As we blogged about before, Brazil is attempting to outlaw the practice of some indigenous tribes of killing children whom they think are bad luck–children born of single mothers, babies with blemishes or handicaps, twins, etc. But anthropologists are up in arms trying to block the legislation on the grounds of moral and cultural relativism, claiming that the law would be an imposition of western culture on indigenous people. The Federalist’s John Daniel Davidson has some more details on the story.
The effort to stop the killings is called “Muwaji’s Law,” after the name of a woman who did not want to kill her child and ran away from her tribe. A group of Christian missionaries helped her. They formed an organization to stop child-killing and lobbied for Muwaji’s Law, which has passed the Brazilian lower house and is being considered by the Senate.
But the Brazilian Association of Anthropology is saying that Muwaji’s Law is among “the most repressive and lethal actions ever perpetrated against the indigenous peoples of the Americas, which were unfailingly justified through appeals to noble causes, humanitarian values and universal principles.”
But Muwaji did not want to kill her child! Individuals do not always go along with what their culture dictates. Culture can be oppressive, as other postmodernists keep reminding us. Davidson tells another heart-rending story about a tribe whose elders ruled that a two-year-old who had not yet learned to walk or talk should be killed.
Her parents committed suicide rather than carry out the order. So the job fell to her 15-year-old brother, who dug the hole–the killings in this tribe are carried out by burying the children alive–and he even knocked her out with the flat of his machete. But then he couldn’t go through with actually killing his little sister. So it was up to the grandfather, who shot her with an arrow, but she still survived! The grandfather felt so bad that he tried to commit suicide too, but ended up just taking her into the jungle, where–somehow still surviving–she lived for three years.The five-year-old was found by a missionary family, who took her in, cared for her, and eventually adopted her. Whereupon the public prosecutor’s office took aim at the missionaries by forbidding non-indigenous people from entering the tribal lands! The consulting anthropologist said the missionaries ‘stood in the way of the realization of a cultural practice filled with meaning,’
Davidson tells of similar practices in other tribal societies, including a remote tribe in India. Which calls to mind the much-broader practice in India at one time of burning the dead man’s wife on his funeral pyre. Would the anthropologists object to putting a stop to that? The British colonialist government did so. An Indian objected that “this is our culture!” Whereupon the British officer said, “And it is my culture to hang men who kill women.” Cultural imperialism, to be sure, but this is one case in which the women of India are appreciative.
Davidson concludes his article, No, Amazon Tribes Should Not Be Allowed to Kill Their Children, by observing that supposedly advanced Westerners are doing the same thing. He cites Iceland’s extermination of Downs Syndrome children in the womb, sex-selection abortions among Indian immigrants, and our current “abortion on an industrial scale.”
“From a moral perspective, there is of course no difference between the ways of the Suruwaha and the denizens of London and Reykjavík,” he writes, “with the exception that the Suruwahans aren’t kidding themselves about what they’re actually doing, and to whom, and why.”
Photo: Tribal children in Brazil by Gabriel Castaldini [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons