INDIGENOUS WAYS OF KNOWING

We woke up this morning to the sight of a doe and two fawns grazing on our front lawn. If this happened in Berlin or Lyon or Naples, it would have made the front page. Having precious little of it of their own, Europeans are utterly amazed that there could be fauna beyond the confines of a zoo.

Some Europeans, with more money than sense, come all the way to western Canada to pay $300 a night to sleep in a teepee. Not unlike Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess at Versailles, it’s hard not to find it charming that a chartered accountant from Dusseldorf finds sleeping in a teepee charming. People who used to sleep in teepees, because that’s what they had to sleep in, didn’t find it charming at all. That’s why they traded them in for what the colonizer had to offer. Teepees just couldn’t compete with central heating. And neither could squatting over a hole with a flush toilet.

There’s no cause for surprise here. When civilizations meet, they trade lots of things, including, by the way, diseases. In exchange for smallpox the New Worlders gave their European colonizers syphilis. And, of course, worse ideas get replaced by better ones. How else did the colonizer, who had himself been colonized a dozen times, manage to emerge from the cave? If the colonized is feeling ill-used, she can always play the there-but-for-the-white-man game. But then she really shouldn’t cherry pick. Let her picture her world without the white man’s technological imperialism. Having revisited that “life of man {sic] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” she might also want to revisit that feeling of being ill-used.

That said, there’s an interesting pattern of stupid reasoning that’s been emerging of late among social justice warriors (SJWs). It doesn’t yet have a name, but I’m open to suggestions.

It’s an incontrovertible fact that you wouldn’t have to look more than two or three generations back to confirm that were it not for rape you wouldn’t be here. That if your ancestors hadn’t been sold as slaves you’d be living the not entirely enviable life of the average east African. And that if you hadn’t been colonized you’d still be a stone age people. You’d have yet to invent the wheel. And if your appendix burst you’d be dead.

But hang on. If your ancestor thought being raped was a good thing, then it wouldn’t have been rape, since it wouldn’t have been against her will. If your ancestor thought being enslaved was a good thing it wouldn’t have counted as slavery, for the same reason. And if the conquered thought being conquered was a good thing, it wouldn’t have counted as conquest. And yet all of these calamities – rape, enslavement, conquest – often prove to be a good thing for their descendants. If that banal observation constitutes advocating rape or slavery or conquest, then it’s hard to imagine how any history teacher could do her job and yet still keep it.

There are people who think that anyone making these observations must be approving of rape or slavery or conquest – else why would they be making them, right? People who draw this inference are just too stupid to pee. Unfortunately, among the faculty and administration of many universities, including my own, are people precisely that stupid. I used to think these people could be disabused of their stupidity. I was wrong. People who can’t think can’t be taught to think because learning involves thinking. But, as just noted, they can’t think. And so they can’t learn.

If they could think they’d realize that there’s no human being over the age of two who hasn’t been at one time a victim, and at another a victimizer. Moreover, there’s as much predation within a group as between groups. That doesn’t mean individuals or members of groups have nothing to complain about. They do. Nor does it mean they shouldn’t complain about what they have to complain about. They should. It just means that we all live in glass houses. It’s not that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. They just shouldn’t expect not to have some of those stones thrown back at them. Here’s a case in point:

Among the SJW’s current virtue signalling repertoire is the idea of indigenous exceptionalism. It’s the myth that the vices that characterize European society were unknown to these stone age peoples – perhaps because they were stone age peoples – and that they were infected by these vices only in the course of being colonized. So, for example, yes, the Creek Nation of eastern Oklahoma bought black slaves to work their cotton fields. But only because they were driven west from their ancestral lands along the infamous Trail of Tears. And yes, after those slaves were forcibly emancipated, the Creek continued to treat them like dogs, but only because they’d been introduced to racism by the white man.

Foremost among the white man’s assault on this ‘indigenous supremacy’ – and what is it if not that? – has been his dismissal of their special ways of knowing.

To be fair, words have a way to meaning something different in SJW-Speak, so it would violate the principle of charity to accuse them of thinking that knowledge is anything other than justified true belief. But if knowledge is justified true belief, this ‘special’ indigenous knowledge would simply be knowledge induced from the environment unique to them. But then it wouldn’t be a special way of knowing, since that’s precisely how we all come to know what we know. So by ‘special’ knowledge must be meant gnosticism, i.e. the view that certain people have knowledge unavailable, even in principle, to anyone else. But gnosticism is just shamanism, and shamanism is a fraud.

So by ‘special ways of knowing’ can only be meant special ways of believing. But even this is ambiguous. If a white teacher believes God created the world six thousand years ago, she will not be allowed to share her young earth creationism in school. But if an elder believes something equally implausible, he’ll be encouraged to. Why? Because what he’s sharing is a belief of a different kind, different in the same way that the sun rising and setting is a different kind of belief than the earth rotating on its axis. The two beliefs serve very different doxastic functions in our lives.

And indeed, if this is all the SJW means by different ways of knowing, I’m all on board, provided she acknowledges that this is all she means. But she won’t. She won’t because she can’t. And she can’t because doing so would reduce these special ways of knowing to quaintness. The sun rising and setting, though charming, won’t help us get to the moon. The earth rotating on its axis will. Chanting over a burst appendix, though quaint, won’t save the patient’s life. Surgery will.

