Thursday, August 06, 2015

Clashing Cultures

I watched episode nine of the Outlander TV series last night... where Jamie takes his belt to Claire for her disobedience: "You've done wrong to all the men and you must suffer for it". She then twice makes him promise, at the point of a dirk, never to do such a thing again. This tension between cultures is one of the charms of the books and Diana Gabaldon has put her finger on an enduring issue.

For Claire, an intelligent liberated woman of the 20th century, such barbarity is unacceptable, indeed contemptible. But, stripped of modern ethical standards, clan society in the 18th century worked pretty well, and Claire was operating in a cultural vacuum (her culture had not yet been born!).

The episode put me in mind of  Alistair Moffat's comments in his excellent book on Hadrian's Wall, on the relative barbarism of Romans and the invaded, artistic but illiterate Celts, "In AD 105 the Emperor Trajan sent 50,000 captives back to Rome to be butchered by gladiators for the amusement of spectators... very civilised".

Where a culture has superior military power, it somehow believes that its values are superior to those who are less developed, less able to defend themselves.

In 1919 the Aliab Dinka of Southern Sudan, naked, spear-carrying cattle herders were not paying their taxes and, when confronted, had the temerity to outwit the government forces and kill the provincial governor. The Lewis gun equipped punitive expedition burned villages and drove off 7000 cattle, sold to fund the occupying force. Who were the Barbarians?

Moffat also writes of the aftermath of Queen Boudica's rebellion, "Paullinus scoured the countryside for fugitives, allies, or even neutrals... smoke rose on every horizon as the soldiers punished southern Britain for daring to rebel". The same man dealt with the island of Anglesey, "In the days after the battle the killing went on: Paullinus ordered his men to cut down the sacred groves of oak trees on Mona, and as far as possible extirpate the cult of the druids".

The extirpation of a cult was more or less exactly what the Duke of Cumberland had in mind with his brutal and indiscriminate suppression of the Highlands in 1746. The violence and sense of superiority of the British Army of the day is only a little exaggerated in the TV series.

That was 270 years ago. But the conviction that more developed cultures are superior (and should be imposed) still endures.