Cannibal Justice

Those of you who tuned in to the Smithsonian Expedition Special on television a few weeks ago got a real eye-opener. The program highlighted a tribe in New Guinea called the Korowai, never before studied. The program presented the Korowai as enlightened people living in harmony with their environment. Oh yes, they also happen to practice cannibalism. The program was hosted by Paul Taylor, a curator of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. The narrative begins by telling us that the goal of anthropology is to make local customs seem "logical, reasonable, rational, and understandable." And that's just what Taylor is eager to do. He tells us that the Korowai live in tree houses that can rise as high as a six-story building— which Taylor describes as "a major architectural achievement for any place in the world." The Korowai also practice equal pay for women—which, Taylor says, "feminists in any country in the world would very much agree with." Things get a little trickier when it comes to equal rights in other areas—for example, the question of who will be killed and eaten. The Korowai practice cannibalism not only against enemy tribes but also against their own people—as punishment for serious crimes. For men, that includes sorcery and murder. Women may be eaten for stealing bananas and other food. The Korowai were happy to describe the ritual in detail. The victim is first bound and shot with arrows. The body is then carefully cut into six pieces—while the people, we are told, "have a good time and sing." Finally, the pieces are cooked over the fire and eaten. This gruesome ritual is presented to the viewer as something Westerners should not condemn but rather try to "understand." Many things about the Korowai may seem baffling, the narrator says, "until they are seen from within—like cannibalism." Within Korowai society, we are told, cannibalism is not "mere violence"; instead it is a "well-functioning example of how a complete criminal justice system works." In fact, the program was titled, "Treehouse People—Cannibal Justice." But in his ardor to make cannibals appear "reasonable" and "logical," Taylor never mentions whether they insist on a fair trial before anyone is condemned to the cooking pot. In fact, he carefully refrains from making any moral judgments at all. The entire program is an exercise in cultural relativism—an effort to deny that Western culture is better than any other. Most anthropologists will defend even the most barbarous customs as sensible and legitimate practices, which no Westerner is allowed to judge. And through programs like the Smithsonian's television specials, the message of cultural relativism is channeled to the public at large. Paid for by your tax dollars and mine. Perhaps it's time we started holding public institutions like the Smithsonian accountable to the public that supports them. American culture is suffering a moral deficit that is destroying our families and our cities. The last thing we need is to see smiling scientists on the TV screen telling us we cannot make moral judgments on even the most barbarous behavior.


Chuck Colson


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