We’re told that pre-contact indigenous languages had no word for religion. So whereas a Trinitarian blessing violates the separation of church and state, a smudging ceremony doesn’t, because it’s cultural, not religious. The distinction won’t survive  under any conceptual scrutiny. But the courts aren’t governed by such niceties. Banning the smudging ceremony in public schools would fly in the face of our attempts at reconciliation. Reconciliation is a political initiative, and in my view a well-motivated one. And political initiatives, be they laudable or not, aren’t slaves to conceptual consistency. Nor should they be.

But unlike the case of special ways of knowing, it would be churlish to insist that this inconsistency be publicly acknowledged. Some means only work their laudable ends if they’re not subjected to conceptual scrutiny. If I thought otherwise I couldn’t reconcile my having circumcised my son – by which I don’t mean I did it personally! – with my opposition to female genital mutilation. In other words, sometimes people who live in glass houses just need to install shatterproof glass.

I said that special ways of believing was ambiguous. The alternative and less charitable interpretation is that these special indigenous ways of arriving at their beliefs have as much if not more doxastic warrant than the colonizer’s ways of  arriving at theirs. But examining the entrails of a bird is not as good a way to predict next week’s weather as the colonizer’s meteorology. Philosophers of science can argue about why this is the case, and under what rare circumstances it’s not. And it’s the latter, i.e. the putative failure of the colonizer to care for the land he’s colonized, that grounds the demand that indigenous people should be put in charge of environmental policy.

But once again, what evidence do we have for this indigenous supremacy? That the environment was relatively stable prior to contact? Hard for it not to be when there was neither the population pressure nor the technology to destabilize it. And let’s be honest. A roof garden can feed the one household that lies beneath it, but not the residents of a fifty-story high rise.

My indigenous students – by which is meant those who claim to have some residual indigenous blood – have their heads buried in their smart phones just like everyone else. There is no longer some indigenous culture distinct from that of the colonizer. The residential schools took care of that! They can’t speak their language any more than I can speak ancient Hebrew. For all their ‘traditional knowledge’ they’d survive in the wilderness no longer than I would. In short, their culture is dead. Dead as the culture of the ancient Hebrews, about which I know as much as they do about the culture of their long-since-past ancestors.

Too quick. A people is not synonymous with a culture. Cultures evolve in response to changes in the material circumstances in which they’re embedded, including the changes incurred by being conquered and colonized. Rather, by a people is meant a narrative, a narrative that includes having been conquered and colonized. Who are the Jews? They’re the people for whom their narrative runs from the myth of the Abrahamic Covenant through to Auschwitz and to the modern State of Israel. So mutatis mutandis the indigenous people of, say, southern Alberta, are those people for whom their narrative runs from the pre-Contact smoke signals through to and including today’s smart phones.    

So what do we do when much of our narrative is lost? We make shit up. We crossed the Red Sea. No we didn’t. They were a peaceful people. No they weren’t. We invented monotheism. No we didn’t. They discovered quantum mechanics. They don’t understand it any more than I do.

Maslow missed a rung on his hierarchy. Without identity people can’t know where they belong in the social pecking order. Nor can they self-actualize. So if they don’t have an identity they’ll make one up. If the rest of us want to prevent them from getting too close to our own rung, we’ll try not to let them. And one way to do that – as clearly I’m doing now – is to mock them when they try.

Well yes, that’s certainly one possibility. But the other is that, as one of the colonizers, I’m simply protecting my identity. And an autonomous effect of that is this mockery of their attempts to invent one for themselves. No doubt the social justice warrior, be she indigenous or white, will accuse me of trying to keep these people in their place, whereas the white pride proponent will insist that uber alles can be found nowhere in the words of his anthem nor in its sentiment.

I’m not sure into which of these equally vile camps I fall. But I’m sure the social justice warrior won’t hesitate to tell me.

2 thoughts on “INDIGENOUS WAYS OF KNOWING

  1. Indigenous knowledge is now part of Canadian environmental law. C-69, enacted last year, requires an environmental panel assessing the environmental effects of a pipeline to consider the indigenous knowledge of indigenous hearing participants, and to weigh that knowledge against the evidence of environmental scientists (who are not indigenous). Of course there were no pipelines pre-colonization, or even more than a century ago. But that doesn’t prevent there being indigenous knowledge of what didn’t exist. Uniquely, according to this law, indigenous people can foresee their environmental impacts, without having conducted any scientific or other studies.

    This same law permits indigenous people (and no one else) to present their evidence of their knowledge in secret. I have been unable to find any reason for this unique legal provision, but obviously, it prevents any pipeline applicant or any First Nation supporting the pipeline from knowing whether any indigenous person presented their indigenous knowledge in secret, or what that presentation contained, or questioning or contradicting that knowledge.

    As this law provides no definition of “indigenous” and no definition of “indigenous knowledge” the range of acceptable meanings will have to be determined by the courts over the coming decades. Lawyers are rejoicing about the person-years of billable hours this will provide.

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    • He don’t know the half of it! By which I mean that Andrew Roman’s reference here to lawyers’ billable hours over the indigenous knowledge issue dovetails nicely with Francis Widdowson’s “Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry”. Not a quick read, but an excellent one.

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