Seeing the strange: the revolutionary potential of the Indigenous critique

The goal of anthropology, so the saying goes, is to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. I first heard this impressively succinct mission statement many years ago but hadn’t given it much thought since. It wasn’t until I started reading Indigenous authors’ critiques of modernity that I recognised the important of these dual processes for shifting social understanding.

The problem is this: socialisation is a powerful constrainer of social change. From the moment we’re born, we begin the long process of absorbing the social logic of our environment. Socialisation’s function is to equip humans with the basic knowledge to adaptively operate within their culture – not to question it or even understand it on a deep level. So much of the superficial workings of society are taken as given, leaving us blind to the often perverse lower-level rationales. To make matters worse, it bestows us with a quasi-moral sense that our ways are right or ‘normal’ (ethnocentrism).

The only way to lift socialisation’s blinders is through exposure to different ways of being. We open our eyes to new possibilities by meaningfully engaging with societies radically different to our own. And we shake our sense of cultural superiority with active contemplation and debate of our ways in relation to those of others. This is how the strangeness of our society is revealed to us and how social change can happen.

Just how profound can this change be? In their recent bestseller, ‘The Dawn of Everything’, David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that it was precisely these dynamics that catalysed the 18th century conceptual revolution of Western thinking on social organisation that came to be known as the ‘Enlightenment’.

Why was it, they ask, that while living under the absolute monarchy of Louis XV, French intellectuals were asking questions about the origins of social inequality? Naturalised inequality (e.g. the divine right of kings) was all they knew, so how did it occur to them that social inequality might have emerged from a primordial state of equality?

The first part of the answer was France’s entry into the globalised economy which exposed European intellectuals to “a whole plethora of previously unimagined social, scientific and political ideas”. In other words, increasing familiarisation with the beliefs and knowledge systems of faraway alien cultures allowed these thinkers to formulate new questions which, in turn, opened up new social possibilities for Europe.

But exposure alone would not have been sufficient for Europeans to shake off their sense of cultural superiority – a prerequisite for the abandonment of institutionalised hierarchy and the embrace of principles of freedom and equality. They had to see the strange in their familiar. And they were shown this strangeness, not by fellow Europeans, but by Native Americans. As Graeber and Wengrow put it:

…indigenous Americans – confronted with strange foreigners – gradually developed their own, surprisingly consistent critique of European institutions, […] these critiques came to be taken very seriously in Europe itself.

Just how seriously can hardly be overstated. For European audiences, the indigenous critique would come as a shock to the system, revealing possibilities for human emancipation that, once disclosed, could hardly be ignored”

And they didn’t hold back. French writer, Lahontan, popularised the views of an exceptional Wendat leader and diplomat, Kandiaronk, who had the opportunity to visit France. He wrote:

“[Those Native Americans who have visited France] were continually teasing us with the faults and disorders they observed in our towns, as being occasioned by money. There’s no point in trying to remonstrate with them about how useful the distinction of property is for the support of society: they make a joke of anything you say on that account. In short, they neither quarrel nor fight, nor slander one another; they scoff at arts and sciences, and laugh at the difference of ranks which is observed with us. They brand us for slaves, and call us miserable souls, whose life is not worth having, alleging that we degrade ourselves in subjecting ourselves to one man [the king] who possesses all the power, and is bound by no law but his own will.”

Indigenous critiques extended to the most fundamental and sacred aspects of French society. They recognised the link between wealth accumulation and European servitude. In their society, wealth differences were trivial and had little consequence for individual liberty. But for the French, they saw that wealth was convertible into power and domination over others. Additionally, they eviscerated the logic of Christianity and cast doubt on the moral basis of European-style punitive law. Kandiaronk explicitly called for the abandonment of self-interest in French society and a re-founding based on Wendat principles:

“Over and over I have set forth the qualities that we Wendat believe ought to define humanity – wisdom, reason, equity, etc. – and demonstrated that the existence of separate material interests knocks all these on the head. A man motivated by interest cannot be a man of reason.”

These ideas were taken up by Enlightenment philosophers, most famously Rousseau, but subverted by others. Social evolutionists, convinced of their cultural and racial superiority, recast the ‘state of equality’ at the bottom of the ladder of social development. Consequently, the transformative impact of Indigenous ideas on European society, although profound, was subject to limitations. Monarchic power was either abolished with revolutionary fervour or drastically restricted. Church was separated from state and the trajectory towards liberal democracy was set. But European colonialism expanded (justified by social evolutionist racism), eventually morphing into globalised capitalism. Inequality in material wealth, and therefore power, has increased exponentially. Unchecked self-interest continues to be at the root of our malaise.

So, how does this relate to our current dire predicament – the destruction of a liveable climate by modern civilisation? Clearly, the motors of socialisation (school, cultural institutions, mass media, work etc.) continue to reproduce a large majority of agents for whom the current industrialised consumer capitalist model is perfectly normal[i]. At the same time, environmentalists, baffled by the intransigence of people’s behaviour in the face of such a catastrophic threat, wrongly insist that it’s a ‘human’ crisis, rather than a cultural one. Both cases demonstrate an inability to see the strangeness of this society (albeit to differing extents).

The key takeaway is this: it takes an outsiders’ eye to truly show us the most fundamental failings of our own society. Just like the philosophers of 17th and 18th century France, intellectuals and environmentalists preoccupied with solving the current planetary crisis must harness the power of the gaze of those cultures that, unlike ours, respect life. We must, therefore, look to Indigenous writers for inspiration.

Thankfully, there’s no shortage of valuable Indigenous critique of modernity, showing us the strangeness of our ways and making visible far deeper societal fractures than the superficial analysis coming from within the Western framework. It’s not hyperbole to say that these Indigenous thinkers are trying to give birth to a new Enlightenment (or, perhaps, complete the previous one!) by helping us rediscover our shared ancestral wisdom. Unfortunately, there’s presently not much sign of the Indigenous critique cutting through in Europe, even amongst the environmental left.

It’s this blog’s goal to try to correct this. In my next post, I’ll begin to delve into the perspective-shifting power of this new Indigenous critique.


[i] Of course, those most indoctrinated in this system are those who have materially benefitted most from it i.e. the over-50s, ‘Baby boomers’. Tragically, they continue to wield the most political and economic power, using their considerable influence to ensure the persistence of this culture of death.


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