the world until yesterday | January 20, 2013

Jared Diamond In Maclean's: Don't Despise, Or Idealize, Traditional Societies

What can we learn from traditional societies, and how should we view them? According to Jared Diamond, we must maintain an objective approach, and "we should neither despise nor idealize [them]." In an interview with Maclean's, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and geographer discusses themes from his new book, The World Until Yesterday. In the book, he explains that traditional societies live very differently than we do. While some practices (leaving the old/sick behind while the rest of the group moves on) may seem inhumane to us, he suggests we look at these actions through those people's eyes. In certain instances, they have no choice but to engage in decisions that we see as horrifying. That's why, he says, we shouldn't be quick to judge their way of life.

Diamond defines traditional societies as "small-scale, politically independent societies with a few hundred or at most a few thousand people, even if they are farmers rather than strictly hunters and gatherers." The traditional societies he studied for his book mostly reside in New Guinea. However, he says that elements of these societal norms exist in North America as well. In places such as Montana, he says, it is not uncommon for people to try to hash out their disagreements themselves rather than involving lawyers or police. This is similar to how traditional societies operate in that they don't have a state government to intervene, and people want to get "emotional closure" from the person they disagree with. Instead of simply punishing the other person, they attain some level of forgiveness and acceptance by solving the dispute without an outside party intervening.

Diamond asks us to consider the first example of a tribe that left behind a sick, elderly woman because they were unable to care for her any more. He suggests that this is not all that different from what we do with our own sick parents when we are forced to decide whether to take them off life-support. What can traditional societies learn from our way of life? One of Diamond's subjects in New Guinea appreciated the anonymity that American life affords. While traditional society revolves on strong social bonds, these people sometimes want to be able to enjoy a cup of coffee without bumping into someone they know. As Diamond says in the book and in his talks, we have much to learn from the way that different societies live. And it seems that they can learn something from us, too.

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