The Dilemma of an Ethnocentric West in the Light of Indigenous Cultures
I must say right at the outset that I am not a specialist in leadership, horizontality or organisational psychology. In any case, if the new systemic-complex scientific paradigm is anything to go by, specialisation is not only overvalued, but should take a step back in the face of multi- and transdisciplinary approaches. Why not follow the model of Renaissance spirits like Leonardo da Vinci, capable of playing multiple keys and combining disparate knowledge into new and creative solutions.
So, even assuming that I do not have the genius of Leonardo, I will dare to present my view of things as a humble ‘one-man band’, as I am often described by those who know me; and from there, I will allow myself the audacity to assert that, in the West, and especially in the rich countries of the Global North, many are still clinging to the illusion that they are smarter than anyone else.
Let me explain.
Based solely on reason ‒ overvalued by the same worldview that has brought us to the climate and extinction emergencies ‒ many people within Western social movements have been strongly supporting the idea that our societies should be organised, governed and make decisions through strictly horizontal approaches, without leadership of any kind. From this point of view every social group should organise itself and set its course on the basis of a completely horizontal participatory and deliberative democracy. In this way, it is argued, many of the shortcomings of representative democracy, where elected political representatives often fall prey to corruption or the pressures of power groups, can be overcome. So far, it all makes perfect sense.
It is true that horizontality seems to us to be the horizon towards which human societies have been heading over the course of the centuries. It seemed not only fair, but also sensible. However, I believe that the debate should be opened as to whether the necessary conditions are in place to apply horizontality in the way it is suggested. One might ask whether now, in the second decade of the 21st century, our societies are really ready to organise themselves through strict horizontality, such as the one currently proposed and practised in social movements around the world. I must personally admit that I have serious doubts in this respect, despite the fact that I have been working in social movements for more than a decade ‒ or perhaps precisely because of this.
I doubt that the human species is ready for strict horizontality in its organisational and decision-making mechanisms. James Surowiecki1 writes about the ‘wisdom of crowds’, characterised by a sufficiently large number of people making far more accurate decisions, and infinitely more accurate predictions, than any group of experts on a given subject.However, for this to happen, three requirements must be met: (1) there must be a wide diversity of opinions within the group, (2) the members of the group must be independent in their thinking, and (3) the dissemination of information and knowledge must be decentralised.
It is clear that these three requirements are rarely met in our societies, where groups of different opinions do not usually mix willingly, and where there is no real independence of thought, information and knowledge. A blatant example of this is the ‘taming’ of public opinion through media that are often by no means decentralised. I am referring to those media that are devoted to transmitting the arguments of the political parties they serve, or else sticking to the dissemination of the pensée unique that the dominant elites want to be transmitted socially in order to keep control of the vote and, from there, of democracies.
This being the case, it is clear that the ‘wisdom of crowds’ is not going to show up just like that, much less in unstable times such as those we have experienced since the 2008 financial crisis and, above all, since the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukrainian War. We only need to see how human stupidity2,3 runs amok and engulfs ‘the crowds’ as soon as fear takes hold of the population: millions of people falling prey of absurd conspiracy theories4, mass paranoia infused for political purposes5,6 and, topping it all, dozens of people with their mobile phones over their heads invoking aliens to carry out a coup d’état so that the political leader they detest, but who won the election, does not come to power.7
These events do not give reason for optimism about the ‘wisdom of crowds’!
So what can we do? How could we collectively steer our steps and avoid, as far as possible, the ’stupidity of crowds‘? Even more so when considering that even the most horizontally trained social movements fall prey to this as they themselves are rooted in the flaws of modernism that undely the current environmental crises?8
In my research on worldviews and traditional stories, in social psychology and education, I have been pointing out since 2016 the need for Western societies to look more closely at the wisdom of oral cultures, specifically that of traditional Indigenous peoples. After all, ‘civilised’ Western societies are the main perpetrators of the current climate emergency and the sixth mass extinction of species in the planet’s long history, while the ‘savage’ Indigenous cultures of the Earth, which constitute only 5% of the world’s population, preserve 80% of global biodiversity in their territories.9
When will we step down from the pedestal of our inveterate ethnocentrism and begin to study, seriously and respectfully, the worldviews and educational, social and political modes of these cultures? And how much do Western cultures actually owe to inspiration from Indigenous practices (such as the democratic organisation of the Iroquois Confederacy)?10
For example, why not study in depth the African social philosophy and practice of Ubuntu (=concept of interconnectivity – “I am because you are”)? And, if we are to learn from Indigenous oral cultures, why not do it the way they do it, through a story? According to a well-known aphorism, a story is the shortest way to truth.
