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no contact

göteborg-posten, 10 july 2011

As any avid science fiction fan knows, the Prime Directive is Star Trek‘s most important ethical rule. And possibly the most misconceived. The Prime Directive forbids Starfleet personnel from interfering with the ‘normal and healthy development’ of alien cultures including ‘introducing superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely.’ The most primitive peoples in the Star Trek universe – those incapable of interstellar travel - are to be denied not only advanced technology but also any knowledge that civilized life exists elsewhere in the universe.

I was reminded of the Prime Directive on hearing of the news that a new Amazonian tribe has been discovered in Brazil. Or rather, that it hasn’t been. Satellite images had uncovered the existence of a previously unknown indigenous group in the remote western part of the Amazon forest known as the Javari Valley. Aerial reconnaissance subsequently revealed three clearings and four large communal dwellings, home, it is believed, to around 200 people. The aerial images show fields of corn, banana and possibly peanuts and cassava.

That, however, is all that we will most likely know about these people. And the closest they will come to finding out about the outside world are through the glimpses of the aerial reconnaissance planes that buzzed overhead and took the photos. Funai, the Brazilian agency that looks after the interests of indigenous peoples, has a policy of no contact with uncontacted groups. There are thought to be more than two dozen uncontacted tribes in Brazil, of which at least eight are in Javari region alone. Brazil’s Department of Isolated Indians operates the Javari Valley Ethno-Environmental Protection Front whose remit is to keep outsiders away from the region. To that end it has built control posts on the main rivers leading to the area.

There are, of course, good reasons to be wary of making contact with peoples who have never interacted with the outside world before. Diseases brought by outsiders can devastate communities that lack immunological protection against such infections. Smallpox and flu were among the most potent weapons possessed by the Conquistadors when they arrived in the Americas at the end of the fifteenth century. And from fifteenth century European invaders to contemporary loggers and land developers, Amazonian tribes have faced not just disease but violence, brutality, even mass murder, at the hands of outsiders.

There is more to Brazil’s ‘No contact’ policy, however, than simply a concern about epidemics or brutality. Underlying the policy is a belief that contact with modernity is itself a form of disease, indeed an act of violence, against which indigenous tribes need protecting. Sydney Possuello is the man who helped formulate the strategy by persuading the government that ‘the natives should be left alone, to live exactly as they have since prehistoric times’. He opposes even ‘peaceful contact’ between indigenous groups and the outside world because such contact can destroy traditional cultures. ‘We are scourges on those peoples’, he has said.

But is it really a moral good that indigenous groups should be shielded from modernity? And who is it that makes the decision that there should be no contact?

It is true that contact with the modern world has brought disease and violence to many indigenous groups. But we should not idealise their way of life. The lives of most Amazonian tribespeople are backbreaking, brutal and beset with disease and violence. How moral is it to institute a policy that denies them the benefits of the modern world that most of us take for granted, such as medicine, agriculture, technology, education? The ‘no contact’ policy seems not to recognize that there are benefits as well as costs in engaging with the wider world, and that the benefits may, and usually do, outweigh the costs.

And this brings us to the second question: who makes the call as to what is morally right? The policy of No Contact means by definition that the Amazonian tribes are excluded from making that decision. The Brazilian government – and more broadly ‘modern society’ – makes it on their behalf. It decides what is good for the tribes and imposes that decision upon them. And it does so because it believes that it is the morally noble stance to take. The No Contact policy, in other words, is as much about the moral needs of contemporary modern society as it is about the social, cultural and medical needs of Amazonian tribes. There is a certain moral smugness about the policy: ‘We are morally superior because we accept that our way of life may not be good for you’.

The Prime Directive and the No Contact policy both draw upon an anthropological tradition that goes back to the nineteenth century and draws upon Romantic views of human culture and differernces. It is a tradition that sees every culture as unique and self-contained, each following its own laws of development, and each requiring protection from outside influence, especially from Western modernity. We protect ‘threatened animal species’, Possuelo argues, so ‘why can’t we do it for a unique ethnic group that has been there for thousands of years?’ This is the classic Romantic formulation of the issue: viewing peoples as inhabiting cultural zoos and regarding cultural change as equivalent to physical annihilation.

It is a tradition that has had a baleful influence on modern modes of thinking about race, culture, difference and agency. It came to shape both biological ideas of race and cultural ideas of difference. The modern anthropological idea of culture emerged at the end of the nineteenth century in part out of a desire to challenge the horrors of racial science and the bigotry that many thinkers of that time expressed towards non-Western people. It came to appropriate, however, many of the same Romantic concepts that animated racial theory. The anthropological idea of culture, as the historian of science George Stocking has observed in his book Race, Culture and Evolution, ‘provided a functionally equivalent substitute for the older idea of “race temperament”.’ Cultural anthropologists may have wanted to liberate people from the bigotry of racial science. They ended up by enchaining them in the notion of cultural tradition. ‘The idea of culture’, Stocking observes, ‘which once connoted all that freed men from the blind weight of tradition, was now identified with that very tradition, and that burden was seen as functional to the continuing daily existence of individuals in any culture and at every level of civilization.’

Western liberals were often shocked by the extent to which non-Western peoples adopted what they considered to be tainted notions. Enlightenment concepts of universalism and social progress, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss observed found ‘unexpected support from peoples who desire nothing more than to share in the benefits of industrialization; peoples who prefer to look upon themselves as temporarily backward than permanently different.’ He also ruefully noted that the doctrine of cultural relativism ‘was challenged by the very people for whose moral benefit the anthropologists had established it in the first place.’ Were Amazonian tribes given the chance they might well decide to do the same.

There are important and difficult issues raised by the question of how to engage with peoples who have never before engaged with the outside world. We should remember, however, as many seemingly fail to do, that we are not talking here about bug-eyed aliens but about fellow human beings, not that different from you and me. The appalling history of the Western treatment of indigenous peoples should certainly give us cause to reflect and to think through the issues. But a blanket ‘No Contact’ policy seems at best misplaced, at worst downright immoral.