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Even a caveman wouldn't say it
March 7, 2007 8:47 PM   Subscribe

86 the Stone Age. And don’t say Primitive or Tribal on the BBC. It might be OK to say “changed little since the Stone Age.” Or maybe Stone Age is a fine euphemism for uncivilized. Perhaps the west needs more than 30 years to rethink it’s own tribal superstitions.
posted by conch soup (44 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Meh. I can see savage or even primitive as being possibly offensive, but if the society's tech level is stone and other natural materials (no metal), it's an accurate descriptor.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:01 PM on March 7, 2007


Crap. They're gonna have to rewrite every episode in the first three seasons now.
posted by Dave Faris at 9:03 PM on March 7, 2007


This is all backlash from those Geico commercials, right?
And no, Dave Faris did not make the same joke. It's a different joke from the same reference. I like mine better. So there.
posted by wendell at 9:10 PM on March 7, 2007


I'm vaguely bothered by this, but on the other hand, sort of approve ... the term "Age" is somewhat misleading in history, in the same sort of way "pinnacle of evolution" or "evolved from monkeys" or "less highly evolved" are misleading in biology.

Individual human cultures have gone through a Stone Age, at different times in different places, but there isn't an inevitable ladder of human technological progression. All we need is 20 degrees of global warming, a nuclear war, and the Yellowstone eruption (or some other hypervolcano, which might well be sitting under Antarctic ice for all we know), and then fast forward a thousand years, and the ragged human survivors could well be eking out an existence based on stone tools. This would be technological evolution - an adaptation to extant conditions.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:16 PM on March 7, 2007


Monkey-fuckers?
posted by wfrgms at 9:33 PM on March 7, 2007


I would like to see groups of people that live in modernized societies but still maintain a tribal society, (such as native americans or the maori) object to the word tribal being used to describe non-modernized societies, now.
posted by shmegegge at 9:55 PM on March 7, 2007


if I'm being unclear, the article seems to imply that "tribal societies" is now the proper way to refer to the people previously referred to as stone age, savage and whatnot.
posted by shmegegge at 9:56 PM on March 7, 2007


I dunno if it actually implies what the preferred nomenclature is. I think putting [tribal peoples] in brackets is their way of whispering, using finger quotes, or whatever, to imply that they know what the correct term is, but they're only using that because it's the popular (wrong) term.
Kinda bothering that there are articles with people validly pointing out an offensive term, but not offering any PC synonym.
"Tribal societies" is like .01% better than tribal, IMO-- That couldn't be the preferred name.
posted by conch soup at 10:13 PM on March 7, 2007


I dunno if it actually implies what the preferred nomenclature is. I think putting [tribal peoples] in brackets is their way of whispering, using finger quotes, or whatever, to imply that they know what the correct term is, but they're only using that because it's the popular (wrong) term.

except that that's not what it does. here's a direct quote from the article:

"In particular, the Association of Social Anthropologists highlights the way the term has been used to describe tribal and indigenous people."

and here's a quote used in the article by one of the anthropologists who objects to the word stone age:

""This is dangerous because it is often used to justify the persecution or forced 'development' of tribal peoples. The results are almost always catastrophic: poverty, alcoholism, prostitution, disease and death," says Survival."

the "[tribal people]" bit that you mention is just the journalist snipping a longer description of tribal people in order to save column space. I don't think I'm going out on a limb here to say that the article, and specifically the quotes I've selected, seem to imply that "tribal people" or "tribal" is the preferred term.
posted by shmegegge at 10:25 PM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


"Tribal" refers to social structure, not technological advancement. A "tribe" is qualitatively similar to a family or a nation, but quantitatively mid-way. There's nothing inherent in the concept of tribes that requires tribal living to be technologically primitive. It's more that (1) tribal living is a consequence of low geographical mobility, (2) advancing technology advances geographical mobility, and (3) advancing geographical mobility advances technology.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:49 PM on March 7, 2007


How about we just refer to it as "Civilization Beta?"
posted by Citizen Premier at 11:24 PM on March 7, 2007


How about "Civilization Lite"?
posted by wendell at 12:22 AM on March 8, 2007


"Stone Age" has got to go. It makes me want to smash the radio every time I hear it (usually from that Lib Dem idiot referred to here). It's a supremacist term, it says "you will be superceded, your existing culture ravaged, your hunting grounds dug up for coltan or gold, and you will be sent to live in "Civilisation" and drink petrol".