The Man Who Stole Maize – Zulu Nation
One day a villager came to see the tribal elder. He told him that someone had been stealing his maize, a little at a time, but in the long run it had been adding up. The previous night, he had been lurking and seen his neighbour stealing.
The village elder summoned the neighbour to come to see him, asking him if it was true that he had stolen the food. The man confessed. The village elder called a community meeting to inform the villagers about the theft and to consult them.
Such a consultation, a kgotla, takes place according to rules.
The villagers form a circle. The elder presents the facts to the community without adding anything or passing judgment. The accused is given the opportunity to explain his actions. All the villagers are entitled to give their view on the occasion, but only if he or she picks up the talking stick, lying in the middle of the circle. A speaker is not allowed to say whether he agrees or disagrees with a preceding speaker. Division should be avoided. There is never a vote. One should also refrain from repeating what has already been said by someone else. One is only allowed to add what has not been mentioned yet. So, one must listen very carefully. Together, the community is forming the best picture of what happened. During the meeting the elder remains silent. He only reacts to repetitions and to prevent division into parties. However long it takes, even when it is getting dark and the meeting cannot be continued before the next day, the kgotla only ends when noone has anything to add.
During the kgotla, the thief said his crop had failed and his family had been without food for some time. They survived by being very frugal with their stock and also by eating the seeds for the next growing season. Finally, in despair, he had stolen some maize from his neighbour noticing that his stock was still considerable. He was ashamed that hunger had driven him this far.
After the consultation was completed and everyone who had wanted to say something about the matter had taken the opportunity to do so, the village elder withdrew for a moment to reflect.
When he reappeared in the circle, he said the following to the thief:
‘You have stolen corn, an offense we cannot tolerate. This is very serious. But it is even more serious that you did not ask any of us for help. We are a community. We help each other. I warn you! If you are ever again in a situation of need and refuse to ask any of us for help, you and your family will be sent away. Because your behaviour suggests that you don’t need us.’
Everyone was impressed by the wise judgment of the village elder. However, he wasn’t finished. ‘What bothers me is that, as a community, we did not see this family was starving. We are many. As members of the community, we are obliged to look after each other. How come this has not happened, that we didn’t see it? Or did some of us see it, but kept quiet? Did we wait too long before asking this family about their well-being? In our greetings we express that we see each other. Seeing and being seen is of deep significance. We did not see the unfortunate man with his family. Therefore, I order the community to feed this man and his family, until they are able to feed themselves with the harvest of their land.’ 11,12
I do not mean to imply that we in the West should copy the Zulu system in every respect, for there are many differing elements and, of course, the contexts are very different. However, this illustrative story of Ubuntu thinking might make us reflect on the possibility of the kind of leadership that could compensate for or counterbalance the problems that too strict a horizontality might present. As we can see in this story, perhaps other perfectly valid forms of participatory and deliberative social organisation can be designed which, however, do not necessarily have to be strictly horizontal. Leadership can sometimes be useful within organisations or societies which are moving towards horizontality; especially if that leadership is exercised from the horizontality itself and not from a prominent position; a leadership which, from suggestion and invitation, never from imposition or pressure, avoids the gross errors of a community which perhaps lacks the required level of awareness or experience. This is, ultimately, the counterbalancing and guiding role that ‘councils of elders’ have always played in traditional cultures; elders who, in the West, have been relegated to the status of ‘useless members of society’ whom ‘workers who pay social security contributions have to support against their will’, as pensée unique of the market logic tries to convince us.
