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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Ruth Benedict (p. 211)

From chapter "The Parable of the Box"

In the 1930s, anthropologist Ruth Benedict tried to discover why some cultures are “good,” to use her word, and some are not. She noticed that members of some cultures were generally “surly and nasty”—words she and her assistant Abraham Maslow recognized as unscientific— while members of other cultures were almost invariably “nice.”

Benedict is of course not the only person to have made this distinction. The psychologist Erich Fromm found that cultures fell, sometimes easily, into distinct categories such as “life-affirmative,” or “destructive.” The Zuni Pueblos, Semangs, Mbutus, and others that he placed in the former category are extraordinary for the way in which they contrast with our own culture. “There is a minimum of hostility, violence, or cruelty among people, no harsh punishment, hardly any crime, and the institution of war is absent or plays an exceedingly small role. Children are treated with kindness, there is no severe corporal punishment; women are in general considered equal to men, or at least not exploited or humiliated; there is a generally permissive and affirmative attitude toward sex. There is little envy, covetousness, greed, and exploitativeness. There is also little competition and individualism and a great deal of cooperation; personal property is only in things that are used. There is a general attitude of trust and confidence, not only in others but particularly in nature; a general prevalence of good humor, and a relative absence of depressive moods.”

Readers may more closely recognize our own culture in Fromm’s description of the Dobus, Kwaikutl, Aztecs, and others he put into the category of “destructive.” These cultures, he said, are “characterized by much interpersonal violence, destructiveness, aggression, and cruelty, both within the tribe and against others, a pleasure in war, maliciousness, and treachery. The whole atmosphere of life is one of hostility, tension, and fear. Usually there is a great deal of competition, great emphasis on private property (if not in material things then in symbols), strict hierarchies, and a considerable amount of war-making.”

Fromm also defined a third category, “nondestructive-aggressive societies,” which included Samoans, Crows, Ainus, and others who are “by no means permeated by destructiveness or cruelty or by exaggerated suspiciousness, but do not have the kind of gentleness and trust which is characteristic of the . . . [life-affirmative] societies.”

Given the ubiquity of this culture’s destructiveness as well as its technological capacity, there has never been a more important time to ask Ruth Benedict’s question: Why are some cultures “good” and others not?

Benedict found that good cultures, which she began to call ”secure,” or “low aggression,” or “high synergy cultures,” could not be differentiated from “surly and nasty” cultures on the basis of race, geography, climate, size, wealth, poverty, complexity, matrilineality, patrilineality, house size, the absence or presence of polygamy, and so on. More research revealed to her one simple and commonsensical rule separating aggressive from non-aggressive cultures, a rule that has so far evaded implementation by our culture: the social forms and institutions of non-aggressive cultures positively reinforce acts that benefit the group as a whole while negatively reinforcing acts (and eliminating goals) that harm some members of the group.

The social forms of aggressive cultures, on the other hand, reward actions that emphasize individual gain, even or especially when that gain harms others in the community. A primary and sometimes all-consuming goal of members of these cultures is to come out ahead in their “dog eat dog” world.

Another way to put this is that social arrangements of non-aggressive cultures eliminate the polarity between selfishness and altruism by making the two identical: In a “good” culture, the man atop the box from the parable above would have been scorned, despised, exiled, or otherwise prevented from damaging the community. To behave in such a selfish and destructive manner would be considered insane. Even had he conceived such a preposterous idea as hoarding all the fish, he would have been absolutely disallowed because the box was held at the expense of the majority, as well as at the expense of future generations. For him to be a rich and influential member of a good culture, he would have had to give away many or all of the fish. The act of giving would have made him rich in esteem. But he would never have been allowed to strip the river. There would have been no fear with regard to the “gift” of fish, for social arrangements would have made him secure in the knowledge that if his next fishing trip failed his more successful neighbors would feed him, just as this time he had fed them.

It all comes down to how a culture handles wealth. If a culture manages it through what Benedict called a “siphon system,” whereby wealth is constantly siphoned from rich to poor, the society as a whole and its members as individuals will be, for obvious reasons, secure. They will not need to hoard wealth. Since this generosity is manifested not only monetarily but in all aspects of life, they will also not need to act out their now-nonexistent insecurities in other ways. On the other hand, if a culture uses a “funnel system,” in which those who accumulate wealth are esteemed, the result is that “the advantage of one individual becomes a victory over another, and the majority who are not victorious must shift as they can.” For reasons that should again be obvious, such social forms foster insecurity and aggression, both personal and cultural.