Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The cannibal: the universal boogeyman

(Brian Schalcosky/Flickr)

Perhaps this piece of information is obvious to some, and a bombshell to others, but it needs to be said:

Cannibalism isn’t real.

Alright, that exact statement may not be entirely true. I’m not a ‘cannibalism truther.’ After all, there is no party like a Donner Party. Rather, it’s more accurate to say that ‘cultural cannibalism’ doesn’t exist. Across the planet, wherever humans have existed, no society has made the consumption of their own species a cornerstone of their cultural practices.

An essential book on this topic, William Arens’ “The Man-Eating Myth,” analyzes the claims made by European settlers like Christopher Columbus, Antonio Vespucci and Hans Staden on the rituals practiced by indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, Mexico, Brazil, Sub-Saharan Africa and New Guinea and finds no real credible evidence to back up these smears.

Cannibalism is not the focal point of any religious custom or tradition. It is, along with pedophilia and incest, a universal taboo. So, the question remains—if no human society practices cannibalism, why do some so readily accept its existence? Why do cannibals, from Baba Yaga to Cronus, act as the central monsters behind so many horror narratives and spooky folk tales? Cannibals may not be real, but belief in them is, and the willingness to accept that certain groups are man-eaters because their ways appear alien has led to horrific results. The cannibal acts as the ultimate other.

From a philosophical standpoint, this universal demonization of an otherwise fictional entity makes sense. The consumption of one’s kin symbolically acts as a betrayal of the self. Historically-speaking, nevertheless, obsession over who is and is not a cannibal has led to genocide, enslavement and cultural erasure. The dominant culture—that which carries the greater political and economic power—always has the luxury of applying the ‘cannibal’ label onto the non-dominant one.

One need only look throughout history to see instances of this mentality in action. During the rise of Christianity, the polytheistic Romans smeared Christians as cannibals (partly because of a misinterpretation of what consuming the Eucharist entails) and used this smear as justification for widespread torture.

Once Christians accessed the keys to power in the Western World, they needed an oppressed lower class to sustain themselves. This oppressed class came in the form of European Jewry. One of the most popular forms of propaganda directed against Jews was ‘blood libel,’ which predicated itself on the baseless conspiracy theory that Jews abduct gentile children and bake their blood into matzo. It may sound like a ridiculous claim to modern ears, but it resonated well with a population that already harbored extremely anti-Semitic sentiments, and provided the justification for constant pogroms, exclusion from the labor force and forced conversions.

When Christian Europe set its sights toward the so-called “New World,” the numerous indigenous populations that already inhabited it fared even worse. Ludicrously ostentatious tales of savage tribes that feasted on their own as part of pagan rituals were popularly reported in the diaries of explorers like Columbus and Vespucci, despite little trustworthy documentation to support these claims.

Although remembered as explorers, it is important to remember in reality that these people were more or less commissioned private mercenaries tasked to find gold for whatever monarchy they were in service of.

Unfortunately for Columbus, there was no gold to be found on Cuba. Interestingly, a recurring narrative found in Columbus’s journals is that throughout his interactions with various Taino tribes, each tribe would insist that although they have no gold, there would happen to be a rival tribe on the other side of the island that did, and, even worse, they feasted on the flesh of their kin.

Soon enough, Columbus was bounced around across the Caribbean like a human ping pong ball, with each tribe redirecting him to another with a similar narrative attached to it. Given the eventual eradication of the Taino as a people, this tribalism did not serve their ultimate interests, (even if ultimately the moral culpability obviously does not fall on them) and Columbus, his mind already poisoned by preconceived notions of Euro-Christian hegemony proliferated these stories for his European audience and benefactors.

As anyone who pays attention to how demographic data has shifted from 1492 through 2017 can attest, these lies did not bode well for any Native American—from the top of Alaska to the tip of Chile. One loses their humanity once it is believed that they feast upon other humans, and these old tropes fuel the fires of slavery, cultural erasure, land theft and genocide.

In her book “From Communion to Cannibalism,” Maggie Kilgour argues that “the definition of the other as cannibal justifies its oppression, extermination, and cultural cannibalism by the rule ‘eat or be eaten.’” In the eyes of the ‘villains,’ anyone who is not ‘us’ is an enemy, and anyone who is an enemy is, ironically, meat for the slaughter.

From the Taino to the ancient Greeks to medieval Christians to white supremacist colonizers, the cannibal has acted as the most recurring worldwide antagonist. It’s difficult to kill an enemy with a human face. Therefore, it becomes necessary for the ruling class, as part of their financial schemes, so the foot soldiers of oppression hold no moral compunctions about the atrocities that they commit against their fellow humans.

People simplify their characterizations of others because “some people are inferior” is often an easier pill to swallow than “people are different.” Solidarity between disparate groups is possible, but it can only come when basic humanity is recognized by all parties. For the powers that be, such coalition-building is a far more frightening horror tale than a roasted leg on a spit.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @nate_taskin.

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  • S

    ShawOct 30, 2017 at 1:10 pm

    Sounds like something a cannibal would write to throw people off his trail

  • S

    Stephanie HigginsOct 26, 2017 at 10:27 pm

    I’ve been waiting for this piece since Raw came out. An important exploration of how we mark as monsters/unhuman those we whose supposed social deviance we do not understand or as an assertion of moral authority over groups we deem savage or unfit to self-govern. Thank you, this was v thought-provoking discussion of a common cultural narrative.