He may have been an Imperialist, and deserved what he got. But something can still be a Tragedy, all things considered.
Ever since that story came out about American Missionary John Allen Chau was killed by the the Sentinelese tribe on an island territory of India, I have seen many reactions. By now, it’s old news, but it captivated my attention and still have thoughts on it.
The most common reaction I’ve seen is people reveling in the guy’s death for his flagrant colonial mindset, disregard for the health of the native’s health, and general culture insensitivity. I have also seen people take a less strong approach, saying yes, he was wrong in those ways, but his death shouldn’t be mocked or celebrated.
I have also seen people celebrate him mildly, in a romantic sense, saying he had a strong personal vision of how he wanted to affect the world, and died doing it. Finally, I have seen people praising the guy, for trying to spread the word of God. I’ve only seen the latter perspective as reply tweets to news articles, but it exists nonetheless.
Personally, I think all of these perspectives are missing the point. Or, they’re at least missing a point worth taking away from something like this happening. The problem is, the event is a perfect ideological shell: it can signify whatever reinforces your ideology. But when you take a step back and observe the event, it, in and of itself, is an expression of something more insidious.
Think about it from his perspective. As far as he can tell, Christianity is 100% true. The only way to go to heaven is to accept Jesus as your Lord and savior. Then, you learn there’s a tribe on an island where about 50 people live, alienated from society. They will never ever learn about Jesus, and consequently, will never go to heaven. The guy then makes it his life’s mission to tell these people about Jesus, so they at least have the opportunity to go to heaven.
The fact that Americans have that low level of Religious literacy, or ability to comprehend the contradictions between the Bible and the contemporary world is a tragedy. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with believing in Christianity. But it demonstrates an extreme lack of contextual and historical comprehension, to think an Abrahamic religion would have any use or application to a hunter-gatherer society.
Even if you believe in Christianity, you can easily stop and think “what benefit is there to the Sentinelese people in believing in Jesus Christ?” The only applicable answer is that they won’t go to Hell, the most boorish reason to believe in a religion. If you look deeper into notions of sin, salvation, and trinity, they really have no applicable use to their society. Religion is an ideological technology. People have religious beliefs because it has something useful to them. And the Sentinelese surely don’t even have concepts that the American Christian tradition depends on, such as guilt.
It also requires a high level of delusion to (presumably) know your presence would introduce these people to disease, and see proselytizing them as more important. And this is in addition to all the colonial and missionary delusions the guy had.
Now, imagine it from the tribe’s perspective.
They hadn’t been contacted by outside humans in 12 years, when a fishing boat drifted onto their shores and the fishermen were killed and impaled on sticks, then stuck into the sand to face out to the ocean. The Indian Coast Guard arrived with helicopters to salvage the bodies from the sand. The Sentinelese threw spears at the helicopters, so the Indian Coast Guard lured the tribespeople to the other side of the island, then returned to get one of the bodies (they were unable to get the other).
Before that, the Indian government attempted contact with the tribe throughout the 90s. Before that, there were a few other contacts, most notably a National Geographic documentary crew in the 70s, where a member of the crew got a spear in his leg and they quickly left.
The parallel between aliens is obvious, but I’ll spell it out: their experience of being visited by the outside world is likely seen very similarly to how we would see extraterrestrials visiting us. If they only know the island, then it is the ultimate Outside coming into the Inside. The only equivalent of pure Outsideness for the modern world would be extraterrestrials.
It’s clear that the physical tragedy of the situation is the tribe being scared by an intruder, possibly exposed to disease, and then the related distress that comes from the Indian Coast Guard attempting to retrieve the body.
But it’s also a tragedy in the sense that horror movies or dramatic tragedies are tragedies. These genres depend on an encounter between incompatible and conflicting ideologies or elements. In Othello, the tragedy comes from the tension between Othello’s outsideness/foreignness and Iago’s psychopathy. Side note: many literary critics do believe that Iago was written to be a portrayal of a psychopath, which at the time was considered a turn away from conventional dramatic archetypes.
