Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Liars or Friends?

I have been thinking recently about the Lewis and Clark journals, which I read in the early 1990s. I'm recalling ... and I hope have this straight.

As I remember, early in their exploration of the territory received in the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark disciplined a member of their party. This was a military expedition sponsored by the US government, and Lewis and Clark were both military officers.

They proceeded to beat an insubordinate recruit.

Native Americans were on the scene, watching, and their leader, distressed at beating, tried, I believe, to prevent it, and then cried tears at the violence.

Lewis and Clark were astonished and thought the leader must be feigning his distress. Why are you so upset, they asked? Don't you beat your son?

No, never. We don't beat our children.

Here is where it gets interesting. Lewis and Clark simply could not believe the chief--and the Indians in general-- didn't beat their children. It was so far out of their child rearing and hierarchical paradigms that they simply assumed the leader was lying. The only way they could make sense of the statement was to assume that the leader must have had a hidden agenda. It also fed into their preconception that Indians were deceptive.

Lewis and Clark were not alone in believing in the necessity of corporal punishment. Samuel Johnson, usually an enlightened man, defended it as the only way to compel young boys to learn their school lessons.

Of course, from the vantage point of today's culture, we know that we can raise successful children without resorting to physical violence -- and in fact, better understand the psychological harm that can arise from physical punishment. We can look at this encounter between Lewis and Clark and the Native American leader and see it as culture clash.

What interests me about this episode (aside from the fact that I'm glad our culture has moved in the direction of the Native Americans) is how we process what doesn't fit into our framework. We tend, I believe, like Lewis and Clark, to dismiss what doesn't fit as a "lie." (I believe Nietszche said a similar thing when he wrote that we label the "other" as evil.) In Lewis and Clark's case, as I remember, they didn't see the Indian as evil, but as childlike, deceptive and, most of all, contemptible. There was no attempt to, say, do a thought experiment and assume that perhaps he was telling the truth. And if he was, to ponder what the implications of that might be. There was no reflection that seemingly "normal" discipline might truly be distressing to another culture--and perhaps there might be something to think about in that slippage between the two cultures.

I'm thinking about this because recently the "culture wars" have been breaking out again in a part of the blogsphere I frequent ...and the assumption on both sides is that the other side is either deliberately lying or that innocent people are being misled by unsavory leaders with the ever-present hidden agendas. But what if we really tried to get into the minds of the people on the other side? What if we assumed that they were telling their truth--that they weren't misled or lying, childlike or contemptible? What leads them to this truth that is different from our truth? What can we learn from it?

No comments: