Ordinary Cannibalism, Compassion and the Culturally Accepted

"Eating With Cannibals" NatGeo Show

"Eating With Cannibals" NatGeo Show

I saw “Eating With Cannibals” on National Geographic’s cable channel,  a show that focuses on whether or not cannibalism is still practiced in the villages in interior Papua New Guinea.  Like many of these shows, real investigation is balanced with entertainment.  We follow host Piers Gibbon into remote areas of Papua New Guinea where he interviews elders about their own experience of cannibalism.  Have they eaten human flesh?  Whose? What did it taste like?  And as such it was clear to me that some of the subjects of this shock-ish doc-ish show could feel motivated to massage the truth to fit what the camera wanted to see.  That was for sure. Whatever, what’s interesting here is not so much whether or not people altered their behavior for the camera, but something far more subtle.

Maybe it was just me, but as I watched longer and longer the more ordinary cannibalism began to seem. In fact,  Gibbon says in his journal on the show’s site:

In my own culture cannibalism means horror films and the psychopathic mind. In Papua New Guinea cannibalism has been a normal part of life until quite recently. (Read more of the blog here.)

The local people in the show who were interviewed clearly “got” that the Westerners didn’t think cannibalism was, oh, such a good idea.  It seemed they understood that saying one had eaten human meat would gain the attention of those Westerners behind the camera. But despite this, you can still see and understand that, within the context of this place, cannibalism might have just made sense according to the rules at work within a time and place and without a taboo from religious beliefs banning it.

When the camera crew arrives at a remote village, the village honors their visit by holding a traditional dance and slaughtering what is described as a “rare pig.”  It seems meat is a rare treat and I felt a bit sad that their wealth was being used by NatGeo; hopefully they paid it back in some way other than attention.

It wasn’t clear to me if the villagers were hoping to attract tourism by their display of the traditional or if it was just to honor the visitors. I myself have been on the receiving end of incredibly generous hospitality by poor families in non-Western cultures, in which the family actually went without to honor and feed me.  My “deserving” of such an honor has nothing to do with the act of hospitality in the cases I’ve experienced.  But that’s for later.

More interesting here, in the offering of the pig, is it seems that part of the reason people were eaten in this area was because once the person was killed, well, why waste the meat?  Might as well eat it. Particularly with the lack of a taboo for eating meat of humans, it could all make sense.

Gibbon explores, in cutting the pig’s carcass with the village elder, what it must have been like to cut up a human as that is the source of horror for us.  He does this while we watch the pig being dissected allowing the whole process to become very clean somehow. He focuses on the bamboo knife that would have been used and shows what to do when it gets dull (peel off a layer!)  The camera shows the meat and vegetables being laid out on hot coals in some sort of green (bamboo?) leaf “oven.” All kind of ordinary.

Also very interesting was a brief interview with a minister from the area and a final interview with the village song leader.  They speculate that without the church, the village could fall back into its old ways, but that seems more focused on killing witches and magic men, less on a horror of cannibalism.  They’ve been given a new process, new taboos, via Christianity.

In any case, what is instructive to me is how we humans can just become habituated to anything.  I don’t mean me, sitting in my cozy apartment in New York. I mean when we are in a context and experiencing strong belief systems and assumptions.  We are so adaptable we can get used to a lot because “that’s how it’s done.”

Then the question becomes, really, “What is Good?”  “Good” for these Papua New Guinea tribespeople may have meant not wasting perfectly good meat.  From the empirical point of view, it becomes very practical.  It is only when we introduce emotion, or possibly compassion, that our view shifts.

For example, Nedup, Bhutanese and raised Buddhist, felt very sorry for the pig that was slaughtered in the show.  It was shot by arrow before our eyes and the village dogs quickly gathered to drink its blood.  For Nidup, this was very sad for the pig to have to suffer this kind of death.  From his standpoint, even eating the pig’s flesh, never mind human flesh, is tinged with sadness.

This is not only because the pig did not want to die in this life, as it surely did not.  Nor that this not-wanting-to-die reflects our own not-wanting-to-die, although it surely does.  It is also because of the thought within Buddhism that this pig (and all sentient beings) are interconnected and have been our relatives, mothers, fathers, whomever we were closest too and loved the most, in previous lives.  There is a logic here, but of course this logic extends to our emotion and in the end, may stop us from killing the pig.

But as Western people watching the show, how sorry do we feel for that pig?  Or, better than pity, how much compassion? Some may feel pretty sorry. Others may just feel… hungry for some bar-b-q.  Thinking of this from the context of compassion, it could be a hunger for bar-b-q in this context becomes somehow barbaric, horrific, and frightening.  Why is this?  I’m going to take an intellectual leap here and hypothesize that it is because it is from that “dark” (as in not lighted by understanding) side of ourselves that hungers after meat without considering the horror of the being giving us the meat.  We get to avoid that a lot, buying butchered meat in shrink-wrapped plastic on Styrofoam trays. And, remember, for me butchering the pig was initially sad because I thought less about the pig and more about the wealth the pig represents to what I perceive, gazing through glasses of my cultural context, as very poor people.*

Now I’m going to make another intellectual leap as I have read warnings that creating Agile teams can lead to Groupthink.  Can I relate the functioning of a village to Groupthink? From the Psychologists for Social Resonsibility’s website:

Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972), occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment” (p. 9).  Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups.  A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making.

Maybe it is a bit of a leap too far.  In any case, it seems prudent to construct systems by which teams would be challenged to think “outside the group.” Or perhaps there is always the need for a coach (or “master”) to come and check in on the team frequently ?  I’m not sure how far to go with this.  I don’t think we’ll all end up eating each other, no worries, but it is possible that through strong beliefs we can make other mistakes.

Why follow up thinking about Taylorism with an article about Cannibalism?  Because from what I’m reading, Taylor himself was just reacting to his own circumstances, coming up with what seemed to be the best solution for what I gathered he saw as our dark, lazy side as human beings.  We have to understand that management may have this viewpoint and that they might not view whatever “cannibalism” is in that context as such a terrible thing.

At the end, to get the last interview, the National Geographic crew roused the village song leader from his sick bed (he had suffered a malarial attack with high fever).  For the camera crew group had to get that last interview, I guess.  Interestingly, they left this incident in the final edit.  They could have just shown the final interview, without mentioning the ill health of the song leader.  Even though, within the context of that group, the show’s crew, it is clear that was thought to be an okay thing to do.

*Added 4/12.

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One Response to “Ordinary Cannibalism, Compassion and the Culturally Accepted”

  1. The Appearance of the “Last Responsible Moment” « Says:

    […] common nor sensible, depending on your immediate and even cultural context. An extreme example, but it may be “common sense” in Papua New Guinea, for instance, where meat might be rare, to eat a neighbor you just killed for practicing black […]

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