Tribal Wisdom David Maybury-Lewis David Maybury Lewis (1992) wonders if we, as Americans, by having systematically chosen to dismiss as 'odd', 'weird', and not the 'right' way to live; in our views of foreign tribal cultures, have been hoisted by our own petard. By using his definition of a tribal society (for which there really is no one single way of life): 'small-scale, pre-industrial societies that live in comparative isolation and manage their affairs without central authority such as the state', (p 6) he questions whether cultural roads industrialized 'modern's societies have chosen have caused the serious social problems we suffer today. We are the modernists, defined by myself as the opposite of tribal / traditional society. The article is easy to follow, articulate, and I related well to its theories. Maybe the fact that I related too well causes me to wonder a bit at the objectivity behind Maybury-Lewis' thinking. He did well to provide a structured compare and contrast type essay, presenting tribal viewpoints with modern viewpoints regarding the same subjects.
He touched on relationships between man and man, and man and his environment. He compared teenage youth from culture to culture. He explained violence in terms of political science. He covered, what I feel to be, the most important issues of all: those of spirituality. But in each case, tribal viewpoint with its consequential cultural effects won out over modern views. He did not mention, in all fairness, the many positives, which have resulted from modern culture.
Or if he did, he questioned the ultimate good of those positives or potential hazards. Medical advances, for example, were never mentioned as a positive that could only have come about through modern culture and its credo of achievement. I agreed completely, as I mentioned, with his stated ideas. His studies of tribal societies can be broken down to one basic. In modern civilizations, materialism and individuality are the valuables and in the tribal or traditional societies, people are the resources.
People's relationships with one another and the Earth are the constant he found in 'primitive' groups. He found the modern world to idealize individuality, from formal schooling to cultural experience, preaching the idea that personal achievement at any cost is the basis of life and the reward is status. Any human potential toward 'kindness, generosity, patience, tolerance, cooperation, compassion... are literally undervalued: any job that requires such talents usually has low pay and low prestige.' (p. 7).
This seems so honest a comparison to me as I study the strong cooperative lifestyles of people who must live as a group in order to survive. These same people have also developed a strong bond with the land that is their economic resource. They have a respect for that which comes from the Earth by means of foraging or hunting. The tribal culture almost instinctively knows that once it resources are depleted, their society will be destroyed.
They understand the value of cooperation and compassion. They respect, ironically, 'the time reap and the time to sow'. They move on as herds become smaller, not waiting until only two or three are left to put on exhibition in a zoo. They recognize if soils are becoming barren, and move on. Their cultures's y stems of waste removal often contribute to the growth of new resources.
On the other hand, modernists have developed cultures where values that do not lead to status and dominion over the Earth are its main concerns. We, the modern cultures, forget the environment except when it becomes chic to become aware or whenever we want to plunder and rape its wealth and treasures. Historically, we do not give anything back. Western culture exalts in its throwaway attitudes.
Here, again, I feel that even in 1992 when this article was written, a seed of social consciousness had been planted and modern cultures had at least developed an awareness of these problems. I don't feel Maybury-Lewis gave credit for this development. But he does offer suggestions for solutions. He suggests we study, less judiciously, those 'weird other people'. The emptiness that fills our souls, caused by secularization, could be filled and turned toward developing a moderate cultural viewpoint. Modernists have become so deprived of their spirituality by modern culture, except for those few on the cultural fringe; they have lost sight of the responsibilities that result from recognizing we are all part of something greater.
More concentrated study of tribal ways should enable us to critically revamp our ways. We need not embrace an entire culture as our own, but wisely draw from viewpoints and develop a more moderate, less secular culture. Gender problems, personality issues, family values, and problematic relations with the Earth could be alleviated if we would only remove our blinders, 'Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom, and it will be a hundred times better for everyone... Exterminate ingenuity, discard profit, and there will be no more thieves and bandits'. (Lao Tzu p. 23) I let the Tao Te Ching summarize for me.
WORKS CITED: Mayberry-Lewis. David. 'Tribal Wisdom.' Utne Reader July/August 1992: 6-11 Lao Tzu. TaoTeChing. Trans. Lau, D.
C. New York: Penguin. 1963.