Sociology of Knowledge & the “Discovery” of the Americas

The story of exploration, “discovery,” conquest, and colonization of the western hemisphere By Europeans is incredibly important and incredibly interesting. The explorers were astonishingly brave. They sailed towards what many people thought was the edge of the world where they would fall off. Yet they did it. They plowed ahead no matter what the dangers. They were brilliant in their adaptions. Yet, also importantly, there was a dark side to the impact of conquest and colonization. That dark side, in my view, grew out of the soil of the Original Sin. Often it showed the utter brutality of the conquerors. The Christians, for examples, seemed profoundly barbarian.

We must always remember that all “knowledge” is coloured by ideology. This is what the sociology of knowledge is all about.  We see the world through the invisible lens of our own beliefs and presumptions. It is very difficult to avoid this. As Wade Davis in his brilliant book The Wayfarers, said “Knowledge is rarely completely divorced from power, and interpretation is too often an expression of convenience.”

The study of anthropology was born out of a deep attitude of superiority, as did so much of “knowledge.”  People believed in an evolutionary model in which 19thcentury men like Herbert Spencer saw that societies developed in a linear progression from savagery to barbarism to civilization.

In time anthropologists learned a lot more and abandoned the error of their earlier ways. As Davis, reported,

“Such transparently simplistic and biased interpretation of human history, though long repudiated by anthropologists as an intellectual artifact of the nineteenth century, as relevant today as the convictions of Victorian clergy who dated the earth at a mere 6,000 years, has nevertheless proved to be remarkably persistent, even among contemporary scholars.’

Davis gave a powerful example of this in a  Canadian book, Disrobing the Aboriginal History: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, that ridiculed the very idea that the original inhabitants of the Americas had anything useful to offer to the Europeans they encountered. Here is what that book said, “Never in history has the cultural gap between two people’s coming into contact with each other been wider.” The profundity of this ignorance is astounding, and I will have a lot to say about how wrong this idea was as we meander through this issue. That does not mean the idea is not common and deeply pervasive.

It is pervasive because it is deeply embedded in the ideology of supremacy that grew out of the fundamental sin–White Male Human Supremacy has been the implicit underlying ideology of the west for centuries. It cascaded through the generations. It blinds everyone under its influence, both the alleged superiors and the presumed inferiors. Everyone has been infected. It makes the privilege invisible.

For generations indigenous peoples have been taught they are inferior. For generations white people have been taught they are superiors. And likewise, men are superior, and women inferior. Or that Christians are superior to all others. And finally, and still largely underappreciated, that humans are superior and animals and nature inferior. These attitudes are so pervasive that it is almost impossible to dissent. These assumptions are invisible. They imbue nearly everything that happens in the west. Any dissent from the predominant ideology is automatically seen as irrational if not insane. As Herbert Marcuse noted, dominant groups rarely acknowledge anything that undermines their dominance. They just don’t see it.

Members of the dominant group do not even see their privilege. This is just who they are.  Only those who relentlessly try to act like ideal impartial observers with fellow feeling and are armed with critical thinking skills are able to extract themselves from the influence of the dominant ideology and even then, only with great difficulty.

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