Another journalistic take on Brazilian tribes killing their young? Consider this cautious view

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This post may -- but is by no means calculated -- to tick off some GetReligion readers.

That possibility is undoubtedly magnified by my taking an alternative position to one of last week’s most popular GR posts, one I believe was so well received because readers identified strongly with its moral point of view.

I’m referring to my colleague Julia Duin’s post on a Foreign Policy story about the Brazilian government’s efforts to outlaw infanticide as practiced by a handful of indigenous tribal groups.

This paragraph gets to the core of the debate tackled in the Foreign Policy piece:

The controversy over child killing has raised a fundamental question for Brazil — a vast country that is home to hundreds of protected tribes, many living in varying degrees of isolation: To what extent should the state interfere with customs that seem inhumane to the outside world but that indigenous peoples developed long ago as a means to ensure group survival in an unforgiving environment?

It comes as no surprise to me that Brazil’s burgeoning evangelical Protestant community is leading the legislative effort. It’s no surprise because as you’d expect, this comports with traditional Christianity’s reverence -- with some notable historical exceptions -- for human life.

Now, I'm not here to argue theology or public policy. Rather, there’s a journalism point to be made.

Specifically, it's about  journalists' ability to mentally and emotionally distance themselves from their core beliefs about religious and cultural mores long enough to intellectually grasp an alternative viewpoint that's very different from their own -- and even strikes them as appalling.

I'll say more about this a bit below. But first I think it's important to explain my biases.

I’m no fan of abortion, which I believe should be avoided whenever possible, except when the mother’s life is physically endangered; psychological endangerment resulting from rape or incest, for example, is a more nuanced circumstance that I won't delve into for now.

In  this, I largely agree with normative Judaism, the religion into which I was born and still strongly identify with. Click here for an overview of the prevailing contemporary Jewish approach to abortion. When it comes to the public policy arena, however, I’m thoroughly pro-choice.

A majority of GR readers who responded to Julia’s post appeared to agree with her strongly held view, rooted in her -- and their -- understanding of Christian theology, and that in today’s world infanticide for medical, economic, or tribal societal codes -- superstitions, most Westerners would call the latter -- is simply anathema.

However, there's another approach to the issue I'd like to propose. 

Here’s the top of Julia’s post.

In recent years, certain tribes in the Amazon region have been in the news because of their unpleasant habit of killing deformed or handicapped children as well as twins, and even offspring of single moms, soon after birth. They also may kill transgendered individuals.
I thought the consensus was pretty clear that such practices were evil. But along came an article (it was a month ago, but I’m only getting around to it now) in Foreign Policy magazine that argued how saving the lives of these children was a western value that didn’t fit with the customs and lifestyle of these tribes.

I get her reasoning. As a Westerner myself, I also identify strongly with her view, which is clearly the Western consensus.

As a journalist, however, I'm a bit shaky.

Because in this Tower of Babel world, for better or worse, it’s clear that group beliefs -- tribal beliefs, if you will -- can differ tremendously on issues that some people in the Western news media consider long settled, but are really not settled in the same way in every corner of the world.

That includes decisions that impact us in the most basic life-or-death manner --- the survival of individuals versus the survival of the group.

Look, I realize free choice is lacking here and that no one wants to be the person killed or left behind to starve. Likewise, no one (of healthy mind) wants to be the one who actually dies for their country. Yet governments claim the right to send legions of young men and women to face possible death on battle fields across the globe for the perceived sake of a nation’s group survival. How is this different?

I have some personal experience with remote indigenous tribes who are only partially Westernized. Back in the mid-1970s I spent time, as a freelance reporter, staying with Summer Institute of Linguistics’ evangelical missionaries (the organization is now known as SIL International) in the Amazon forest regions of Ecuador and Peru.

One tribe I visited was the Huaorani (about whom I’ve written here previously). To make a long-story short, the Huaorani once (some isolated Huaorani bands may still do this) widely killed widows and their children who they viewed simply as more mouths to feed if no man (we're talking extreme patriarchy here) wanted to adopt them as his personal responsibility.

They did this because the rainforest is an unforgiving economic environment for humans. There’s much less food available than the lushness implies. This semi-nomadic, slash-and-burn farming, hunter-gatherer, multi-generational family-unit based social structure was never easy to sustain. But it's became even more difficult to sustain as Western-oriented governments and international conglomerates appropriate large swaths of indigenous territory for industrial farming and mineral and oil extraction.

In short, the Huaorani killed some of their own for what they considered essential for the whole -- that being the survival of the tribe’s cultural and biological DNA.

It's certainly no secret that indigenous tribes around the world have suffered greatly at the hands of Western-oriented, Christianity-infused invading forces. And it still happens, as this New York Times essay about Brazil explains.

Yet we assume the right to impose our moral and religious beliefs on smaller, weaker groups. This despite history showing us that our actions contribute, even if unwittingly, to their cultural breakdown and physical extinction.

As journalists -- and perhaps religion reporters most of all because of the difficulty of explaining exotic  beliefs -- do we have a corresponding obligation to not assume which belief systems are worthwhile and which should be consigned to the dustbin of history because they offend our sensibilities?

Shouldn’t we strive to put aside our judgements about the ethical and spiritual values of exotic minorities and allow representatives of those groups to articulate their own views unfiltered, to the degree possible, and untainted by our beliefs about right and wrong? Do we owe them accurate coverage of their beliefs, so that we can understand this debate?

Some of you may think I'm engaging in absurd cultural relativism here. But we're not talking about the Nazis who killed the young and old of groups they considered inferior or simply in the way. Nor is this about Islamic jihadists and other violent groups that kill to impose their ideology on others who disagree and refuse to yield.

We are talking about small, beleaguered and disappearing tribes who have learned over the millennia that only so many of them can survive in a food-scarce environment, and that everyone must physically pull their own weight for the group to survive. 

GetReligion posts are opinion pieces. They are not originally reported, “objective” news stories. This gives us self-assigned license to critique others’ work in accordance with our world views.

So please understand that my intent here is not in any way to disparage Julia’s or your worldview. This is not an attack on Western thinking or Christianity. Nor is this a defense of the tribes' practice or the Foreign Affairs article -- which I found lacking key details in several areas, including accurate material explaining the beliefs and motivations on both sides..

I'm just trying to get across the idea that the human mind is a trickster. That it prompts us to believe wholeheartedly in our every thought, to assume we've connected the dots even if we haven't. And that it does this by excluding the contrarian thoughts of others. Perhaps a fixed certainty is the only way we can emerge sane from life's daily hurts and disappointments?

Bottom line: This inevitably impacts our storytelling as journalists. 

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