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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

One Plus One Equals (p. 40)

From chapter "Cultural Eyeglasses"

A couple of years ago, mining prospectors in Venezuela shot down about seventy Yanomame Indians who were opposing the theft of their land. Each of the newspaper articles I read about the murders mentioned that the Yanomame could only give approximate numbers of the dead, because they could not count past two. The implication was that because the Indians could not count, they must be unbelievably stupid—perhaps even subhuman. The belief that underlies this implication probably accounts for the fact that the eventually-apprehended mass- murderers were only sentenced to six months in jail. But—and I’m telling this story to point out how deeply embedded and utterly transparent the cultural assumptions are—the truth is that even something as simple as one plus one equals two carries with it powerful and hidden presumptions. I hold up the first finger of my left hand, and the first finger of my tight. I put them together. Am I now holding up two fingers? No. I’m holding up the first finger of my left hand, which has the almost invisible remnant of a small wart between the second and third knuckles. And I’m holding up the first finger of my right, which has a tiny freckle near its base. The fingers are different. Arithmetic presumes that the items to be counted—the digits—are identical. Before you dismiss this as so much hair-splitting, consider that Treblinka and other Nazi death camps had quotas to fill—so many people to kill each day, each shift. Guards held contests among the inmates in which winners lived, and a preset number of losers didn’t. But they’re just so many numbers, right? Not if you lose. It’s easier to kill a number than an individual, whether we’re talking about so many tons of fish, so many board feet of timber, or so many boxcars of untermenschen.

None of this is to say that I have anything against counting; it is merely to point out that even the simplest of our actions— one, two, three—is fraught with cultural assumptions. Nor is this to say—and here is one place where Descartes and our entire culture have gone wrong—that there is no physical reality, or that physical reality is somehow less important than our preconceptions. The fact that Descartes’ views—like yours, like mine—are clouded by projection and delusion doesn’t mean that nothing exists, or that, as Descartes put it, “nothing has ever existed of all that my fallacious memory represents to me.” It simply means we don’t see clearly.

The truth is that the physical cannot be separated from the nonphysical. Although it’s certainly true that cultural eyeglasses worn by death camp attendants made it seem to them that Jews, Gypsies, Slays, Russians, homosexuals, communists, intellectuals, and others were killable, it is also true that no matter how strong our social imperatives, physical reality cannot be denied. Perception is connected to preconception. Conception is connected to perception. This was one reason for widespread alcoholism among members of einsatzgruppen—Nazi mobile killing units—and one reason many death camp attendants got drunk before the selections. Not even the lens of Nazism was distorted grossly enough to entirely eradicate the truth.

No anesthetic was necessary for the people who ordered the killings; they had the misleading language of technocratic bureaucracy to distance them from the killings. Thus “mass murder” becomes “the final solution,” ‘world domination” becomes “defending the free world,” the War Department becomes the Department of Defense, and “ecocide” becomes “developing natural resources.” No one needs to get drunk to do any of this. A good strong ideology and heavy doses of rationalization are all it takes. But it may require little more than a simple unwillingness to step outside the flow of society, to think and act and most importantly experience for ourselves—and to make our owndecisions.

Let me put this another way. Had Descartes been in the hold of a ship tossing violently in a storm, the contents of his stomach lurching toward his throat with every swell, his famous dictum may not have come out the same. By the same token, had he shared his room not with a stove but a beloved, he may not in that moment have believed that thoughts alone verified his existence, nor that “body, figure, extension, movement and place [were] but the fictions” of his mind.

The point is that physical reality does exist, and it’s up to us to detect its patterns. And it is our job to determine whether the patterns we perceive are really there, or whether they’re the result of some combination of projection and chance. It’s also up to us to determine for ourselves how closely the patterns we’ve been handed by our culture fit our experience of the world.