8/12/16: not one of us

In The New Yorker‘s August 8 & 15, 2016, issue, Jon Lee Anderson examines a few of the indigenous tribes living in the isolation of the Peruvian jungle, raising the fascinating dilemma of how to respect their so-called interior sovereignty without risk to the rest of your society. After all, a country operates on certain social rules that we respect everyone to follow: those who don’t are normally punished, but that’s not a case here with the Mascho. They’re human, too, and not animal, so this really puts to the test Peru’s own humanity, and illustrates the inevitable way in which cultures can avoid assimilation only through total ignorance.

But what struck me here was the way in which this reminded me of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians (OK, so I just saw Oslo, too), particularly when it comes down to those settlers living on what are now the front-lines between Peru proper and the natives. Here’s what happens when the state asks the people to ignore their neighbors:

“So you say if the Mashco come we shouldn’t do anything. But, if they kill someone of mine, I’ll kill them–of course I will! If they come and kill my husband, I will kill them, and if they ask me why I am in prison I will say, ‘For killing Mashco.'”

It’s one thing when you can communicate with your enemy; it’s another when you’re being told to ignore them entirely, regardless of their potential incursions. It makes me realize how utterly adrift we are when we remove language from the table. If we cannot safely assume that even our threats are understood, we can do nothing more than revert to the biblical savagery of “an eye for an eye” for what else can possibly be heard?

In a separate article within the same issue, Lauren Collins wonders “Does each language have its own world view? Do people have different personalities in different languages?” The answer seems clear to me: Yes. Because all the things that come with that language–a sense of culture, an understanding of laws, the clarity of order–are missing without it. We think differently, express ourselves differently. It seems almost obvious, for if without words we have only violence, then with words, we have found a different way to view things, to describe them, to come together. If we could wall off these people to truly allow them independence and isolation, assimilation would not be necessary, just as we have nothing to fear from our neighbors on parallel worlds, given their infinite distance.

But we are here, and they are there, and we share a space, and because of that, it is not enough to set boundaries and attempt to ignore one another. We must communicate.

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