Jorge Luis Borges once wrote about Averroes or Abul Walid Mahommed Ibn Achmed, a Moorish philosopher in 12th century Spain. This Andalusian Muslim polymath wrote about medicine, Islam, Islamic law, psychology, music and more. This outrageously smart man once wrote commentaries in Arabic about Aristotle but (according to Borges) struggled over the two words comedy and tragedy.
Averroes could not translate these words. He could not explain them. And he could not fathom what these two words meant in the context of his Muslim culture. The Moors told stories. They did not have theaters, and they did not have plays. The Islamic storytelling culture centered around a single speaker telling a story (involving as many characters as needed) without a need for fake swords, fake deaths, and imagined actors. As a man unable to step out of his cultural context, he failed at his task of commenting on Aristotle’s opinions on theater.
Are we similarly unable to step out of our cultural contexts when thinking about other societies? How can we avoid being like Averroes? What are some different ways of thinking? Let’s contrast the logic of different people.
The indigenous of South America are now more influential at any point since the fall of the Incans. However the logic of indigenous peoples have quite different concepts of the world, society, and less of a concept of the individual. Mother Earth is the goddess Pachamama (often conflated with the Virgin Mary) and use of coca leaves is sacred among the Quechua and the Aymara people. The indigenous respect the wisdom of tribal elders and emphasize community unity (not an uncommon trait in African tribes).
Aymarans have a particularly unique view of time. To the Aymara, the past is in front of them and the future is behind them. Coming from a culture where respecting elders and the past is paramount, this makes sense. Aymara emphasize what has been seen, either by themselves, their elders, or their elders’ elders. Thus the past is something that has been seen, and everyone knows something you see is in front of you. As we all know, the future is a mystery and we cannot see it. Thus the future is behind the Aymara, not in front. American or European concepts of “progress” might be difficult to explain to these Bolivian highlanders.
Bolivian social movements have another “backwards” approach to leadership and government compared to Americans. Americans elect leaders and put them on a God-like pedestal. They then complain to them and about them when they do not fix our problems. Bolivian indigenous do things the opposite way.
Their concept is to “lead by obeying.” This means that leaders do not just boss and manage the people around. Instead leaders must obey the wills of the people. The people and social movements are the real leaders, not politicians. A collective of the people will make a decision (say, nationalize the natural gas) through consensus and seeking out everyone’s opinion (not just those who show up to the meeting). The “official leaders” (i.e. politicians) don’t lead by pushing their own way around, they must obey the collective decision of the people. Leaders lead by obeying the people. If the leader does not obey, they must be held to account by a tribal or collective council and explain their actions. If they continue to disrespect the will of the people, they can be recalled immediately. This makes the concept of constitutional “four year terms” irrelevant to the indigenous. If some leader is not obeying the people, his/her term ends the minute the people decide it is.
Bolivian President Evo Morales came from these social movements, leading the coca leaf growers union. His current unpopularity comes from his disconnecting himself from the social movement and being inaccessible to the people, refusing to consult with the social movements, and following conventional “bossy” ways of political and economic leadership. His pursuit of great macroeconomic figures and “growth” to impress foreigners is irrelevant to them. The people come first, not statistics. A recent letter from the movements to Evo Morales from the grassroots leaders pointed out that being indigenous is about the mind not the skin:
We would like to finish by saying something that an Aymara elder said: The indigenous are not defined by physical traits, nor language, nor last name, nor culture. The indigenous come from an attitude of generosity, of respect, of reciprocity, transparency, of listening to others.
Perhaps we can learn from these forms of leadership and governance too.
Two decades ago, A.K. Ramunajan wrote an influential essay called “Is there an Indian way of Thinking?” This enlightening article explains succinctly the differences between Western and Indian Hindu thought.
Logic and morality, Ramunajan argued, depends on context in India (“context-sensitive”). Logic and rules and morality are universal in the West and are “context-free.” It goes back to the ancient texts of both civilizations. The Torah has the Ten Commandments which categorically forbids worshiping graven images or killing (no exceptions!). Hinduism’s many texts have no such blanket statements. “Can I kill my family,” asked Arjuna to Krishna in the Mahabharata. Krishna said he could because his cause was just and his duty (dharma) was to fight as a soldier. Different castes have different ethics and orientations; Brahmins are to be wise and scholarly while the Kshatriyas like Arjuna are to be brave. Our answer, it seems, tends to be “it depends.”
Different punishments applied to different people in India. The Laws of Manu had no Golden Rule. The same crime received different punishments depending on the criminal’s caste. Your morality, ethics and compassion extended not to everyone in your area but to your particular community and friends. Only with the coming of British rule and the beginning of a British-educated elite (Nehru, Gandhi, the Congress Party) did ideas of universal law and freedom take hold. But even then it never took hold over the minds of the masses.
This leads to interesting situations for outsiders. A true Indian (say on a train or movie theater) will be superficially rude and crude to strangers. He’ll jump the queue, push you around, hassle the employees and never hold the door open for you. A Westernized one would do none of these things. However, should you make the true Indian’s acquaintance (and you enter his sphere of community and friends) it will be he who treats you best when you visit his home. He will feed you, take you places, and pull strings for you. Which matters more? The superficially small gestures or the real acts of kindness when help is needed?
To make it even more confusing, Indians may compartmentalize their multiple ways of thinking. This makes Indians look inconsistent or hypocritical, but it might be something a bit more subtle. Hinduism survived for thousands of years by adopting other religions’ gods and practices, always absorbing yet another way of thinking without throwing out the old one. Ramunajan’s own father taught astronomy and mathematics while still entertaining pandits and astrologers. How could an astronomer give horoscopes to people on the side? This inconsistency puzzled him until he realized he applied a different mentality to each field. A scientific mind for science and a religious mind for religion. Or perhaps he would say what my grandfather’s classmate once told me , “Sometimes it is important not to be too scientific.”
This may explain Indians lack of rule-following yet tolerance for the ways of others (“that’s just what ____ people do!”). We accept the tendencies of others as long as we don’t have to follow it. Perhaps it’s not the worst way to deal with others.