Friday, February 26, 2016

Sage (well, sweetgrass) advice

     In a murder mystery I began reading the other night, a Native American police tracker ends up in the hospital after an encounter with a bear. A couple of his friends went to visit:

      The crowded room smelled herbally of smoke. Janice Inderland had burned a braid of sweetgrass and conducted a smudge ceremony to cleanse her brother's body of bad spirits.
      The nurse . . . had to shush them twice. Under ordinary circumstances she would have booted them out, allowing no more than three or four visitors at a time. But the patient was Native American. Chanting, sweetgrass incense, and standing room only were cultural norms that the hospital staff recognized.*

Cultural norms. Harold Little Feather's, like the rest of his peoples', were different from those of most westerners. The hospital ran, of course, on primarily western norms. Its staff, however, had learned that there were some things that couldn't necessarily be "normed" away. This can be a major challenge for us all, as many of our norms/assumptions are so ingrained in us that we can't imagine that they aren't universal.
      I have been reminded of this every January for the last several years when I'm invited to give an introductory lecture in a bioethics class.  I use, as a basis for the lecture, a theory called "Principlism", developed and applied to bioethics, by Tom Beauchamp and James Childress some years ago.**  It is a wonderful set of tools/criteria for helping make difficult decisions. But one of the "principles" is "Autonomy". Beauchamp and Childress try to claim that Autonomy is not the first/most important principle, but it does seem to undergird the others. Briefly, the assumption is that an individual has the (almost supreme) right to make decisions for him/herself. "Informed consent" may be another way of talking about the same thing.  But that assumption is a western, post-enlightenment, assumption.  It discounts a possible "divine claim" over the individual (which we see sometimes in religious reasons/prohibitions surrounding certain medical procedures).  But it also discounts other cultures' elevation of the rights of the "tribe" or "family" over those of the individual. Whose "norms" are right?
      Prior to my last opportunity to lecture to this class, I heard and read 
news item about the collision of cultural norms in India. The Jain religion--a very ancient tradition devoted to non-violence--holds as a high virtue a sort of suicide. When a person reaches the end of their "useful" life, it is honorable for them to cease taking nourishment and, thus, to die. The problem is that the colonial British imposed western ideas/prohibitions about suicide that became enshrined in Indian law. A very real collision of norms . . . and one could easily argue that the "new" (i.e., Western/British/Christian) supplanted the "ancient" (Indian/Hindu/Jain). But was the new . . . "better"? Or was it an exercise in hegemony of a norm -- "might makes right"?
      These sorts of collisions occur all the time. And our usual response is to judge others' norms in the light of our own -- and usually to privilege our own.  But as the world becomes "smaller", we will become "bigger" when we all recognize our system(s) may not hold all the answers. As a foundational document in the western tradition suggests 
"Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16.18). Sage advice.



* Keith McCafferty, The Gray Ghost Murders. Viking, 2013, p.16.
Tom L. Beauchamp and James F. Childress. Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 6th Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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