Occasionally, when I feel overwhelmed by the enormous overflow of knowledge, complexity and paradoxes in our global information society, I return, in my imagination, to Mungiki, a small Polynesian island in the South Pacific Ocean. Mungiki is not an island concocted by my fantasy. No, Mungiki is a very real island that I stayed at many years ago, while undertaking a cross-cultural field study.
The purpose of my traveling back to Mungiki is to get back to basics and see things in a more simple and straightforward manner. When I feel challenged by what I – and the whole world, for that matter – are being confronted with right now, I ask myself, “How would that appear from the perspective of life on Mungiki?” Or in other words – as life appears in its most pragmatic simplicity. The point of departure of my field study in Mungiki was to investigate, get to know and to understand patterns of conflict behavior that characterized the Mungikis and hence make a documentation of another unique and indigenous people.
As a researcher investigating real life out there in the field, you are quite often confronted by something unpredictable, which you didn’t have any clue about whatsoever while planning the project for the investigation. This is a common experience that is shared by researchers doing field studies. Researchers who stay for extended stretches of time in a culture other than their own generally experience yet another feature in common: they, almost unanimously, express how much they, in studying a foreign culture, learn about themselves and their own culture. Realizing how much I still had to learn about myself and my own culture – as viewed from the perspective and way of life of the Mungikis – I returned home from my stay on Mungiki. And I still draw on this realization. The same, yet incomparable.
It was already clear from the outset of my stay on Mungiki that the Mungikis, basically and altogether recognizably, are human beings who are very much like us. At the same time, there also are certain modes of being in the world that make us incomparable. Perhaps the motto, unity in diversity, is appropriate here. This insight completely altered the focus of my field study. From my initially being concerned with conducting a comparative statistical survey of the differences in parameters pertaining to the socialization of aggression in the West and on Mungiki, it became more meaningful for me to show that it is sometimes fruitless to subject human differences to quantitative comparison. And this is so, partly because we risk making faulty observations and conclusions and partly because we miss out on valuable knowledge.
The natural conditions in the indigenous culture of Mungiki are clearly different from ours. Yet it would be making an oversimplification to argue that the Mungikis are different from us strictly because of their having to perceive reality differently in order to make a living there. Such an argument fails to take into account that we, as human beings, are not merely controlled and conditioned by our surroundings. It is rather based on our basic values and our view of humanity, as reflected in our perceptions and attitudes, that we, in mutual interaction with the surroundings, actively create, shape and contribute to our basis of existence and concrete reality.
It is here that we find the crux of the difference between the Mungikis and ourselves. It is obvious that the Mungikis, for generations, have been able to live in harmony with and respect for the rather limited natural resources and it is obvious that they have been able to sustain themselves, implementing what we would consider very primitive tools of production. They have, moreover, practiced cooperation in the production as well as in the equal distribution of vital necessities.
Nothing has prevented us in the Western civilization from handling our circumstances and leading our lives based on the same values, motives, and insights as those held by the Mungikis. However, it does seem that we in the Western world have believed for a good many centuries that we could set aside considerations of our basic motives and values. That we, as a consequence of progress thinking and spurred on by the vision of technological and economic superiority, have let ourselves be allured by novel possibilities for growth and wealth. This abstention, which has occurred at the expense of the experience of connectedness and at the expense of respect for the natural surroundings and our fellow human beings has increasingly made it possible to build and expand affluent societies – for a minority of the population on Earth. And we doggedly continue to do this, notwithstanding that we have known full well for many years that our common survival is thereby being threatened and that we are about to cross over the line demarcating the end of our continued existence on this planet.
It is strange that we can keep on upholding the notion of the superiority of our own civilization over earlier and currently different forms of society and cultures. And furthermore, it is strange that we find this position to be legitimized by the power that our economic superiority ensures us. It is no less paradoxical that the technological and scientific conquests, which we believe to be a testimony to a higher degree of intelligence, knowledge, breadth of view, innovative thinking and human capability, have not prompted us to carefully consider whether our innovations are actually beneficial and not harmful.
An indigenous people like the inhabitants of Mungiki – along with other indigenous peoples – represent an invaluable testimony to us because these populations show us that it is humanly possible to create a life that, even if it is far from being perfect and Elysian, still rests on an ethical foundation and on empathy that not only ensures people’s survival but also a life in which human beings and their natural surroundings are part of mutual interdependent interactions within the totality that constitutes the existence of all there is.
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