Christian Long

Wade Davis: Endangered Cultures

In TED Talks on April 7, 2010 at 7:59 pm

Reflection by MEIGHAN ARCE

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Wade Davis:  Endangered Cultures

Wade Davis expresses with phenomenal photography and cultural stories the necessity to keep ancient cultures and languages alive. We should appreciate each other’s diversity and celebrate it. We all have the same base instincts and habits, but the way we perceive our lives and world is different. How we express ourselves varies, why we do certain things varies. What make each culture special are these variations. It cannot be said that what one culture believes is wrong or another is right. Nothing is really definite; it is only as you perceive it. We all live different, not just where we live or how much money we have, it’s how we view our life and how we see humanity. As Davis said, “there are other ways of being…other ways of orienting yourself in the earth.”

Our cultures and livelihoods affect the planet, just as out planet combined with the human perception and creativity leads to culture. This is what makes us human, without culture we are just a mass of organisms with nothing to make us special. Like one dog out of a million, personality and physical traits may make us different but we will not be special for what we believe or how we perceive ourselves. We would lose that creativity and mystery that surrounds humanity. Without culture we are no different that any other animal.

Unfortunately, our cultures and languages are being lost, fading into memories of the past or passing without our knowledge of their existence. Davis tells us that roughly every two weeks an elder dies and with them the language and beliefs of these people die. This doesn’t strike us as terribly important perhaps, unless you put it in to perspective for your own culture.

Imagine you are the last to speak English and follow your beliefs, wouldn’t that fill you with horror? We are led to believe that cultural unity will improve our species. That somehow being all the same will make us more advanced. Perhaps it will, technologically, but nothing more. Would you really want to have all the technology you can imagine at your disposal but only speak one language and only see one face no matter who you looked at? To only have one belief and one way of perceiving your life? How could creativity survive in a world with no diversity? Language is the easiest way to lose your culture. Language is a way to express the beliefs and perception of a culture. Without the language you may not have the words necessary to express an idea, and then this idea will be lost. You cannot make something known to other unless you have a word or phrase to express it. Once you lose this, you cannot get it back. Even in Spanish and English there are many times I am at a loss because a certain idea or way of looking at something cannot be said as well in English where as I can in Spanish. Or a phrase in English will mean something different than what the literal meaning of the word is, and then it’s difficult to find a way to say the same thing in Spanish with the same impact of the word or phrase.

Davis explains various different peoples cultures and does a marvelous job showing their beliefs in a way we are not instinctively going to lash out culturally and think these people are lesser than us or that they are barbaric. We are able to better view their cultures and how they see the world without dismissing them as ignorant because he tells their tales without bias but in a way we can understand. He explains that what we all perceive our world as is irrelevant but the relationship between us because of how we perceive our world is interesting. It is also interesting to see how the peoples surroundings affect the way their cultures develop. It’s not just coincidence that their culture fits so well with the world they perceive.

The issue is not only that these people and cultures are diminishing, but that we look at it as though it has no affect on us. We are just the spectators as these ancient cultures fade into the past. We cannot afford to be spectators. Again, we see it as unrelated to us; we have to learn to really empathize. Davis attempts this with his talk, a way to reach into our little bubbles we consider reality and not allow us to cover our eyes and ears to the decay of cultures. He reminds us that just because you support the indigenous people of the world does not mean you have to think we should all go back to the cave man days. We can have technology and our world can move on, but we should not endorse or stand by as other’s cultures and beliefs are pushed aside for globalization and our technology. What may appear the answer or truth for our culture is not necessarily right to impose on others. We shouldn’t be able to stand by as we destroy our physical world and the cultures and livelihoods of our neighbors. More often that not we are just unaware of others suffering, because those causing the suffering don’t want us to know. Either this or we simply ignore our own despicable actions or lack of action as we continue to do what we know we should stop doing because it ruins other human beings lives and individuality. We don’t see it face to face each morning and we conveniently tune out the voice of those who try to show us the destruction we create by not caring. We think it is something beyond us; we cannot comprehend it because we distance ourselves from it. We just hear about other’s struggles and pains and we think “poor things.” and go on with our lives.

Ask people if they will give up their car and walk or take a bus to save gas, they might say yes if they think it’s worth saving money. Ask anyone if they will stop building huge houses and cutting up forests to ensure that other people can live as they have for centuries, they might say yes, but they won’t feel the slightest bit guilty about their mansions they already have. They said they’d stop building, not that they’d give up their homes so that another man can keep his. Along with allowing a man to keep his original homeland, why can’t we allow him to keep his language and his religious beliefs? Why do we condemn people’s cultures and think it is OK? If we look back in history don’t we see enough examples of religious intolerance to remind us to be accepting of others. Why can’t we let others live as they wish to live? Why must we constantly try to regulate them and adjust them to our perception of right?

To use an obvious example, Christians going on their missions, although they aren’t like they were back when the Spaniards first came to the Americas, they are still pressing themselves on other peoples. They say its OK because they are doing their god’s bidding. If it is, shouldn’t it be OK for other people with different cultures and religions to come to the Christian societies and teach their own languages and religious views and establish ’schools’ of sorts to teach what they believe a person should know? Now imagine that some other people come through your society and destroy all the religious relics and places of worship just so they can dominate your society and make it their own in a power struggle. Wouldn’t you be begging the rest of the world to sympathize with your mistreatment and help you out? But worse yet, imagine this is all going on and you have no idea how to counter it, and don’t know how to call out to others for help. This is the situation some peoples find themselves in.

Now, an interesting thing is that he says if you asked the people of these cultures what it means to be human, they could give you an answer they were sure of. How many people do you ask in our society that share your culture that can answer that question without saying “of course this is my theory, one never really knows.” these people have accepted their world and themselves and have perfected the knowledge of themselves and their surroundings. Who are we to disturb them and turn their world upside down, to kill them off or alter their beliefs, to displace them from their homelands so that they have to change their views of what they are that before were such simple questions to answer? They have to rediscover themselves and thus are no longer themselves but an extension of us, and they are lost to the past the same as their culture.

What Davis and National Geographic do is show us what’s going on far way, and makes us care. They make it so we cannot just stand by as our massive cultures swallow up smaller ones. They make it so that we cannot say, “I didn’t know this was happening.” They do such a good job of presenting our world and fellow cultures to us in a way that we realize how precious they really are and then are inclined to protect them.


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