Today marks the inauguration of a new website on Peaceful Societies: Alternatives to Violence and War. This is truly a ground-breaking site. There is nothing else like it on the web.
Granted, I’m a bit biased. The site is largely the work of my father, Bruce D. Bonta, a retired academic librarian and peace scholar whose Peaceful Peoples: An Annotated Bibliography (Scarecrow, 1993) was similarly a pioneering effort. As someone with a considerably more slap-dash approach to writing and publishing, I have watched in amazement over the past year as Dad has mastered the technical aspects of website design, corralled some of the most prominent anthropologists in the field to serve as reviewers, and amassed enough material to fill a small book.
I’m sure folks can find their way to the Frequently Asked Questions, Facts About Peaceful Societies, and other introductory materials without my help. Please use the “Contact Us” link to send reactions and suggestions for improvement. And please note that the blog-like News and/or Reviews sections (linked together from the right-hand column on the main page) will be updated weekly. So be sure to bookmark the site and check back often!
The heart of the website is the Encyclopedia of Peaceful Societies, with twenty-five entries up and more on the way. I want to spend the next three days highlighting brief selections from these entries – things that struck my fancy for one reason or another. I hope that anyone who has ever been traumatized by a college anthropology class that spent the first three weeks on kinship systems and the next three on the Yanomamo as interpreted by Napolean Chagnon (The Fierce People) will be tempted into taking another look at some of the riches that the social sciences literature has to offer. It has always struck me as a little bizarre that peace activists, of all people, so often remain mired in ethnocentricity, immune to the possibility of learning from the vast array of other peoples with whom we share this planet.
Even the leftist slogan “Another world is possible,” admirable as it may be, presupposes that our world is, after all, the only one that matters. Here are a few glimpses into other worlds, other ways of living and dwelling and building more peaceful lives.
The leaders of the Amish churches, their ministers, are chosen by a process that combines nomination and lot. At the end of a communion service, men and women file past a deacon and each whispers the name of a nominee. Any man who is nominated by three or more people is included in the drawing. Each of the nominees is then handed a song book, one of which contains a slip of paper bearing a Bible verse. The man who opens his book to discover the verse is overwhelmed to realize that the Lord has chosen him for a life-long added responsibility of service to the community. The divine choice prevents quarreling with the leadership selection process and reaffirms the unity, stability and authority of their community.
The Batek believe that one of their diseases, ke’oy, consisting of fever, depression, shortness of breath, and weakness, is caused when someone is angry with another without justification. While there are some spells that may help, the cure for the disease is for the person who is angry to control his or her feelings so the victim can recover. The person responsible for the problem treats the victim with various folk remedies, tells the victim’s heart to be cool, blows on his or her chest for the cooling effect, and grasps and throws away the disease….
The anthropologist Kirk Endicott (1988) once questioned a man about the Malay slave raids that lasted until the early 20th century: why didn’t his ancestors shoot the attackers? “Because it would kill them,” the man answered in shock.
The traditional Birhor economy has been based on gathering, hunting, particularly for monkeys, and making ropes out of the fibers of a particular species of vine… Despite decades of [government-sponsored] resettlement efforts, they still abandon their settlements early in the morning to wander in what’s left of their forests, only to return mostly empty handed in the evenings….
When they encounter poisonous snakes near their camps, the adults simply try to shoo them off like pets. They react with respect toward the larger animals, and blame themselves for their fears if they are attacked. Their name for themselves, “Birhor,” means “men of the forest.”
The Buid see themselves as part of a mystical continuum, in which pigs eat passive plants, people have to commit aggression against pigs and eat them in rituals which attempt to control the dangers from predatory spirits, and the spirits eat people….
The men and women periodically wrestle together on moonlit nights, in semi-ritualistic gang fights in which the men reach up the women’s skirts, and the women fight back by ganging up on a man, grappling with him and grabbing for his genitals….
The Buid avoid dyadic relationships as much as possible. When two individuals converse, they do not face one another or address comments or questions directly to the other person; instead, they may sit facing the same direction, or back-to-back, making comments that the other person may or may not respond to, depending on whether he or she agrees. Rather than contradicting the speaker, the listener may make his or her own comments on different subjects, to which the first speaker may respond or change the subject again in turn.
The Chewong completely lack a sense of rivalry or competitiveness. While the tasks they perform together are few, and some people are naturally better able to do their jobs than others, no one makes a point of one individual’s greater ability. Hunters do not compete in the amount of meat they can bring in, and people do not comment on the abilities of others. Children do not have any competitiveness in their games. When they spin tops, they leave out the competition that characterizes the Malay top spinning game. They do not have races. But while the Chewong do not compete, they also don’t help one another, since they prefer not to be involved with each other’s work.
Social advancement among the Fipa is contingent on peacemaking and social skills, symbolized by the twice-daily meals and frequent beer-drinking sessions which men and women participate in together. During leisurely meals people eat and converse, taking food from the central bowls without intruding on their neighbor’s space and without appearing to be too eager to eat. Drinking rituals differ from eating. People carefully pass the bowls of beer around through the assembled group from one to the next, and the same principle of avoiding any appearance of greed or selfishness applies as during meals. Even when people become quite inebriated during their drinking sessions, everyone maintains the correct forms of courtesy, and people rarely if ever become violent.
N!adima, the supreme being of the G/wi, is the all-powerful creator of the universe and of all life, a remote, omniscient being who does not necessarily intervene to help people. G//amama, on the other hand, is a mean-spirited deity who showers irritability, misunderstanding, misfortune, and disease among humans. Geographically isolated in the Kalahari, and remote as they are from N!adima, the G/wi achieve security primarily from their own social acts. Their harmonious human relations counterbalance the loneliness of the universe. Harmony among humans is the practical result, as well as the dominating value, that the G/wi derive from their worldview. Their word for human, khwe-, implies friendliness, generosity, wisdom, calmness, and good humor. A person without these qualities, by definition, is inhuman.