The box is full of salmon, and a man sits atop the box. Long ago this man
hired armed guards to keep anyone from eating his fish. The many people who sit
next to the empty river starve to death. But they do not die of starvation. They
die of a belief. Everyone believes that the man atop the box owns the fish. The
soldiers believe it, and they will kill to protect the illusion. The others
believe it enough that they are willing to starve. But the truth is that there
is a box, there is an emptied river, there is a man sitting atop the box,
there are guns, and there are starving people.
In the 1930's, anthropologist Ruth Benedict tried to discover why some cultures
are "good," to use her word, and some are not. She noticed that members of some
cultures were generally "surly and nasty" -- words she and her assistant Abraham
Maslow recognized as unscientific -- while members of other culutres were almost
Benedict is of course not the only person to have made this distinction. The
psychologist Erich Fromm found that cultures fell, sometimes easily, into
distinct categories such as "life-affirmative," or "destructive." The Zuni
Pueblos, Semangs, Mbutus, and othes that he placed in the former category are
extraordinary for the way in which they contrast with our own culture. "There is
a minimum of hostility, violence, or cruelty among people, no harsh punishment,
hardly any crime, and the institution of war is absent or plays an exceedingly
small role. Children are treated with kindness, there is no severe corporal
punishment; women are in general considered equal to men, or at least not
exploited or humiliated; there is a genarally permissive and affirmative
attitude toward sex. There is little envy, covetousness, greed, and
exploitativeness. There is also little competition and individualism and a
great deal of cooperation; personal property is only in things that are used.
There is a general attitude of trust and confidence, not only in others but
particularly in nature; a general prevalence of good humor, and a relative
absence of depressive moods."
Readers may more closely recognize our own culture in Fromm's description of the
Dobus, Kwaikutl, Aztecs, and others he put into the category of "destructive."
These cultures, he said, are "characterized by much interpersonal violence,
destructiveness, aggression, and cruelty, both within the tribe and against
others, a pleasure in war, maliciousness, and treachery. The whole atmosphere
of life is one of hostility, tension, and fear. Usually there is a great deal of
competition, great emphasis on private property (if not in material things then
in symbols), strict hierarchies, and a considerable amount of war-making."
Given the ubiquity of this culture's destructiveness as well as its
technological capacity, there has never been a more important time to ask Ruth
Benedict's question: Why are some cultures "good" and others not?
Benedict found that good cultures, which she began to call "secure," or "low
aggression," or "high-synergy cultures," could not be differentiated from "surly
and nasty" cultures on the basis of race, geography, climate, size, wealth,
poverty, complexity, matrilineality, patrilineality, house size, the absence or
presence of polygamy, and so on. More research revealed to her one simple and
commonsensical rule separating aggressive from nonaggressive cultures, a rule
that has so far evaded implementation by our culture: the social forms and
institutions of nonaggressive cultures positively reinforce acts that benefit
the group as a whole while negatively reinforcing acts (and eliminating goals)
that harm some members of the group.
The social forms of aggressive cutures, on the other hand, reward actions that
emphasize individual gain, even or especially when that gain harms others in
the community. A primary and sometimes all-consuming goal of members of these
cultures is to come out ahead in their "dog eat dog" world.
Another way to put this is that social arrangements of nonaggressive cultures
eliminate the polarity between selfishness and altruism by making the two
identical: In a "good" culture, the man atop the box from the parable above
would have been scorned, despised, exiled, or otherwise prevented from damaging
the community. To behave in such a selfish and destructive manner would be
considered insane. Even had he conceived such a preposterous idea as hoarding
all the fish, he would have been absolutely disallowed because the box was held
at the expense of the majority, as well as at the expense of future
generations. For him to be a rich and influential member of a good culture, he
would have had to give away many or all of the fish. The act of giving would
have made him rich in esteem. But he would never have been allowed to strip the
river. There would have been no fear with regard to the "gift" of fish, for
social arrangements would have made him secure in the knowledge that if his next
fishing trip failed, his more successful neighbors would feed him, just as this
time he had fed them.
It all comes down to how a culture handles wealth. If a culture manages it
through what Benedict called a "siphon system," whereby wealth is constantly
siphoned from rich to poor, the society as a whole and its members as
individuals will be, for obvious reasons, secure. They will not need to hoard
wealth. Since this generosity is manifested not only monetarily but in all
aspects of life, they will also not need to act out their now-nonexistent
insecurities in other ways. On the other hand, if a culture uses a "funnel
system," in which those who accumulate wealth are esteemed, the result is that
"the advantage of one individual becomes a victory over another, and the
majority who are not victorious must shift as they can." For reasons that
should again be obvious, such social forms foster insecurity and aggression,
both personal and cultural.