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Saturday, October 25, 2003

On Cannibalism and Culture


Reading the Oxblog-suggested article on cannibalism in Africa, I had a delightful (albeit expensive) idea: intense culture exchange. We send farm boys to the Bronx and inner-city kids to the farm; we send American students to Europe and take the Europeans in in turn. But how about an exchange not just between cultures we have heard about and are perhaps envious of, but between cultures that cannot even begin to fathom the most basic elements of each other's ways? Let's take hundreds of Europe and North America's best and brightest (and some from the most isolated parts of the urban centers of the rest of the world, for good measure) and scatter them across tribal regions all over; and take people from each of the cannibalistic, cannibalized, clothing-optional, and what-not group across the globe and drop them down in Paris, Athens, London, Boston... would that not be thrilling?

It's a fascinating exercise to imagine it. What would happen? Are the north-westerners old-fashioned Liberals, modern conservatives, desiring to spread concepts of democracy, human rights, modern healthcare, and so forth to their new neighbors? (Do they get killed and eaten?) Or are they old-fashioned Conservatives, staying aloof? Or are they modern liberals, trying to understand and assimilate? (Do they kill and eat others?) Do they simply panic and find themselves unable or unwilling to adjust or even to continue to exist in such a world? What do they think or say when their host says, ok, now we go raid the others to see how many we can kill -- wanna come? I'll save you some liver! What do they say when, perhaps, someone who has heard of western practices tells them, as one of my new professors told his class recently, "well, beating your wife until she swells up like a purple fruit is not ok in America, but in India it's fine"?

And the visitors to the west: can they adjust to our pace of life? Will they be like a new Bombay-bred friend of mine, not comprehending how our conception of morality could be so different from that which the British left in India fifty years ago? Will they be missionaries, like the Rwanda-based Anglican Mission in America, earnestly believing that they have a duty to call the west back to her traditional morality, or to morality or practices never before seen in the west? Our visitor from the cannibal group -- will he try to organize a group of cannibals in Charlotte? Will he be affected strongly and be driven to the other extreme, becoming vegan?

And what when they return home? as any exchange student or person who has spent significant periods of time in a vastly different culture can affirm, reverse culture shock is often much stronger, in large part because one does not expect to be shocked by looking at "home" with new eyes. Do our assimilating westerners try to bring tribal practices back to Indianapolis? Does our Congolese visitor to Paris try to introduce haute cuisine to his mother? Or do both sides come back like me, when I returned from a trip to Canada, with the newly-formed opinion that the people they have been with are simply very, very silly?

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