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Monday, 30 March 2009

when the headhunting stops

Sometimes i think i like the anthropology of emotions more than the history of emotions. Perhaps this is just because within anthropology it is possibly easier to come across examples of exotic emotions, of responses that challenge perceptions and provide a thrill of the possibilities that we humans are capable of.

One such example comes from 'The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions', by William M. Reddy though in this case he is describing the work of an anthropologist.

Michelle Rosaldo wrote of the Ilongot people of the Philippines, formerly a tribe of headhunters (the headhunting was only done by the men) whose emotional lives prized the concept of liget which is a sense of anger, heat, energy and envy. This liget provided the motivation to do things like hunt, garden or protect the tribe from attack.

It also was central to young men becoming possessed of the desire to headhunt. This was then harnessed by the elders (also men) and they all went on raiding parties. If successful, the whole tribe (men and women) would break out in joyful celebration, not least in seeing liget fulfilled.

However when Rosaldo went back to the tribe for more fieldwork several years later, she discovered the headhunting had stopped, through a crackdown by the Philippino authorities. In that time, many of the tribe had converted to Christianity and the tribe's emotional norms were becoming much more placid in the absence of liget which could no longer be expressed or fulfilled. Ultimately they hoped the new religion would take away the pain of unrealised liget.

On the surface the tribe had made this massive emotional shift away from one of their core emotional states in a very short period of years. However, when she played a recording back to them of their celebrations of liget (at their request), the tribe became utterly disconsolate and asked her to stop as it grieved them too painfully to hear the joy of their old way of life.

In another incident, Rosaldo spoke of a group of Ilongot Christians playing volleyball during a child's funeral, saying they had no reason to feel grief.

As Reddy points out, the activity of the build up and release of liget was not just a ritual, it was something the Ilongot were fully emotionally engaged in.

These people were not monsters, but they genuinely felt decapitating neighbouring tribespeople's heads was a good thing. they felt good when that liget was fulfilled and released. And yet this was the same feeling they got when they tended their gardens.

That Christianity had helped them move on from headhunting which is a good thing but the loss of their liget had clearly left them bereft.

In their Christian states, they felt no grief, and yet nothing in Christianity tells them not to feel grief. And was their lack of grief unnatural? How could it be, it was what they felt.

But think of the reactions we have to an apparent lack of grief, for example with the Queen's apparent aloofness after the death of Princess Diana.

I am not arguing that Christianity or the authorities did wrong in moving the Ilongot away from headhunting, or that they should have been denied the choice to engage with aspects of the outside world to keep them in some prelapsarian noble savage role for us to study.

Truly the well of human emotions is deep and diverse, and sometimes sits rather uncomfortably beside our notions of morality.

I do think it is worth remembering that our emotions are not always good and true guides in formulating any moral code, as they are capable of making the moral equivalent of black,white and white, black.

Thursday, 12 March 2009


Two of Assynt in the far northwest today, courtesy of Colin Prior, who runs holiday tours teaching people how to make photographs like these.

Monday, 9 March 2009

the loneliness of the long distance writer....

"All the lonely people
Where do they all come from ?"
The Beatles, Eleanor Rigby

It's not often I quote approvingly from the Daily Mail, but there was an interesting article on loneliness here.

The writer, Lorna Martin, spoke of loneliness as a taboo made all the more poignant by the endemic nature of the condition of Western women. Whilst I would disagree with her overly feminine characterisation of the emotion - it was however an article written for the femail section of the paper so that should come as no surprise - it contained several elements which were pertinent for women and men.

This isn't to deny or denigrate her descriptions of its effect on women, merely to highlight that men have their own issues relating to loneliness that may differ slightly in causes in some cases but are largely similar in outcome.

I sympathise with her, having felt that unbearably intense sense of loneliness of many occasions throughout my life, and noted that they increased massively when I was either working from home or not working at all. Such are the travails of being a freelancer in the world we live in.

Martin points out rightly that we are ill equipped to deal with loneliness. This was something I mentioned in my first post on this blog when speaking about the old Indian tradition (quoted by Theodore Zeldin) of sending young men on retreat for 3 months to cope with a deadened form on loneliness that helps them face up to the condition.

As she notes, it is associated with failure and weakness. However, she stops short of asking why our society seems so talented at creating so many lonely people. It does not take a socialist to recognise that a system that requires values like individualism, mobility over community, and consumption as a signifier of success, is a system that will create endemic loneliness.

The dark side of individualism is the sense of isolation it breeds as we see ourselves as entirely distinct, with distinct needs from the group. I am not arguing for a return to some kind of prelapsarian community, merely an acknowledgement of the true cost of our philosophical stance in the world.

It is a terrible irony that Norman Tebbit who once exhorted Britain to get on its bike, later lamented the loss of community and family values that once bound together these Isles. The very mobility of modern society and employment that he helped to herald will inherently diminish familial and community bonds. I am not arguing for a return to some kind of Empire capitalism, merely an acknowledgement of the true cost of our economic stance in the world.

And at the root of these things is consumption. We produce and consume goods and services to trade in a global system. And in order to maintain this we much constantly strive for greater efficiency and competitiveness, making us work longer hours, committing more sacrifices on the altar of consumption.

And this is a system that the Daily Mail promotes, despite making noises in favour of family values and so on. But it does not recognise that the capitalism that it suggests its readers vote for at elections, that it promotes in its choice of news, features and its business pages pushes us further towards the treadmill of consumption and it's consequent ailments.

Martin notes the health problems that loneliness generates, both physical and psychological, and she is right to do so. She quotes psychologist James Lynch in his book 'Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences Of Loneliness', and how dialogue is key to escaping the vicious spiral of loneliness.

Not to undermine the value of Lynch or Martin's suggestions I fear it will take an awful lot more to deal with the endemic state of our societies. Communication will play a part, rituals to bind and bond us will too. And I think if we are prepared to be truly honest, we may have to change the way we do business with the world and the way the world does business...

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

the value of anger

I have written a few times before on the value of anger, so was interested to come across a recent piece in the Guardian by the philospher Julian Baggini in the Guardian which examined the role the emotion plays in our western psyches.

In it he noted the value of anger in communicating the importance of an issue and the dangers in repression of feeling to the self and the community.

To my mind he hit the nail of the head when he said the emotion was not bad in itself but that it was the appropriateness of the emotion to the situation that mattered. Not all anger expressed is wise, nor is bottling it all up. The wisdom lies is when and how it's expressed.

We have a danger of only thinking of anger in perjorative terms because it is not seen or described in our vocabulary as a positive emotion... Of course it is neither positive or negative!

He also sounded a very interesting note:

"Indeed, without emotion it seems unlikely we can even have morality. As the Scottish philosopher David Hume argued in the 18th century, intellect alone is insufficient to motivate any caring for ourselves and others. As he colourfully put it, "Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger." Cold-hearted ethics is an oxymoron."

I think it is true to a point but again it is a concept of morality that is trapped in the idea that emotion is a passion which contains no reason and that both are needed. But emotion already has reason in it. Cognitive scientists have shown emotion contains judgement and reason, so whilst the categories he starts with are in a sense wrong, his conclusion is right.

Our emotions are key to our morality, though the emotions themselves cannot be described as morally good or bad.