Utterly offensive. Wrong, too, because we smart Westerners ("Oil Age peoples"?) have a lot to learn from cultures that have in many cases lived in balance with nature for thousands of years (yes, I'm aware of what the Polynesians did to various local ecologies).

disclaimer: I am a small but regular donor to Survival International.
posted by imperium at 12:43 AM on March 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Show me a cultural relativist at thirty thousand feet and I'll show you a hypocrite
posted by teppic at 12:45 AM on March 8, 2007


I have trouble thinking of "tribal" as anything but either savage (no code of justice) or uncivilized (undeveloped social institutions and norms).

But then, how many examples do we have of tribes meeting the standards for human rights that the UN has set?
posted by ewkpates at 12:48 AM on March 8, 2007


Well, imperium, what do you want to use instead? Using some variation of tribal, as a few others have mentioned, is obviously a bad idea because we have tribal groups persisting in first-world countries, using modern technology (as shmegegge said.) Not only is it inaccurate, but it seems rather insulting.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:23 AM on March 8, 2007


I don't object to "tribal", nor do I see why tribal groups in first-world countries invalidates it. I prefer "indigenous", or the name of specific peoples if we're just talking about one group. We're happy saying French when we mean French, so why can't we get used to saying Yanomami when we mean Yanomami?

I only object to "stone age", "uncivilised", "savage", "primitive", and all the other boo-words used by cultural imperialists and oppressive nation states.
posted by imperium at 3:20 AM on March 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


So when I discuss my ancestors should I refer to "Old Tribal", "Middle Tribal" and "New Tribal" periods, coming before the "Bronze Tribal" and "Iron Tribal" periods?
posted by alasdair at 4:58 AM on March 8, 2007


I vote for "Oldskool."

So when I discuss my ancestors should I refer to "Old Tribal", "Middle Tribal" and "New Tribal" periods, coming before the "Bronze Tribal" and "Iron Tribal" periods?

They seem to be fine with it for referring to eras in human history. What they're objecting to is calling living groups "Stone Age."

Look at it this way — cars or no cars, phones or no phones, how accurate would it be to call the Amish "Medieval"?
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:25 AM on March 8, 2007


That Achebe essay on Conrad (the last link in the post) is excellent; I recommend it to anyone interested in how the West looks at Africa and what Africa (in the person of one of its best-known writers) thinks about it.
Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.
Not that he doesn't say the answer but "my answer," which is honest and appropriate. I'm not sure what mine is—it varies from day to day and depends partly on what works of art are being discussed—but it's an important question, and "Heart of Darkness" is a very good place to start dealing with it.

And of course imperium (eponysterical!) is right; "stone age," "uncivilized," "savage," "primitive," and the like are unacceptable in discussing modern peoples. Like him, I see nothing wrong with "tribal," as long as we bear in mind that there are tribal people who use modern technology. It may not be ideal, but it's a vast improvement on the others.

Show me a cultural relativist at thirty thousand feet and I'll show you a hypocrite


In case anyone else is wondering, that's a quote from the annoying Dawkins, who makes me want to return to the faith I was brought up in just to spite his smug ass.
posted by languagehat at 5:58 AM on March 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


The Achebe essay on Conrad is also fairly controversial in its interpretations. See Wikipedia on it (and this deleted entry because it was original research). My problem with Achebe is, Conrad in fact turned the tables in that novel, portraying the white civilized man as the true heart of darkness. It was a subversive book for its time, ultimately critical of European colonialism. The racism in it was part of the art of the work.

'Stone age' is going the way of 'cave man' as a description of living people (as the title of this post suggests).
posted by stbalbach at 6:21 AM on March 8, 2007


The Achebe essay on Conrad is also fairly controversial

Well, of course, and I don't agree with all of it myself. But I'd a thousand times rather read a well-written, controversial essay that makes me think than yet another paean to Conrad's prose style.

Achebe addresses the "it's only the narrator's view" approach in the essay. And yes, Conrad is attacking the white man, but that doesn't absolve him of his racist treatment of Africa and Africans. "You're even worse than those subhuman cannibal savages" isn't exactly an enlightened indictment.
posted by languagehat at 7:18 AM on March 8, 2007


I think they should drop "Stone age" - it's not even academically useful. There is no distinction in the term between hunters and gatherers and farmers who both use stone technologies, though those societies are very different. Even in the historic "stone age" (when the whole of the world used stone technology), there is a big division between the period before and after agriculture, in those places which developed or adopted agriculture.

