Noble Savage Vs. Rewilding

John Zerzan did a talk at (The Dreaded) Reed College a while ago. One of the Reed professors accused John of idealizing indigenous peoples, in the age old tradition of the “noble savage.” I hear this one come up often, and it feels just as boring and reactive and lazy every time.

What makes this a straw man stems from the people believing that the anti-civilization movement idealizes indigenous peoples based on ethics, which we don’t. We hear them say things like, “You think savages had such a great life, huh? They didn’t have better lives! You know they brutaly KILLED each other! They killed their babies! They ate people! Oh the horror! You think they had it soooo great? Well it sounds like you’ve just brought up the old Noble Savage myth again.”

The analysis of civilization vs. indigenous (or agriculture vs. hunting and gathering) has absolutely nothing to do with ethics. The analysis, at least to me, has always looked at the two social structures from a “systems” point of view, not an ethical one. What do certain indigenous groups, with more violent tendencies have to do with this critique? Nothing, except serving to set up a straw man.

People have needs. These needs extend to the land, as we come from the land. Systems work as ways of organizing a group in such a way that they meet all of their needs. Indigenous social systems (aka tribe) meet the needs across the board: health care, distribution of wealth, environmental sustainability, mental health, etc. This does not make an indigenous person more or less ethical than a civilized person. It means they had a system that met more peoples needs. Sure, they didn’t have the perfect system, no one I know of says they did. But they had one that met more of peoples needs than civilization ever could.

I think the reason civilized people so often confuse this issue as one of ethics, comes from a blindness to how systems effect human behavior. Because civilization does not meet our needs, it encourages people to hoard food (to use one example). To the civilized, sharing comes from having a “good” set of ethics. To indigenous peoples, sharing comes as naturally seeming as hoarding does to us. To me, having more of my needs met means living a better life.

Because civilization has a structure that creates people who do not share, we believe that people who share have some special quality unique to them. We assume that indigenous peoples who seemingly, “naturally” share with eachother must have some inborn quality that we don’t. In reality, they don’t differ from us in any way other than their systems.

Civilized people always believe in order to save the planet, or do any kind of “good,” we need to act better. We put the blame on individuals, not the system. Because of this we think that the indigenous cultures had better people. Do you want to live in a world with or without nuclear weapons? If you see that as an ethical question, you still don’t understand. Do nuclear weapons meet our needs? Do they meet the needs of the rest of the planet, with which our needs intertwine? No, they don’t meet our needs. Bringing ethics into it just muddles things up. Wether you view Nuclear Weapons as good or evil has little to do with anything. What do they do? They blow shit up. They make the land radioactive for thousands of years. Does that meet the needs of the people and the rest of the planet? No. Did indigenous peoples have more nobility than civilization? No. They had a system that met more needs.

When we look at civilization, we find that it does not meet our needs at all. In fact, I think the point of Zerzans work, and others like Quinn and Jensen, shows us that not only does the system of civilization not meet our needs, but functions against our needs. I don’t think anyone of those authors idealizes indigenous peoples, at least, I didn’t get that from their works at all. What I got involved looking at the systems, and seeing which ones met more needs. Better or worse, noble or savage, good or evil has really nothing to do with it at all.

What system meets more of our needs? Generally people call a system that meets more of our needs “better” than one that does not meet our needs, as people have a desire to have their needs met, and the more needs met the better one feels. Therefore, indigenous social systems work better than civilized social systems. Not because they had better people, but because they had better systems.

I think Jason Godesky put the last nail in the coffin in his thorough article, “The Savages are Truly Noble.”

Primitive peoples have an impact on their environment, it’s just a positive one. They fight, they simply fight less. They deceive, they simply have communities and ways of relating where deception is impossible. They get sick, just less often. They’re still human, they just know what that truly means. At times, the “Noble Savage” seems to make primitive people out to be perfect in every way. That’s absurd. They are still people. What differs is that they still remember what being a person entails. It’s not a perfect life—it’s just a vast improvement.

So there, Mr. Reed College professor. Take your ethics and your straw man back to OZ, or I’ll make you the effigy of next years Burning Man! Ooooh Snap! …Just kidding. You wouldn’t catch me dead at Burning Man… But don’t even get me started on that straw man.

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5 Comments on “Noble Savage Vs. Rewilding”

  1. I was rolling my eyes when you mentioned next years Burning Man, but thankfully it was a joke.

  2. Pingback: FIMBULVINTER - anarko-primitivism på svenska :: En text av Urban Scout. :: July :: 2007

  3. yeah — forget burning man. you never know when someone dressed like marvin the martian will shout “Earth-shattering kaboom!” and splash you with an ACME Disintegration Pistol full of some experimental chemical which absorbs through your unsuspecting skin, transforming your brain into a psychedellic magma hot ultra oven and making your spine fizz and smoke like the Wicked Witch of the West standing under a waterfall.

    I shall now mow down on some filafel and contemplate this stunning array of acute philosophies and hit you back with some shiznitty.

  4. I remembered that I said I would comment on this. So I will comment on this [disjointedly]. Cuz I said so [foolishly].

    >People have needs.

    Damn skippy.

    >These needs extend to the land, as we come from the land.

    Double damn skippy. We humanos are kinda like a big ole brush stroke on the canvas – but why does the color keep fading and erasing the others?

    When looking at a bunch of people I think ‘How does this group effect the whole?’

    Okay – over here you steal someones pigs and make crude jokes about one of their wives and someone eats you. That’s kinda fucked up, enough to alarm almost everyone. More pigs less asshole people, still, fucked up and frightening and unforgiving to the max. One can make the arguement that the pigs are our little pig brothers and it’s not as bizzare as the puritans and their clones want to think… but I can’t help but believe there might be a more beneficial solution to such dilemmas.

    Over here people frequently worship a pointless standard [I believe Brad Pitt has taken the place of Adonis and the Angelina has become a modern Aphrodite, and although they seems alright the temples are insane and ugly], rust in their insecurities, treat eachother like disposable commodities and see this whole planet suffer without the presence of mind to notice or care.

    >It’s not a perfect life—it’s just a vast improvement.

    Right Jason, wherever you are. Did the cannibals invent nuclear reactors and place them in this hands of incompetants? Would they have done so eventually had they been the only humans on the planet? Was civilization avoidable? I dunno. I can’t help but wonder if the mess we as a species are in right now is like the curious kid who touches the stove for the first time and realizes hot things hurt.

    & that hand keeps burning and burning and the soma keeps getting shilled…

    >What system meets more of our needs?

    in my mind i see it all coming down to self-centered behavior, which is probably caused by a combative fearfulness of things that cannot be controlled and a need for more and more security, a system of senseless ignorance and without compassion, or selfless behavior, in which the individual and the group can remember and maintain with the insight that although life isn’t safe and never will be safe our actions effect everyone and everything and just exactly what that means in the bigger picture.

    It’s really bloody basic. I don’t know how the masses could have suicidally crippled themselves in regards to such vital matters.

    What I think I mean here is tribal shmibal – I love the indigenous but show me a person with a breathing spirit open eyes and a gentle heart who loves life and endeavors to keep it thriving and that makes all the difference, no matter how you can pigeonhole them.

    Shiznitty on the fan blades – hope I didn’t speckle the walls too heavily.