Worlds Of Difference

by Jessie Roberts

Andrew Benedict-Nelson is critical of Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, which compares industrial and hunter-gatherer societies:

It’s easy to say we can learn from people who have been raised differently. It’s harder to determine how those lessons should be applied. Take, for example, the several fascinating chapters on violence and dispute resolution in non-state societies. The core of Diamond’s argument is that traditional systems of dispute resolution have different goals from modern trials.

They seek to restore relationships rather than find the truth or mete out punishment. But as the author goes on to explain, these practices take this form because, in tribal societies, people are likely to remain in contact with the same small group for their entire lives. While repairing those relationships through reconciliation may make people feel better, their crucial purpose is to stave off cycles of retributive violence. By contrast, most Western legal disputes occur between strangers who never have to see each other again when the matter is through, and who probably won’t consider killing each other in any case. If the two parties do know each other, our mobile society gives them as much leeway to become future strangers as they would like.

So by the time Diamond decides that traditional non-Western methods of settling disputes could “inspire” new forms of mediation here, the addition to our “repertoire” seems rather deracinated. The question of exactly how citizens of states should learn from traditional societies is left unresolved. Do existing forms of mediation really count? Can such forms of mediation really deliver just outcomes in a system where the side with more money is likely to win? Diamond zestfully engages these questions, considering everything from European systems of prison rehabilitation to the question of who should pay for trials. But in doing so, he ends up pretty far afield from the stated subject of traditional societies. Or, at least, pretty far afield from a workable merging of the two.