Hunters and gatherers should be called "hunters and gatherers" (is there a shorter term?) -- as opposed to herders or farmers, all of which might be using stone technologies as their primary tool base, or might not be. And some hunters and gatherers use modern tools, like the Inuit in Canada. So you have hunters and gatherers with stone technology, hunters and gatherers with metal technology, hunters and gatherers with electronic technology.

Farmers with stone tools actually often have more in common with farmers on tractors than they do with hunters and gatherers, even if those hunters and gatherers use similar tools - it's a totally different way of relating to resources. Certainly I find that the basic issues of farming people in the modern third world are not all that different from those in the premodern world, though the tools are very different. (The issues are different from the modern first world, where only a tiny minority of people work in agriculture.)

So, yes, drop "stone age" except as a loose term for the paleolithic, mesolithic and neolithic. It's not useful.

-----------------

I don't know that I understand tribal. I had always thought "tribe" meant a political/ethnic organisation smaller than a state, but with a recognised authority. Like a chief who has political power over a group of people, but wasn't a king. I do realise that many tribes in ex-British colonies in Africa are at least partly the creation of colonial authorities, who wanted to divide people up into easy groups to manage. But if those groups are now recognised as having meaning within that society, how is it controversial/offensive to talk about it? Though maybe "clan" is a more accurate term for some people, while in Canada the First Nations people really belong to "nations" (recognised as such, with treaties, etc).
posted by jb at 7:22 AM on March 8, 2007


Look at it this way — cars or no cars, phones or no phones, how accurate would it be to call the Amish "Medieval"?
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:25 PM GMT on March 8 [+] [!]


I know the spirit you made this comment in, and I fully agree - I just it's funny that you chose the Amish and described them as "medieval", when their religion is a product of the Reformation and the end of the medieval era. It stands in opposition to the beliefs of the medieval church. If you were going to call the Amish anything, it should be "early modern". : )
posted by jb at 7:25 AM on March 8, 2007


I am also going to have to chime in here about the Achebe essay as well. While his point about Africa and Africans being vague metaphors to further Conrad's themes has some merit, it is entirely missing the point of the book.

Heart of Darkness is the most powerful condemnation of colonialism I have ever read. The sum of all postcolonial literary theory can't even come close to power of Conrad's invective against the hypocrisy, barbarity and violence of African colonialism. Conrad speaks with authority because he knew colonialism first hand, in its purest, most savage form; he saw the great atrocity of the Congo Free State with his own eyes, and was sickened by what he saw.

Yes, darkest Africa is a psychological metaphor in the book, but it is an apt one. Conrad's contemporaries would already hold this view of Africa, and to a large extent the West still does. What Conrad does is invert this stereotype. Africa is dark in this novella not because of the depth of its jungles or the skin of its inhabitants, but because it is a place where the darkest nightmares and most depraved impulses of the white colonists are not only freed from all restraint, they are rewarded.

In short, Achebe is right that Africans in Heart of Darkness are a faceless mass, enslaved and steadily devoured by the merciless engine of European colonialism, but isn't that Conrad's whole point? For the first time, Europeans were given a bold, unflinching look into the horrors of colonialism, and especially the particular madness that was King Leopold's Congo. Heart of Darkness isn't about Africa. It is about the depravity of Colonial Europe.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 7:59 AM on March 8, 2007


Heart of Darkness isn't about Africa. It is about the depravity of Colonial Europe.

Easy to say if you're not an African.

it is entirely missing the point of the book.

I don't think so. I think a lot of people don't want to deal with Achebe's point, which is not that Conrad is a bad writer but that he's using Africa as a handy symbol of the worst, most degraded form of humanity. And no, it's quite clear he doesn't think it was all due to colonialism. Conrad was racist. Yes, almost all white people a century ago were racist. No, that doesn't mean he shouldn't be read and admired for what he did well. But why is it so unacceptable to point out his racism, and the fact that it's been so much ignored?
posted by languagehat at 8:17 AM on March 8, 2007


...and everywhere I go,
there's always something to remind me,
of another place and time...
posted by tadellin at 8:21 AM on March 8, 2007


Meh. I can see savage or even primitive as being possibly offensive, but if the society's tech level is stone and other natural materials (no metal), it's an accurate descriptor.

The assumptions in this sentence are the point of the discussion. The idea of a linear scale of development, expressed in everything from language to policy is the problem.

