Monday, April 10, 2006

Harris reading

And I’ve Reached My Limit

Marvin Harris presents a sociological study on a South American tribe, explaining what we in the “civilized world” would consider “savage” behavior as a system of societal actions necessary for survival. The behavior in question, female infanticide, frequent war, and ploygyny, wife-beating, gang rape of captured women, and other forms of male supremacy, are found in the Yanomamo tribe of Brazil and Venezuela. Harris describes their society, environment, and necessities in order to give the reader an understanding of why such savage brutalities are essential to tribes’ survival.
The article is fascinating for the reason that it attempts to provide a cultural understanding for practices that most people from civilized countries would consider “distasteful” at best, and “depraved” or more at worst. Harris’ explanation for the behavior—that it is necessary for population control and resource distribution—does not sit entirely well with me, but because of Harris’ explanation I am able to understand it better. Harris has effectively chosen one of the most difficult perspectives to argue—one of violence, brutality, and rape—and attempted to shift its horizon to match that of the reader.
While I can understand the place of female infanticide in terms of population control, I cannot understand the need for gang raping of women. Perhaps I am less unable to see it, but unwilling. I think it is at this point that I reach my limit for empathy with another culture. As different as its people and customs are, I cannot see the need for such brutality within a social structure, and more than that, I do not want to be able to see. I find the whole subject so distasteful, that I am more willing to write the Yanomamo tribes off as “savages” than try to understand a way of life that feels a need for such bloodthirsty practices and disgusting enforcements of male supremacy.

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