Thursday, October 21, 2010

Among the Cannibals, Part 2

Start with part one here.

After describing the Korowai and the Aghor sect, Raffaele moves on to Tonga, but only briefly because there isn’t much to say. The vast majority of what he talks about is how fat the Tongans are. He’s so fascinated by their fatness you almost wonder if he wants to eat them! Ha, ha, cannibal joke.

The island of Tonga in the South Pacific no longer has cannibals, but it did once, and they ate some troublesome Europeans, and who can blame them. Eating enemy warriors is pretty ordinary in cannibal circles. It’s a lot like the ritual consumption of family members after they’ve died. Their bravery or power or wisdom or energy passes to the person who eats the meat. Again, it’s a matter of religious ritual.

At this point in the book I’d been grossed out several times just because I really don't like dead bodies, but I had not been horrified by anything. Then I got to the section on forced cannibalism in Uganda, which was the most horrible thing I have ever read in my life. In the course of the war between the Ugandan government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, which has been going on for 23 years, tens of thousands of young children have been kidnapped to serve in the LRA. To separate the kids from their sense of who they are, shame them so much they don’t want to go home, and make it so that their families don’t want them back, the LRA leaders make them murder and eat any of their friends who try to run away. Children who have been rescued from the LRA are obviously severely traumatized, and sometimes the plan works. Their villages don’t trust them and don’t want them back. This doesn’t even come close to a religious ritual, as it is part of a deliberate strategy masterminded by a psychopath to dehumanize and brainwash children. It’s not the same as the other kinds of cannibalism covered by this book, and doesn’t really give any insight into why cannibals eat other people. I’m not sure eating human flesh under pain of severe violence, sexual assault, or death makes you a cannibal. I definitely wouldn’t call those kids cannibals.

By the time I got to the final section on the Aztecs I was so thoroughly numbed by Uganda that I didn’t really care that they practiced what can only be described as egregious amounts of human sacrifice involving cutting hearts out of living bodies. But now that I'm writing this, I’ve kind of had it with cannibals. Aztecs, was it really necessary that the heart be beating? On the other hand, all the primary sources were written by Europeans who had an interest in telling everyone the Aztecs were subhuman, so it’s hard to say exactly what really happened. They definitely had a lot of really big knives, though.

So, is the depiction of cannibals in Crusoe racist after all? Well. If I could remember it better, maybe I’d know. I think what disturbed me at the time was that it seemed like the cannibals were sort of ridiculously over-costumed to look terrifying, and behaved like they’d eat you as soon as look at you. Judging by what I’ve read, that’s not how it works. Cannibals don’t eat people because it’s fun or they’re hungry. Nobody keeps a herd of humans fenced out back as a food source. Except for in Uganda, they only do it under certain ritualistic circumstances. So I can’t think of a good reason why cannibals would randomly land on Crusoe’s island with the intention of eating him, unless it’s because they know he’s white and therefore consider him a devil, or at least an enemy (which is plausible). Either way, I suppose the real question is how Daniel Defoe depicted them, and how closely the tv show followed his depiction. Sadly, my research for this post did not involve reading that book, so I’ll have to report back later.

As for Raffaele’s desire to prove cannibalism still goes on, I think it’s pretty clear it does, although I would like to point out that he never actually saw it happen. And it’s fading out in places where there are police forces willing to make arrests, or where modern society is encroaching. I would not personally be sorry if people stopped eating each other, but I’m not sure it’s morally wrong. Raffaele quotes Robert Louis Stevenson as saying, “To cut a man’s flesh after he is dead is far less hateful than to oppress him while he lives.” I find that to be fairly sound. Within the cultures where it occurs ritually, it is not seen as immoral, and I am uncomfortable judging one culture by another’s standards.

But I’m taking a very literal definition of cannibalism and limiting it to mean the actual consumption of human flesh. The murder that occurs beforehand bothers me quite a lot, especially the Aztec kind. This is a very weird and kind of squishy moral area. It does not seem measurably kinder not to eat someone after you kill them, since they're already dead. I’m more squeamish about the killing, and the cruelty involved, than the eating. Still, it isn't fair to condemn other humans for behaving according to the conventions of their peers. Any khakhua who gets eaten has likely eaten other khakhua.

At any rate, I don't find nonviolent cannibalism particularly offensive. I can understand a ritual wherein you eat a bit of your dead relatives, if you happen to believe that you can preserve them and absorb their good qualities that way. It’s only fair to point out that there are more than a billion Catholics in the world, many of whom believe in the miracle of transubstantiation, which seems quite similar to me.

In case anyone is tempted to become an Aghori: Ivan asked whether eating brains made you sick, and the answer is that it depends on your DNA. You might be fine, or your brain might turn to mush. With this in mind my final recommendation concerning cannibalism is don't do it.

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