Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Truth Is Always About Perspective

is the word used to identify the myth that life prior to the industrial era was brief, brutish, and simple. It's a concept that emerged from the European Enlightenment, the era during which large parts of the globe were subjugated by brutal colonialism, often excused in the name of bringing civilization to the "savages." Primitivism remains with us today, of course: just witness how readily we label our adversaries -- be it in war, politics, or just neighborhood squabbles -- as animals or cavemen or simply idiots (e.g., both sides portray their enemies as apes in political memes). These labels help us dehumanize others, freeing us therefore to not have to treat them as human.

Naturally, not all Europeans believed the myth of primitivism during the Enlightenment, or at least not entirely. After all, America's so-called founding fathers used the principles of the Iroquois Confederacy as the foundation of much of the US Constitution. Early Jesuits reported that the New World "savages" were on the whole more clever than the average person from back home. Famously, the pilgrims who landed at Plymouth only survived because the Wampanoag people taught them how. Ultimately, none of this stopped colonizers from simply taking whatever they found valuable, be it natural resources, ideas, or knowledge, but first they had to re-label the people they stole from as primitive.

More open-minded Europeans learned from these sophisticated civilizations, but the learning was typically narrow and superficial because precious few saw them as anything other than primitive adversaries or noble savages, dismissing the very soil from which their wisdom grew.

Kandiaronk, a chief of the Wendat people, a man who had spent time in Europe, is quoted as saying, "I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can't think of a single way they act that is not inhuman, and I genuinely think this can only be the case, as long as you stick to your distinctions of 'mine' and 'thine'. I affirm that what you call money is the devil of devils; the tyrant of the French, the source of all evils; the bane of souls and slaughterhouse of the living. To imagine one can live in a country of money and preserve one's life is like imagining one could preserve one's life at the bottom of a lake."

Many of us today, centuries later, see the great wisdom of this critique. Yet although Kandiaronk clearly disapproved of European society, he only labeled their ideas as inhuman, not the people. Were it not for the myth of primitivism, Europeans might have learned what indigenous people knew. For instance, they might have known that trees talk to one another, a truth that Western science is only now "discovering": they communicate via pheromones that carry meaning on the breeze and through interconnected root systems and by other mechanisms that we are still trying to figure out. Enlightenment era scientists dismissed talking trees as primitive mumbo jumbo, yet even then it was already ancient wisdom.

Primitivism, or something like it, is a bundle of prejudices that become limitations preventing us from seeing all kinds of truth, not just human.

Birds have known about and used magnetic fields for navigation for eons, yet Western science is only just now starting to understand them. Scientists have only just discovered that marine animals make D-amino acids, yet catfish have known and used them for hundreds of millions of years. Galileo invented his famous telescope in 1609 using tubes with lenses, a "primitive" imitation that jumping spiders evolved millions of years before.

In this regard, primitivism might be better framed as speciesism. But it's all of a type.

And our blind spot isn't just for animals, but plants as well. (Even that term, "blind spot," is an ableist term -- like "lack of vision" to mean lack of creativity, or saying "I see" to mean "I understand." It presumes human vision as some sort of superior way of sensing the world.)

As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in her amazing book Braiding Sweetgrass: "Plants tell their stories not by what they say, but by what they do . . . What if you were a teacher but had no voice to speak your knowledge? What if you had no language at all and yet there was something you needed to say? Wouldn't you dance it? Wouldn't you act it out? Wouldn’t your every movement tell the story? In time you would become so eloquent that just to gaze upon you would reveal it all. And so it is with these silent green leaves . . . Plants teach the universal language."

These -ism myths are grounded in the concepts of hierarchy, power and progress. We see them at play in how we relate to young children. Due to their relative helplessness (although they are not ever as helpless as we seem to assume), their size, and the fact that we believe we can see them progressing into the future, we likewise tend to see them as comparatively simple, perhaps even brutish. Experts have long asserted that they are driven by "base" and selfish motives, that they must learn to be civilized, that their instinct to play is a waste, and that they must be controlled and even colonized for their own good. Some have labelled these attitudes, assumptions, and prejudices as childism.

I have found, however, having spent my career observing children with the goal of learning from them rather than raising them, that like other cultures, species, and even plants, they possess insights into truth that I simply cannot perceive as an older, straight, middle class human male of European heritage.

Truth is always about perspective. And what primitivism is, in all its forms, is the supremacist assumption that one's own perspective stands above all others. What we "see" is simply the result of perceiving the world from within our own cultural, biological, and sensory bubble and that "blinds" us unless and until we take the time to "listen" to other people, to other species, to plants, and to children, especially when what they reveal to us about the world are the devils that are invisible from our own perspective.

Whenever I catch myself insisting upon my own perspective and mine alone, I try to recall what science journalist Ed Young writes in his book An Immense World: "With every creature that vanishes, we lose a way of making sense of the world. Our . . . bubbles shield us from the knowledge of those losses. But they don't protect us from the consequences."


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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