Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Pirahãs: Pariahs for Multiculturalists?

Daniel Everett with Pirahã Man
Piraña? I thought you said Pirahã!
(Image by Martin Schoeller, from 4/16/07 New Yorker)

Because my high-school-friend Pete Hale sent me a link to "Recursion and Human Thought: Why the Pirahãs don't have Numbers," with the sub-subtitle "A Talk With Daniel L. Everett," I spent my morning reading about Everett's thoughts on the problem that the language of the Pirahãs poses for Chomskian linguistics, so I have no time for a serious blog entry.

But that's never stopped me before. I simply post unserious blog entries . . . such as the following one.

The Everett article is interesting on a lot of levels, particularly for its description of the way in which the Pirahã tribe of the Amazon forest overturned not just Everett's ideas but even his identity. He didn't go native, but he changed. I'll let you read about that, as well as about recursion and such interesting things as the fact that the Pirahãs don't have numbers.

All that I have time for this morning it to note that the Pirahãs wouldn't make very good multiculturalists, for they are profoundly convinced that their culture is superior to all others:
The Pirahã's isolation is due to their very strong sense of superiority, and disdain for other cultures. Far from thinking of themselves as inferior because they lack counting, they consider their way of life the best possible way of life, and so they're not interested in assimilating other values.
On the other hand, they're very 'tolerant':
They have another interesting value, which is 'no coercion'. That's one of the strongest Pirahã values; no coercion; you don't tell other people what to do.
I suppose that multiculturalists would like this about the Pirahãs, but even this cultural value poses a problem for multiculturalism, or at least for radical multiculturalism, because this serves to underline radical multiculturalism's central contradiction, namely, that it values both tolerance and cultural equality above all else, yet these two are consistent only in a world where all cultures are equally tolerant and equally assured of cultural equality, and we don't live in that world.

The Pirahãs are tolerant but don't accept cultural equality. Would they be forced to accept cultural equality and thereby assimilate to multiculturalism?

I'm just asking...

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At 9:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just finished Prescott's book on the Conquest of Mexico and Peru by the Spanish Conquistadors. It was an amazing read that included some of the Spanish excursions into the Amazon and opened my eyes to the complexity of the varying indigenous cultures in the area.

At 3:34 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jacob Lumbroso, is this a real message . . . or an advertisement? Who is Prescott, and what book did he write?

Anyway, thanks for visiting.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:24 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Jacob must mean this guy
Prescott . If he's still collecting royalties on this tome, then I'd say he's doing very well by now!
--let's see if my budding embedding technique that you've recently steered my way, works!
--and further re: your entry for today, Happy Birthday, too!

At 6:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Pete, if Prescott is still collecting royalties, then one actually can store up treasures in heaven!

Speaking of my birthday, it was almost the death of me.

Jeffery Hodges

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