Jonathan Brun

Written tradition vs. spoken word

Words are not real. In his very interesting take on Canadian history, John Raulston Saul (my review here) proposes that the canadian style of governing is heavily inspired by the Amerindian oral tradition. He claims that Canada stands on three pillars – english, french and amerindian. To support his claim, he cites the Delgamuukw supreme court decision that allowed for the use of oral proof, not just written proof.

The trouble with the written word is that it can be used in so many ways – it can easily be taken out of context and even when it is found inside a larger document, sometimes amongst thousands of pages of context, it can still be taken to mean something entirely different from its original intent.

A fascinating case was the prosecution of a drug dealer in the United States. This drug dealer was engaging in an exchange of drugs for a gun. Under American law, if firearms are “used” in a drug deal, the punishment is far more severe than if no weapons are involved. In this fellow’s case he was sentenced to 30 years of jail because he “used” a firearm in his drug deal. The entire case, and appeals (all the way to the Supreme Court), rested on the meaning of the word “use”. In a 5-3 decision, he was found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in jail. This was based on the fact that “use of a firearm” included any use that was material to the drug deal. Of course, the original intent of the law was to punish violent drug deals that used firearms as weapons, but that lack of precision did not withstand the prosecution’s ability to twist the word. The written word, is the written word. This case is well discussed in the Philosophy bites podcast, Stephen Neale on Meaning and Interpretation – Philosophy Bites.

In an oral based society, it is very difficult to take things out of context. History, laws, rules and other cultural institutions are constantly evolving as they pass from one generation to another. However, to pass from one generation to another and to be enforced in the present time, the rules must be agreed to by the parties involved. On the other hand, written text can very easily be manipulated by the next generation or by another party with different interests at heart.

Contrary to the this situation, the actors applying orally transmitted rules and history must agree on its meaning, they cannot simply repeat a written word – because it does not exist. That need for agreement as to the meaning of a rule or tradition forces compromise, understanding and flexibility to the situation at hand. This fundamental difference between the oral and written word lead to very different societies.

Not only does a written tradition allow for manipulation, it removes our responsibility for intelligence and wisdom by falsely claiming that we can write down all the rules needed. Consequently, we have millions of pages of laws on every imaginable subject, yet we far too often fail to apply the true intent of those laws. Despite our attempts to write all possible situations down, and close all loopholes, new circumstances will arise making our previous reflections inadequate. It is a futile attempt to outsource our responsibility for reason and compromise to a document. (see these excellent TED talks on the issue: Barry Swartz on our loss of wisdom,  Philip K. Howard: Four ways to fix a broken legal system).

Canada, having endorsed the validity of the oral tradition in court cases has departed from the European tradition and created an entirely new way of dealing with history, tradition and laws. For that, we should be very grateful.

Published on August 1, 2010

Review: James Cameron’s Avatar’s Failed Message

James Cameron’s Avatar has two fundamental problems. Most criticism centers around the simple story-line, but beyond simplicity there is something more profoundly wrong. Fundamentally, the film departs too far from reality – I am not referring to the aliens, special effects or foreign planet. The film does two things which do not hold up to inspection. First, it presents a caricature of both the indigenous and the foreigners rather than a nuanced portrait of conflicting interests. Second, it pretends that a small, poorly equiped group of individuals can do head on battle with a superiour force and win – that just does not happen.


The film portrays the ruthless conqueror, hungry for gold, against a peaceful and harmonious native communities. This idealistic view of native tribes, the noble savage, presented by Rousseau and other enlightenment figures simply does not hold up to inspection. Many studies of indigenous tribes demonstrate very high levels of violence. While resource hungry conquerors have many crimes to account for, they also bring technology, medicine and new ideas.

Through the alien world, Cameron clearly hopes to help us realize the nature of our crimes. Placing people and events in a new setting can sometimes help us see their true nature; however, most Avatar viewers came away with little new morality. Cameron has changed the world, but he keeps pushing a known stereotype. The average person knows modern civilization abuses nature and minorities and the sensitive native is in touch with nature. This is well laid out in films such as Dances with the Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, Pocahontas and others. Emphasizing the most known characteristics of a people simply reinforces the stereotype instead of dispelling it. If we really want people to realize our common societal problems (pollution, health-care, violence..), we need to show them the unexpected in both the dominated and the dominator.


Avatar fails to enlighten us because its story conflicts with our history. On earth, when the weak fight a vastly superiour force they rarely emerge victorious. When they do, it is not through a head on battle on the conquerors terms – but rather through guerilla tactics (Vietnam), non-violent protest (India, Civil Rights in the US) and this always takes a long, long time. There are examples of David vs Goliath, but perhaps it does not happen like Avatar – take for example, the fight against South African Apartheid.

In Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, “A Long Walk to Freedom”, he recounts his childhood in a traditional african village with a benevolent ruler. He both confirms and dispels the tribal stereotype through the description of rituals and injustices between people in these villages. Still a young boy, Mandela, leaves the village and enters the oppressor’s system of schools and institutions. After years of admiring the white man for his technological advances and institutions, he eventually realizes the true nature of South Africa. It is a country where the blacks are servants to the whites. Their submission to the whites is not due to any particular inferiority; the whites simply arrived and overwhelmed them militarily, politically and economically.

After his studies, Mandela embarks on a struggle against white rule, and quickly realizes of the odds he is facing. He struggles through both non-violence and violence, ending up in jail for over twenty years. Throughout the struggle, he never compromises his morals, always indulges the enemy in patient explanations of the struggle and eventually shows the world why white rule is bad. The story of Mandela is similar to other freedom fighters – King, Gandhi, and others before them. To defeat a vastly greater opponent, one must be patient, stubborn, and infinitely resourceful.

Avatar denies the challenge of freedom struggles by compressing the Naavi’s struggle in time, emotion, and complexity. Story book endings with the natives rising up, confronting the oppressor and emerging victorious never happen.

Whenever a guerilla force fights against an overwhelming power, it takes two things to succeed – time and effort. Never does a frontal assault work. By portraying this tactic as victorious, Cameron reinforces completely unrealistic expectations that play to the advantage of the dominant force. The dominant power wants you to play be their rules, but the only way to beat them is to change the playbook.

Avatar is an amazing feat of engineering and art, but it fails to convey the message Cameron wishes us to understand: Our insatiable thirst for resources is consuming the world.

Two possible endings would have been far more instructive to the world. In one scenario, the natives are annihilated and we mine the resources, this is a sad, but common reality on earth. In another, the natives embark on a long and treacherous fight using non-violence and violence to show to the human population their own faults – eventually converting them to the cause. Though those endings may not be typical crowd pleasers, perhaps they would have been more instructive.

Published on March 10, 2010