To many of these groups, the typical industrialized understanding of food gathering and labour efficiency is indicative of a unsophisticated "tech level." But industrialized people tend to not give a shit, so they apply their ignorance in ways that adversely affect the survival of cultures with a far superior understanding of their own environments.
posted by mobunited at 10:04 AM on March 8, 2007


(First sentence is a quote.)
posted by mobunited at 10:05 AM on March 8, 2007


mobunited: But industrialized people tend to not give a shit, so they apply their ignorance in ways that adversely affect the survival of cultures with a far superior understanding of their own environments.

Wait, what? Are you seriously suggesting that these low-technological and mostly non-literate societies have a more sophisticated understanding of the environment than the first world, with all of our biologists and ecological scientists? There's so much wrong with that concept that I don't even know where to start, and as a biologist, I'm almost tempted to take it personally.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:33 AM on March 8, 2007


...cultures with a far superior understanding of their own environments

I'd have to say this does reek of the Noble Savage myth and Dances with Wolves-type sentimentality. Where low-tech societies have had the means to adversely affect their environment (wiping out the woolly mammoth and other species, eradicating trees in Easter Island) they've done so. We just sped up and augmented this tendency to an insane degree.
posted by QuietDesperation at 11:54 AM on March 8, 2007


Wait, what? Are you seriously suggesting that these low-technological and mostly non-literate societies have a more sophisticated understanding of the environment than the first world, with all of our biologists and ecological scientists? There's so much wrong with that concept that I don't even know where to start, and as a biologist, I'm almost tempted to take it personally.

Maybe you should. Your primitive, first world brain apparently cannot even comprehend that it should take less than dozens of experts to replicate the practical knowledge of a sophisticated hunter-gatherer about how to practically interact with a local environment.

Naturally, the HG can't understand many things that are the concerns of biologists and ecologists. Then again, neither can the majority of people in the developed world, whose understanding is therefore inferior to biologists and hunter-gatherers. But leaving that aside, the HG is capable of putting his knowledge into practice quite efficiently and effectively -- even more efficiently and effectively than scientists.

Scott Atran ably discusses how traditional belief systems form a kind of functional "meta-representation." These ideas have been dumbed down from their native sophistication and examined in articles like these:

http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/abstract/96/13/7598

. . . where they're so simple, even a primitive Western screwhead like you or I can comprehend them, despite our inability to understand these symbol sets at the source.

In many cases, HG societies have demonstrated that as a functional form of ecological management, their technologies are superior to those championed as part of development. Of course, denial runs rampant, because it is very, very hard to delink oneself from the ideology of progress. Plus, of course, you have primitivists overstating their case. But the fact remains that HGs routinely use technologies that are more advanced than our own according to benchmarks of efficiency, effectiveness and environmental impact. That fact that you or I simply don't wish to live in a society that makes the best use of these technologies does not make them inferior. It only says something about personal taste.
posted by mobunited at 12:02 PM on March 8, 2007


I'd have to say this does reek of the Noble Savage myth and Dances with Wolves-type sentimentality. Where low-tech societies have had the means to adversely affect their environment (wiping out the woolly mammoth and other species, eradicating trees in Easter Island) they've done so. We just sped up and augmented this tendency to an insane degree.

Nothing of the sort. Knowing something doesn't obligate anyone to make rational decisions.

What's more interesting is that your examples are actually controversial cliches. Easter Island's deforestation actually correlated with a small ice age and rat predation. See:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_Island

The idea that megafauna extinction was due to human predation is also not conclusive because there are few to no massive piles of butchered megafauna bones. Of course, the comparison doesn't work in the first place because it holds small social organizations culpable for effects that could only occur due to multigenerational, continental trends.

What you're suggesting, though, is an unequal set of standards, where technologically advanced people are allowed to be "sophisticated" even though we fuck up all the time, while if an HG society shows the least bit of imperfection it questions the legitimacy of their ways of knowing and living.

Noble? Nah. Practical and competent? Definitely.
posted by mobunited at 12:21 PM on March 8, 2007


What you're suggesting, though, is an unequal set of standards, where technologically advanced people are allowed to be "sophisticated" even though we fuck up all the time, while if an HG society shows the least bit of imperfection it questions the legitimacy of their ways of knowing and living.

Far from it, mobunited - I'm suggesting an equal set of standards, by which humanity is judged to be its own flawed self whether the humans wear bear skins or Calvin Klein. Ways of knowing might be legitimate, whether it's knowing how to hunt boar or how to split the atom. I'm suggesting that neither way is infallible.

