Bradley Manning, John Kiriakou, and the shaman’s wrath
Writing in 1982, the anthropologist Laura Betzig noted a parallel between two very-long-term trends in human societies.
The first trend is increasing inequality and hierarchy. Roughly speaking, early human societies evolved from relatively simple, egalitarian bands of hunters and gatherers, to more complex, hierarchical, unequal societies. Over time, as a general tendency, leaders, chiefs and kings emerged with ever stronger authority and powers.
The second trend is increasing injustice in dispute resolution — what Betzig called “asymmetry in the resolution of conflicts”. Roughly speaking, when there are disputes, they are resolved less and less on the merits of the case, and more and more on the power and wealth of the parties. The powerful tend increasingly to win disputes even if they are in the wrong. Asymmetric rules may develop: for instance, insulting a peasant has rarely had serious consequences, but not so with insulting the king.
Betzig found that these two trends (among others) are correlated. Those societies which are more hierarchical and unequal, tend also to be the ones with unjust dispute resolution. The more powerful the leader or chief or monarch, the more the strong prevail in disputes and the less the weak can expect justice.
Well, surprise, surprise, one might say. We do not exactly expect economic injustice or political authoritarianism to lead to legal justice — or any type of benevolence for that matter.
The details, nonetheless, are interesting. Betzig gives the example of the Tlingit, an indigenous society of North America, studied by the anthropologist Kalervo Oberg. In traditional Tlingit society,
If a man of low rank was caught stealing from another clan, they could kill him for it. If he was high in rank, his clan could settle with the other by a payment in goods. And if he was of very high rank, he was said to have been bewitched.
That’s right: if you’re sufficiently powerful, commit a crime, and it will automatically be assumed someone put a spell on you to make you do it. Continue reading