Egalitarianism – The Way Life Should Be (Or at least was, for a very long time)

Photo taken by Dominick Tyler from Survival International's website.

Photo  of a couple of Bushmen taken by Dominick Tyler from Survival International’s website.

During my time as an anthropology student, I learned about a concept called ‘egalitarianism.’ I’d heard this word before but didn’t really know what it meant until I read something called “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari” written by the anthropologist Richard Lee. Lee lived with a band of hunter-gatherers who inhabit the Kalahari Desert which is located in what is now the country of Botswana in Africa known as the !Kung Bushmen. For years he studied their culture and way of life. He wanted to express his thanks to the Bushmen he had been living with, so he decided to purchase a large, plump ox to give to them as a Christmas present. He thought they would be very grateful for the gift and would enjoy it during the holiday celebration. However, the response he received from the Bushmen he’d grown close to was not what he expected. They made fun of the ox and called it ‘skin and bones’ and claimed that it wouldn’t provide much food and that he was foolish to buy it. No matter which person he talked to about it, they all laughed at him and his supposedly old and scrawny ox. Naturally, Lee was very confused by this reaction to what he thought was a nice gesture. Eventually, he was able to discuss this with a member of the band who had been born in another community before marrying into the Bushmen community. He was informed that giving such a great gift was considered boasting or bragging. The act was essentially saying “I am great and powerful enough to buy this magnificent ox and just give it away to you. See how awesome I am?”

In egalitarian societies like that of the !Kung Bushmen, this type of bragging behavior is considered very rude and inappropriate. To understand why that is, you need to know what egalitarianism is. Egalitarianism is a social structure in which everyone is equal, meaning everyone has equal say in all matters, and all food and goods are equally distributed throughout the community. Egalitarian societies could be considered ‘status-less’ or you could say that everyone is simply of the same status. There are no chiefs or lords or leaders of any kind.

In order to sustain this social equality, certain social checks and balances are necessarily enacted. The reaction Lee received from the Bushmen is an example of one such mechanism. Boasting and bragging inflates one’s ego and leads to arrogance, and eventually may lead to that person thinking they’re superior to others and are therefore entitled to more power (more food, goods, greater say in communal matters, etc.). Supposedly, too much arrogance leads to the person viewing the others as servants and may bring about murder. This type of act is clearly counter to the social equality typified by egalitarian societies.

Therefore, in order to cool their arrogance, it is necessary to make fun of the hunter and the animal they hunted. The hunter accepts their ridicule and agrees with them, adding that it was a waste of time to track and hunt such a meager animal. Along these same lines, when a hunter returns from a hunt, they are expected to just hang out by their fire and not speak to anyone. Later, someone may approach them and ask, ‘What did you see today?’ Although they were quite successful and managed to take a large animal, he responds to the query with apparent disinterest, ‘Ah, I’m no good for hunting. I saw nothing at all.. just a little tiny one.’

Here’s a direct quote from the original article of a dialogue between Lee and a Bushmen named Tomazo that I feel encapsulates this idea:

Lee:”Why insult a man after he has gone to all that trouble to track and kill an animal when he is going to share the meat with you so that your children will have something to eat?”
Tomazo: “Arrogance,” was his cryptic answer.
“Yes, when a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.”

Kuwe Belesa, Metsiamenong, Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana. © Dominick Tyler

Kuwe Belesa, Metsiamenong, Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana. © Dominick Tyler

You’re probably wondering why I’m going on about this weird ‘everyone’s equal’ Utopian-type of society that very few people of this world still practice. The reason I’m bothering to write about this is because egalitarianism is actually the norm for our species (see the sources 6,7,8 from Wiki’s page on egalitarianism). For the vast majority of our existence (roughly 99% of our time on this Earth) in our current form (sometimes referred to as ‘anatomically modern humans’), we lived in small bands of egalitarian societies. The beauty of this equality-based system is that it’s quite sustainable; we were able to go a long, long time living like this before other social systems emerged (like tribes, chiefdom’s, states, etc.) where social stratification and much greater levels of division of labor came about. It was an inherently passive and relatively peaceful way of living. Since it worked so well, we just kept doing it for a very long time. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Well, if you’re reading this you’re almost definitely not part of an egalitarian society. In fact, the most complex social stratification occurs in state level societies that Americans and most of the world exists within. That means there’s large power gaps between people of different statuses, rather than everyone being of the same status. Such a power-gap can be problematic. For a somewhat extreme example, someone with enough money or power can conceivably enslave or murder someone with less power at their convenience. That might seem a bit of an extreme example these days, but slavery and other forms of discrimination are largely believed to be a result of the divergence from egalitarianism. A homeless person and a wealthy CEO illustrate another example of the high complexity of social stratification we have reached. In egalitarian societies, each person is considered important, no matter how skilled or unskilled they might be. The sick, wounded, and elderly are cared for by the rest of the band, not ignored and neglected. Since everyone in egalitarian societies is treated equally, the priority of the individuals is focused on the success of the group, rather than the individual.

I feel that is a fundamental flaw of the social structures most people exist within today, especially capitalistic societies. In those types of societies, the emphasis is placed on the success of the individual instead of the community as it is in egalitarian societies (which, again, was the type of social structure we’ve existed within for most of our time on Earth). Striving for one’s own success (monetary or otherwise) over the community’s encourages arrogance and social inequality. Like the Bushmen said, “once a young man kills much meat (i.e. profits monetarily) he begins to think of himself as a chief or big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors.” At the very least, that can result in something as simple as someone bossing someone else around, and at it’s worst that can mean slavery, persecution, genocide, or the objectification of human life.

It’s difficult to imagine that the aforementioned horrible atrocities against humanity could stem from something as simple as bragging or boasting about an accomplishment, but it seems that could quite possibly be the case. I guess the takeaway from this could be this: Next time you’re about to tell someone about how much money you’ve made, how far you ran, how big an animal you killed, how big a rock you just lifted, how fast your car is, or any other way that you think you just made yourself more awesome than your peers, think twice. Quite probably, the people you’re bragging to care a lot less about what you’re saying than they let on. Now, I’m not saying not to take pride in your accomplishments. By all means, please do! Just keep those thoughts to yourself and don’t let them fool you into thinking you’re better than others. After all, humility is what allowed all of our ancestors to live peacefully together for so long, and made it possible for you to be here reading this post right now. So stay humble, my friends. For humanity’s sake. 🙂

Photo of an elder Bushmen taken by Dominick Tyler from Survival International's website.

Photo of an elder Bushmen taken by Dominick Tyler from Survival International’s website.

P.S. to learn more about the Bushmen or see cool pictures follow those links.

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