And technologically advanced people are certainly "sophisticated" -- in things technological. Were I thrown into a primitive society (or whatever word we're using for it this week) I'd be very unsophisticated in their ways. I'd probably starve, my cuts would go septic, and I'd have no way to choose a safe place to sleep. However, the Noble Savage myth still persists, and plenty of people sophisticated in their modern society's ways still harbor a romantic view of what we used to call primitives.
posted by QuietDesperation at 12:54 PM on March 8, 2007


Damn chrono-bigots implying that the so-called modern age is better than the neolithic...
posted by Artw at 1:01 PM on March 8, 2007


mobunited - Hmm, that wikipedia article looks like it's been wikiwarred to death.
posted by Artw at 1:04 PM on March 8, 2007


QD -- I think it really depends on how you define "technology" and the set of values you attach to it. Is it the complexity of the tool, or the relationship with the tool, or some third thing, like the relationship between work done and resources expended?

I think the crux of what anthropologists are talking about is that once we settle on a definition that has implicit values, following those values is reflexive and has consequences.
posted by mobunited at 1:07 PM on March 8, 2007


"We're gonna bomb them back to tribal societies"

It's missing a certain oomph, n'est-pas?
posted by Sparx at 1:10 PM on March 8, 2007


mobunited: In many cases, HG societies have demonstrated that as a functional form of ecological management, their technologies are superior to those championed as part of development.

No, they haven't. They simply have much smaller populations, and don't have the power to damage the environment accidentally. Low-tech populations live in balance with nature not because they're brilliant environmentalists, but because they don't have the power, given by technology, to overwhelm that balance and live any other way.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:19 PM on March 8, 2007


No, they haven't. They simply have much smaller populations, and don't have the power to damage the environment accidentally. Low-tech populations live in balance with nature not because they're brilliant environmentalists, but because they don't have the power, given by technology, to overwhelm that balance and live any other way.

Oh, you mean, "A machine didn't do it, so it doesn't count." This is simply restating the same bias in yet another way. This demonstrates the difficulty and why there's a campaign to change the language, lest this kind of repetitive failure turn into a virtual proof of Sapir-Whorf.

Plus, of course, the assertion is controversial. Precolumbian American cultures arguably did introduce large scale ecological changes that are only now coming to be understood. Examples can be found in this Google Search:

http://tinyurl.com/2f7dc7
posted by mobunited at 1:23 AM on March 9, 2007


Mobunited is smoking some pre-Columbian.

Development is linear. It's like obvious and stuff.

Any grade school kid can organize "car, club, and artificial intelligence" in order of butt kicking techno power. It's easy to identify the more advanced solution to a problem - it's the one you want given the choice between the two.

Unless it's those stone age amish guys. They're nuts.
posted by ewkpates at 3:28 AM on March 9, 2007



Any grade school kid can organize "car, club, and artificial intelligence" in order of butt kicking techno power.


Part of the whole point is that you shouldn't use these assumptions with cultures that don't have "grade school."

It's easy to identify the more advanced solution to a problem - it's the one you want given the choice between the two.

AI is the best way to travel across the US? It far outstrips a club in terms of its ability to efficiently knock out people and animals?

I'm sure an AI could do both of those things thousands of times less efficiently in terms of use of time and natural resources. An AI could design a marginally superior purpose-built club -- all you need is an entire industrial infrastructure to support it. Just guessing of the cuff, we'd only be increasing the user's ecological footprint by a factor of what? 1,000? 10,000?

This makes an AI an extremely stupid choice. These extremely stupid choices represent the basic character of how we interact with traditional societies that we call "stone age," especially when we ignore their informed opinion that we are doing something stupid.
posted by mobunited at 10:09 AM on March 9, 2007


AI is the best way to travel across the US?

Probably will be, once the technology is developed. Past advances in "travel technology" include merchant ships, railroads, the telephone networks, and recently, the Internet. Meeting people from far-away lands is so efficient nowadays, you forgot you were doing it.


It far outstrips a club in terms of its ability to efficiently knock out people and animals?

If you measure the sophistication of a society in terms of annual livestock production, modern agribusiness is evidence we're the most advanced society yet. Sure, we've created some giant lakes of pigshit, but on the other hand, we produce a lot of pigs. Efficiency is a ratio.
posted by ryanrs at 9:37 AM on March 10, 2007


But if you measure the sophistication of a society by the nutritonal quality (and taste) of that livestock (or any other agriultural product), maybe we should all study a little more history.
posted by jb at 8:45 AM on March 11, 2007


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