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Posts Tagged ‘indigenous peoples’

Sophisticated sophistry

Sunday, December 11th, 2005


“Abuse no one and no living thing, For abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision.”
Tecumseh (Shawnee)

This month’s Article of the Moment explores the plight of indigenous peoples displaced from their lands by Western financed and inspired conservation initiatives. The numbers are staggering. “World estimates offered by the UN, IUCN, and a few anthropologists range from 5 million to tens of millions. Charles Geisler, a sociologist at Cornell University who has studied displacements in Africa, is certain the number on that continent alone exceeds 14 million.” It seems that even when we’re trying to get it right, we’re getting it wrong.

Marginalised, dispossessed of their ancestral lands and livelihoods, their cultural rug pulled out from under their feet, still waiting on their promised financial “compensation”, and condemned to join the lowest and poorest classes of whatever country they live in … the story is the same the world over. Small wonder that many indigenous peoples regard “conservation” as just another form of colonialism. Yet so many of these peoples have lived for centuries, sometimes thousands of years, in harmony with their environment, as much a part of the local ecosystem as any other species until Westerners marched in claiming to know better.

Such an unfortunate trait in our society, that. Probably responsible for more pain, abuse, degradation, disempowerment, even genocide, than all the rest of our less endearing characteristics put together and multiplied by a factor of 10. We may think we’ve progressed from the days of outright imperialism, but we haven’t really. It’s exactly the same behaviour, just latched onto a different rationale and making use of different channels and methods. It’s also a trait we’re as much victims of ourselves within our societies as any other peoples we visit it upon.

It all seems to be encapsulated nicely in the changing fortunes and meanings of a single concept: sophistication. Owing its ultimate derivation to Sophia, Greek Goddess of Wisdom …

“… the meaning of the word sophist (Gr. sophis meaning “wise-ist,” or one who ‘does’ wisdom; cf. sophós, “wise man”, cf. also wizard) has changed greatly over time. Initially, a sophist was someone who gave sophia to his disciples, ie. wisdom made from knowledge. It was a highly complimentary term, applied to early philosophers such as the Seven Wise Men of Greece.

“In the second half of the 5th century B.C., and especially at Athens, “sophist” came to be applied to a group of thinkers who employed debate and rhetoric to teach and disseminate their ideas and offered to teach these skills to others. Due to the importance of such skills in the litigious social life of Athens, practitioners of such skills often commanded very high fees. The practice of taking fees, coupled with the willingness of many practitioners to use their rhetorical skills to pursue unjust lawsuits, eventually led to a decline in respect for practitioners of this form of teaching and the ideas and writings associated with it.” (from Wikipedia)

From the 5th century until the Industrial Revolution, the word’s primary meaning revolved around this derogatory and degraded sense of Sophia’s bounty. It was used to describe clever, specious or even deceitful arguments; ones where base cunning and an instinct for emotional manipulation were far more in evidence than anything approaching wisdom, and where the truth of the matter came a poor second to the ability to sway the opinion of the majority. (Sound familiar?) The Latin verb sophisticare, derived from the same root, meant to adulterate, cheat or quibble.

Around the middle of the 19th century the word started to take on a different meaning. Sophistication came to mean wordly wisdom, refinement, discrimination, and became something to aspire to rather than to treat with contempt. Quite what prompted its change in fortunes isn’t clear, but it’s interesting that it occured at a time when many cut their ties with the land to become part of the machinery of the Industrial Revolution. Yet for all our new found wordly wisdom, refinement and discrimination, it seems all too obvious these days that we’re frequently deceiving each other and ourselves with clever and specious arguments, and that our apparent collective ability to discern real wisdom from pure spin amongst all the rhetoric is generally pretty poor. Sophistication indeed!

The contempt of indigenous peoples for our ham-fisted attempts to conserve environments we know next to nothing about, while side-lining the real experts, seems all too often richly deserved.


A little more humility might go a long way. Living in Western civilisation really only equips us to be experts in Western civilisation and Western points of view, and those are very, very far from being the whole picture. We’re so immersed in it we can’t see it for what it is. It’s like the cartoon of the two fishes with one saying to the other “So what’s this ocean you keep talking about then?”. All too often we forget that other experts exist too, even though they may work with different models of existence, without technology, and in realms that go far beyond the material fixation of the Western world view.

After all, our presumption of superior knowledge and expertise in the workings of the natural world is totally illogical when placed alongside the fact that of all societies on this planet we have the greatest degree of disconnection from it.

Perhaps we need to give up that cherished notion that we know better all the time and look at what’s staring us in the face? Indigenous peoples deserve our respect as fellow human beings and fellow experts in their areas of knowledge. We need to bring them to the table on equal terms. Their expertise and ability to access realms we’ve become all but completely disconnected from, combined with our technological skills, are a potent combination and offer the prospect of real and lasting progress.

This is all very pertinent considering the proving I’m working on at the moment and will hopefully publish shortly (in the Provings section on the site). It took me 3 months of working with the proving and the story surrounding the substance to arrive at some conclusions about the “message” it seemed to be conveying very strongly. Then someone I prescribed it for articulated it quite simply and directly on her third dose –“All tribes must come together. All the ecosystems of the world are mixing. Invasive species have a place, they are creating new habitats. Something that seems awful now is really the hope.”

This seems a very cogent illustration of why it’s necessary to bring indigenous peoples into the reckoning as equal partners in our efforts to conserve what’s left of the natural world. It’s not just in the message itself, but in the fact that what took me the best part of 3 months to work out piece by painstaking piece (through a reasonable balance of rational analysis and intuitive apprehension) took someone with much more well developed abilities to communicate with the energetic/spiritual dimensions of the natural world less than a minute to bring out. And in 4 crisp sentences rather than 4,000-odd words!

“Before I flew I was already aware of how small and vulnerable our planet is; but only when I saw it from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that human kind’s most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations.”
Sigmund Jähn, Astronaut, German Democratic Republic

Thanks to the current insanity revolving around homeopathy in this country, in both media and blogosphere, it's become necessary to insult your intelligence by explicitly drawing your attention to the obvious fact that any views or advice in this weblog/website are, unless stated otherwise, the opinions of the author alone and should not be taken as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. If you choose to take anything from here that might be construed as advice, you do so entirely under your own recognisance and responsibility.

smeddum.net - Blog: Confessions of a Serial Prover. Weblog on homeopathy, health and related subjects by homeopathic practitioner Wendy Howard