Monday, March 11, 2019
the Cannibal Within
What if you learned that humanity is being driven to the brink of extinction by an illness? That all the poverty, the climate devastation, the perpetual war, and consumption fetishism we see all around us have roots in a mass psychological infection? What if we went on to say that this infection is not just highly communicable but also self-replicating, according to the laws of cultural evolution, and that it remains so clandestine in our psyches that most hosts will, as a condition of their infected state, vehemently deny that they are infected? What if we then told you that this ‘mind virus’ can be described as a form of cannibalism. Yes, cannibalism. Not necessarily in the literal flesh-eating sense but rather the idea of consuming others—human and non-human—as a means of securing personal wealth and supremacy.
You may dismiss this line of thinking as New Age woo-woo or, worse, a lefty conspiracy theory. But this approach of viewing the transmission of ideas as a key determinant of the emergent reality is increasingly validated by various branches of science, including evolutionary theory, quantum physics, cognitive linguistics, and epigenetics.
The history of this infection is long, strange, and dark. But it leads to hope.
Many spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, Sufism (the mystical branch of Islam), Taoism, Gnosticism, as well as many Indigenous cultures, have long understood the mind-based nature of creation. These world views have at their core a recognition of the power of thought-forms to determine the course of physical events.
Various First Nations traditions of North America have specific and long established lore relating to cannibalism and a term for the thought-form that causes it: WETIKO. Understanding this offers a powerful way of understanding the deepest roots of our current global crisis.
Wetiko is an Algonquin word for a cannibalistic spirit that is driven by greed, excess, and selfish consumption (in Ojibwa it is windigo, wintiko in Powhatan). It deludes its host into believing that cannibalizing the life-force of others (others in the broad sense, including animals and other forms of life) is a logical and morally upright way to live.
Wetiko short-circuits the individual’s ability to see itself as an enmeshed and interdependent part of a balanced environment and raises the self-serving ego to supremacy. It is this false separation of self from nature that makes this cannibalism, rather than simple murder. It allows - indeed commands - the infected entity to consume far more than it needs in a blind, murderous daze of self-aggrandizement. Author Paul Levy, in an attempt to find language accessible for Western audiences, describes it as ‘malignant egophrenia’ - the ego unchained from reason and limits, acting with the malevolent logic of the cancer cell.
Wetiko can describe both the infection and the body infected; a person can be infected by wetiko or, in cases where the infection is very advanced, can personify the disease: ‘a wetiko.’ This holds true for cultures and systems; all can be described as being wetiko if they routinely manifest these traits.
In his now classic book Columbus and Other Cannibals, Native American historian Jack D. Forbes describes how there was a commonly-held belief among many Indigenous communities that the European colonialists were so chronically and uniformly infected with wetiko that it must be a defining characteristic of the culture from which they came. Examining the history of these cultures, Forbes laments, “Tragically, the history of the world for the past 2,000 years is, in great part, the story of the epidemiology of the wetiko disease.”
We would presumably all agree that behavior of the European colonialists in North America can be described as cannibalistic. Their drive for conquest and material accumulation was a violent act of consumption. The engine of the invading culture sucked in lives and resources of millions of others and turned them into wealth and power for themselves. The figures are still disputed, but it is safe to place the numbers killed in the tens of millions, certainly one of the most brutal genocides in history. And the impact on non-human life was equally vast. Moreover, it was all done with a moral certainty that all destruction was justified in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘civilization.’
This framing belies the extent of the wetiko infection in the invader culture. So blinded were they by self-referential ambition that they could not see other life as being as important as their own. They could not see past ideological blinders to the intrinsic value of life or the interdependent nature of all things, despite this being the dominant perspective of the Indigenous populations they encountered. Their ability to see and know in ways different from their own was, it seems, amputated.
This is not an anti-European rant. This is the description of a disease whose vector was determined by deep patterns of history, including those that empowered Europeans to drive ‘global exploration’ as certain technologies emerged. The wetiko meme has almost certainly existed in individuals since the dawn of humanity. It is, after all, a sickness that lives through and is born from the human psyche. But the origin of wetiko cultures is more identifiable.
Memes can spread at the speed of thought but they usually require generations to change the core characteristics of cultures. What we can say is that the fingerprints of wetiko-like beliefs can be traced at least as far back as the Neolithic revolution, when humans in the Fertile Crescent first learned to dominate their environment by what author Daniel Quinn calls ‘totalitarian agriculture’ - i.e., settled agricultural practices that produce more food than is strictly needed for the population, and that see the destruction of any living entity that gets in the way of that (over-)production - be it other humans, ‘pests’ or landscaping - as not only legitimate but moral.
This early form of wetiko-logic received an amplifying power of indescribable magnitude with the arrival of Christianity. “Let us make mankind... rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground,” said an authority no less than God in Genesis 1:26. After 8,000 years of totalitarian agriculture spreading slowly across the region, it is perhaps not surprising that the logic finds voice in the holy texts that emerged there. Regardless, it was driven across Europe at the point of Roman swords in the two hundred years after Christ’s death. It is no coincidence that, in order for Christianity to become dominant, the existing pagan belief-system, with its understanding of humanity’s place within rather than above nature, had to be all but annihilated.
The point is that the epidemiology of wetiko has left clear indicators of its lineage. And although it cannot be pathologized along geographic or racial lines, the cultural strain we know today certainly has many of its deepest roots in Europe. It was, after all, European projects - from the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution, to colonialism, imperialism, and slavery - that developed the technology that opened up the channels that facilitated the spread of wetiko culture all around the world. In this way, we are all heirs and inheritors of wetiko colonialism. We are all host carriers of wetiko now.
Adapted from Kosmos, a Journal for Global Transformation
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