Slasher movies are an example of a tragic clash, where the two ideological elements that clash are both embodied: in Texas Chainsaw, the teens symbolize the next generation, struggling with the state of the U.S.’s economy, experiencing the death throes of American Keynesianism. Leatherface symbolizes the terror of recent unemployment, and the rest of the Leatherface family symbolizes the grotesque morph of familial-political relations. It’s a movie about the clash between these elements.
This can be seen in Greek tragedy, because Greek characters were heavily associated with concepts and ideas, and were more like personifications of those concepts than they were dramatic characters. A story in a mythological or folkloric mode is a study of ideas in conflicts, because mythological characters are more than just analogies to ideas, but personifications of ideas.
I think many elements from the Sentinelese / missionary story are elements that make a great horror story. The horror comes from pure ideology clashing with primitive, material-oriented ideology. The clash between (presumably) pre-fetishistic, pre-monarchistic, pre-agricultural culture, and contemporary, capitalist, monotheistic culture. There are about 500 million ways you could juxtapose what the missionary represents, and what the tribe represents, because in virtually every structural measure, they are diametrically opposed. This is, in many ways, why Lovecraft is considered a transcendent writer in the horror genre – because he crystallizes a core of the content of the genre: the bleak, all-consuming, emptiness in conflict with life. This conflict strikes to the core of any horrific conflict.
But more than anything, the useful things to take away from this situation impacts human history, and our conception of humanity. This story is essentially a person from the contemporary world time traveling to the primitive world.
For the tribe, it functionally is time travel, because, even though they surely have a different conception of time and history than we do, the missionary’s presence was simultaneously as alien as an extraterrestrial, while occupying a form they understand as human, which is the horrific characteristics that a time traveler embodies. Think about the movie The Village. [spoiler alert] In The Village, the big reveal is that it really isn’t a pseudo-medieval fantasy village, it was a fantasy village in the woods of the contemporary world. The villagers saw the outside world as extraterrestrial and un-worldly. The villagers had no conception of history beyond them, so the contemporary people feel as alien as aliens.
And this begs the question of humanity itself. Clearly, one only has to observe how typical right-wing people have inconsistent views of how humans ought to be treated. They will often say they support equality under the law, and meanwhile, the law isn’t explicitly racial, and in the form it’s written, it suggests equal enforcement. But conservatives will always defend the police and court system even when it’s oppressive and disproportionately effects certain groups.
To me, this suggests that people, on some level, will always have a spectrum of perceiving humanity. Unfortunately, for example, if you are an American, you probably see Americans as more human than Canadians. That sounds fucked up, but the impact would be negligible. Let’s say you’ve only met a few Canadians, and know more about Canadian stereotypes than Canadian people personally. You would cognitively absolutely see Canadians as humans, but you would see Canadians as “less human”, because you know about them as a group on a general, conceptual level, not as individual people.
This humanity spectrum is a natural, cognitive tool to understand the world. The problem is when people embrace this process of understanding politically. A right-wing American likely sees white American men as the humans, and the closer to that you are, the more human you are. A white Canadian man might be subjected to a few jokes, but is otherwise a white American man in their worldview. A white German man might be a little further removed, due to geography and language, but is still firmly within the realm of “human”.
But then, let’s say the person is a Honduran, middle-aged woman. Not only is she Latina, but she’s from a non-Mexico, central American country (that’s like, SUPER Mexico!). Now let’s say she is fleeing Honduras to move to the US. A right-wing person would not only consider her a nuisance, but (as we’ve seen from the caravan) would see her migration as an act of war.
Now imagine a white European corporate executive millionaire who wanted to move himself and his business to the US. Our government would bend over backwards for him to move here. Conservative media wouldn’t fearmonger about it, and if we ever heard about it, it would be from the conservative media, praising Trump for incentivizing a kindly, generous businessman to create jobs in the US.
This shows the difference between their conception of humanity, even if they would say they see all races as equally human. Anyway, though, I’ve said enough about why this is a tragedy. I might be ending this post abruptly, but I made all my points anyway.