The answer to that question about when all the cannonballs are going to quit flying still seems to be blowing in the wind. If we believe the article, “What Our Primate Relatives Say About War,” by Dominic Johnson and Bradley A. Thayer, published in January on The National Interest homepage, the answer is that the cannonballs will never quit flying, but a reply on the part of David P. Barash, “Are We Hard-Wired for War?”–published online by the New York Times this month, September–suggests that they could, at least for a while, if we just thought about it hard enough.
Johnson and Thayer argue, “The true source of the tragedy of the human condition is that we evolved in conditions of intense resource competition.” As we evolved, they say, our most uniquely human development may have been “collective action in large groups of non-kin, and defense and offense against rival groups.” In a nutshell: We like our guys, so we’ve got to be ready to beat up theirs.
Barash admits that we’ve done an awful lot of fighting over the last zillion years, but wonders if saying, Well, that’s just what we human beings do, is really a good idea: “The problem with envisioning Homo sapiens as inherently and irrevocably warlike isn’t simply that it is wrong, but also that it threatens to constrain our sense of whether peacemaking is possible and, accordingly, worth trying.”
And Barash tells a story, which I will quote in full. I like stories.
There is a story, believed to be of Cherokee origin, in which a girl is troubled by a recurring dream in which two wolves fight viciously. Seeking an explanation, she goes to her grandfather, highly regarded for his wisdom, who explains that there are two forces within each of us, struggling for supremacy, one embodying peace and the other, war. At this, the girl is even more distressed, and asks her grandfather who wins. His answer: ‘The one you feed.’
I know we love fighting, but still I like this Cherokee story a lot.
But you can sort out these two different viewpoints–1) we’re killers, 2) we could, maybe, just possibly, if we gave it a shot, find a way to divvy up the resources without killing each other–for yourself. What I’d like to ponder is what these two different ways of thinking suggest for those of us who make a living teaching foreign language and cross-cultural understanding.
Whether you’re camping in Comfy Spot 1 (we’re killers) or Comfy Spot 2 (we don’t have to be), it seems it would behoove you to understand as best you could all those on the other side of the river, the mountain, the ocean, the wall, the whatever. Whether you were trying to get the “resources” before they did, or you were trying to figure out the best way to share the “resources” with them fair and square, that would seem to be so. Only if you were in Comfy Spot 1 and you were to try to understand them too completely (that is, get to know them up close, really close up, for an extended period of time), you might be taking a risk. Because you might begin to feel empathy for them. You might even begin to like them, for goodness’ sake. This might work to your disadvantage as you try to secure as many “resources” as possible for your and yours.
To avoid getting caught up in such anti-productive, empathetic feelings, you might settle on a policy of trying to “study” those across the river, the mountain, the ocean, the wall IN DETAIL . . . BUT AT A DISTANCE.
I like Melville’s take on this type of “distance learning” in Moby-Dick. His narrator, Ishmael, is telling us that of all the pictures of whales he’s come across in museums and books, none of them portray the whale as he really is. In regard to a narwhale depicted in an 1807 London edition of Goldsmith’s Animated Nature, he moans that “one glimpse at it is enough to amaze one, that in this nineteenth century such a hippogriff could be palmed for genuine upon any intelligent public of schoolboys.” The reason it’s so hard for anyone to depict the whale accurately, Ishmael argues, is that no one has spent enough time in his neck of the woods–that is, in the depths of the sea:
Consider! Most of the scientific drawings have been taken from the stranded fish [. . . .] Though elephants have stood for their full-lengths, the living Leviathan has never yet fairly floated himself for his portrait. The living whale, in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters; and afloat the vast bulk of him is out of sight, like a launched line-of-battle ship; and out of that element it is a thing eternally impossible for mortal man to hoist him bodily into the air, so as to preserve all his mighty swells and undulations. [. . .] So there is no earthly way of fiinding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him.
Yes, study a culture from a far and safe distance, and you might just distort it. But wade out into it, splash around it it, body-surf it, and ultimately row your boat deep into its heart, and you might just find yourself “eternally stove and sunk” by it. That is, changed–perhaps changed for all time.
Understanding, empathy, change. Depending on the camp you’re in, they may or may not be things you’re after.