halfway through Barbara Kingsolver’s book Pigs in Heaven. It deals with a young Cherokee girl and whether her adoption by a white woman is legitimate, or should she be returned to the tribe.

    The cultural extinction theme is raised in the book, and has been gnawing on the back of mind. Thanks for the timely thoughts on the subject.

    My first impulse has been pretty close to yours; slavery to a particular culture seems tough to justify, even if we would mourn the loss of that culture.

  12. says

    I love that novel – it’s the first Kingsolver I read and the one I still love. The adoption situation is worked out in a very interesting way. I won’t say more because spoiler.


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