This is another result of the excessive emphasis on rationalism instilled by modernism in the West, which our ethnocentrism has tried to spread across the world. It has led us to forget great lessons learned by our ancestors over many generations; lessons so fundamental that they continue to be passed down in Indigenous oral cultures and remain engraved in the collective unconscious of humanity in the form of archetypes. Who else are the archetypes of the Senex ‒ the Wise Old Man ‒ and the Crone ‒ the Wise Old Woman? These archetypes are so powerful in the human psyche that they continue to emerge in the mass narratives of literature and film. Who has not seen Merlin, the Arthurian magician, in the character of Gandalf, in The Lord of the Rings, Dumbledore in Harry Potter, or Yoda in Star Wars? And do not personalities of the past like Gandhi, Wangari Maathai and Nelson Mandela, figures imbued with the Senex-Crone archetype, continue to exert a powerful influence around the world, as do living Senex-Crones like Rigoberta Menchu, Noam Chomsky and Jane Goodall? These are extraordinary cases of the embodiment of the Crone-Senex archetype in human society, but there is no doubt that in any community it is possible to find women and men with enough sense, sanity, judgement and experience, with enough wisdom (not to be confused with information or knowledge), to play this role within their community.
In the end, leadership need not be incompatible with horizontality, especially if it is exercised from a consensual acceptance by the group or, even better, if it is exercised from horizontality itself. Or beyond all horizontality or verticality, by a personality external to the society or community, even marginal; a wise figure who, observing the social reality from a distance, will detect what those inside cannot discern due to excessive closeness.
An example of this can also be found in oral cultures, specifically in the Lakota and Dakota nations of North America, commonly known as Sioux. This is the role of the heyoka, which can be seen as the embodiment of another archetype of the human collective unconscious: that of the trickster, the jester, the prankster or, more commonly, the wise fool,, present in many different cultures. The heyoka society members pose important questions to the community in the midst of jokes and jests, and say things that the rest of the society members are afraid to say out loud. Their behaviour, strange at first glance, raises questions for the rest of the community, who will have to ‘read between the lines’ to discern the warnings of these crazy sages, who are allowed to behave this way and say the things they say because of their supposed ‘madness’. In short, their mission is to make the community aware of its mistakes from the fringes of the community itself. Among the heyokas there have been important medicine men and women such as John Fire Lame Deer or even the greatest Lakota Holy Man of the last centuries, Black Elk.
So why not humbly accept that we can learn a lot from oral cultures and Indigenous peoples on issues such as leadership, horizontality, organisation and social governance?
Western modernism fulfilled its historical role and brought many benefits, both in the West and for humanity as a whole. But that same liberating modernism not only opened up a gulf between nature and society, as the French philosopher Bruno Latour points out, bringing with it climate change and the sixth mass extinction of species, but it is still plunging Westerners into an unconfessed ethnocentrism; an ethnocentrism that, however much we refuse to look it in the eye, will not stop harming us and the rest of the cultures and peoples of the planet.13
Modernism, as Latour pointed out, made us Westerners believe in a series of abstractions as if they were real things, and led us to the delirium of putting ourselves on a fictitious pedestal above the rest of the cultures and peoples of the Earth. It is time to realise that there never was such a pedestal and that we are no better than the other cultures with which we share the Earth. Only in this way will we acquire enough humility to learn from those who, in former times, we came to describe as ‘savages’.
It is encouraging that both the ideas of leadership and of the value of Indigenous knowledge are currently being re-evaluated in the Western world. In the social sciences, it is recognised more and more that good leadership and good governance are essential for achieving the urgently needed transformation of our societies to tackle the crises of our times. Lack of effective, visionary, problem-solving leadership is seen as an important barrier to transformation.14,15 Transformation of hierarchical organisations into self-managed organisations as described by Frédéric Laloux is seen to require effective leadership.16 Tools from the participatory sciences such as Sociocracy17 or Citizens’ Assemblies18 combine the power of true participation and the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ with the benefits of leadership and expertise. For Citizens’ Assemblies to have an impact, strong leadership and governance are required to implement the resulting recommendations into practice. Also, more and more of these participatory tools value and integrate Indigenous knowledge (e.g. in permaculture, project planning using Dragon Dreaming19, concepts of Regenerative Leadership20) and even major UN documents on tackling the planetary crises emphasise that we have much to learn from Indigenous cultures.
Let us humbly recognise that the mestizaje ‒ the blending of ethnicities and cultures ‒ carries within it not only great beauty, but also the certainty of survival.
written by Grian Cutanda (with some input by Christine Clar)
Author note: Grian Cutanda is a social sciences researcher and lecturer at the UNESCO Chair for Sustainable Development Education and the Earth Charter at the United Nations’ University for Peace, as well as an essay and fiction writer. A social and environmental activist, he went on a 33-day hunger strike in 2021 to call for action against the climate crisis as part of his commitment to Extinction Rebellion. His global project The Earth Stories Collection is having a major international impact.
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