NVC, Orang Asilie

Interesting bit from Marshall Rosenberg, in which he suggests that not every culture works via domination and labeling…

That’s why in the United States we call these institutions penitentiaries. The whole idea is you have to make people realize they are evil, so you need a language that does that, you need moralistic judgment that implies evil or bad, with words like: good, bad, right, wrong, abnormal, incompetent, etc.

All kinds of words that make you wrong.

There are whole cultures that have not gone that way, where there is almost no violence. They don’t have this language.

Question: “Where are these cultures?”

Marshall: Every one wants to move there! Fortunately there are a lot of them.

Fortunately anthropologist Ruth Benedict has done a lot of research in this area. A good place to start is an article in “Psychology Today,” June 1970, entitled “Synergy—Patterns of the Good Culture”. She has written many books on the subject since the 1920s. She’s found them all over the world. When she started out she wasn’t sure she would find any. The tribe I have had some contact with is Orang Asilie tribe in Malaysia. I’ll never forget what my translator was saying before we got started. He was going over how he was going to translate. He pointed out his language has no verb to be, like [you are] good, bad, wrong, right. You can’t classified people if you take away the verb to be. How are you going to insult people? You take away ninety percent of my vocabulary! So I say what are you going to say if I say “You’re selfish”?

He responded, “It’s going to be hard. I’d translate it like this: Marshall says he sees you are taking care of your needs but not the needs of others.” He says, “In my language, you tell people what they are doing and what you like them to do differently, it would not occur to us to tell people what they are.” He then paused and he looked at me in all sincerity and said, “Why would you ever call a person a name?”

I said you have to know who to punish. Punishment is a totally foreign concept in these tribes and cultures. He looked at me and said, “If you have a plant and it isn’t growing the way you would like, do you punish it?” The whole idea of punishment is so ingrained in us that it is hard for us to imagine other options. It is totally foreign to people who haven’t been educated in domination systems culture. In many of these cultures they look at people who hurt others this way: they are not bad, they’ve just forgotten their nature. They put them in a circle and they remind them of their true nature, what it’s like to be real human beings. They’ve gotten alienated and they bring them back to life.

Question: What’s the tribe’s name again?

Marshall: The Orang Asilie. This is interesting. It’s not their name, it’s the name the surrounding cultures call them and it means “primitive people”.

People usually ask what were you doing there teaching them Giraffe [nonviolent communication] language when they have their own Giraffe language? It’s sad; they were doing quite well. They live in the forest where trees have great economic value in the outside world, so now logging companies are intruding on their space. They don’t know how to speak Giraffe with Jackal speaking people. They have one senator who represents 60,000 people. In Malaysia, they heard about my work and asked me if I could do something. He says “You know there are consultants who will show us how to use guns, there’s no shortage of these, to get our land back.” The senator hoped there is another way.

It is not fashionable, anthropologically or linguistically, to suggest that language can actually influence how people think and act (a/k/a the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). So it might be worth pointing out that there is no particular reason the causality has to flow in the language->culture direction for the Orang Asilie, rather than the other way round.

UPDATE: Initially-forgotten link here; thanks to Ed Hand for asking for it in comments. For the record, if you go on to read the rest of the piece, it moves into some areas where I do not find myself in agreement with Dr. Rosenberg, e.g. the worries about violence in media as an indoctrination technique and the wholesale acceptance of Walter Wink’s ideas about “Domination Culture.” But I thought this Orang Asilie stuff was interesting.

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