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 lifeâ€”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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