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In a crazy world, can PNG have its own Age of Enlightenment?

Could James Marape be the harbinger of PNG’s age of enlightenment, with a genuine belief in truth, justice and fairness for all


ADELAIDE - When I first arrived in Papua New Guinea in 1969 I was in search of excitement and adventure which, as it turned out, was not hard to find.

To the extent that I understood my primary role as a brand new liklik kiap [junior patrol officer], it was to help bring to the people of PNG peace, good government and what I unquestioningly believed to be the benefits of western civilisation.

As a single man with no money, I carried very little physical baggage with me. With the benefit of hindsight, I was carrying more than a little intellectual and philosophical baggage, which I had mostly unknowingly acquired during both my formal and informal education.

In the late 1950s and 1960s I was taught by mostly young teachers who, predominantly, were born either during or immediately after World War II.

They were the first of the so-called ‘baby boomers’ and collectively were heavily influenced by ideas about the world that had first arisen during the Enlightenment, which is usually said to have commenced around the year 1500.

The ideas they impressed upon me and my fellow students included a belief in the primacy of science as a means of acquiring real knowledge and, just as importantly, of eradicating the superstitions, fears and ignorance that had for so long afflicted humankind.

They shared a common belief that education was an important means by which humans could acquire the wisdom to lead good, happy, worthwhile and productive lives.

There also was a strong belief in the idea that humans should be free to express their views, pursue their dreams and go about their business unhindered by others - provided they did no harm to anyone - and that the law should provide the basic framework within which this freedom could be exercised.

It flowed naturally from such a belief system that the products of science were regarded as inherently good things and that their use contributed towards creating a better world for all.

For example, no-one contested the idea that vaccination was anything but beneficial. After all, many students had seen or even experienced the impact of diseases like tuberculosis, polio and measles, so we were well aware of the potentially devastating consequences of such diseases.

We willingly accepted the introduction of chemicals like chlorine and fluoride into the water supply because science explained how chlorine ensured our water was safe to drink and fluoride would prevent our teeth from rotting.

In a similar way, we believed in the virtues of DDT as a way of eradicating malaria, that the widespread use of herbicides in agriculture was a good thing, and that plastic was a wonderfully useful invention.

In short, we uncritically accepted that progress, be it in science, technology or social reform, invariably was a good thing.

Sadly, many of us now have come to understand that the products of science and technology are not universally benign and that social change, however desirable it may seem, is sometimes both hotly contested and traumatic.

This understanding has shaken the confidence of some people in the validity and efficacy of science and simultaneously encouraged the resurgence of ideas that have no basis in science or even in any demonstrable facts.

These include the anti-vaccination movement, so-called nutritionists encouraging people to consume extreme diets, a proliferation of all sorts of so-called natural therapies of highly dubious efficacy and, of course, the climate change denialists.

Interestingly, these and many other anti-scientific or pseudo-scientific ideas seem to have largely gripped the so-called developed world. The developing world, for the moment at least, seems largely immune to the various intellectual absurdities now plaguing what I once thought of as the civilised world.

For example, in places like PNG, where the sometimes appalling impact of communicable disease is a daily reality, the anti-vaccination movement seems to have little traction. It seems that lived reality sometimes can be a powerful antidote to wilful ignorance.

As for diet, the majority of people in PNG live a subsistence lifestyle, so they suffer an acute shortage of Big Macs, smashed avocado and chai lattes. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Paleo Diet or 5:2 Fast Diet are not prevalent.

As an aside, I find the notion of a Paleo Diet especially risible. The celebrity chef who invented this diet claims it to be reflective of how humans ate in Palaeolithic times. Clearly, he knows little about what humans actually ate in order to survive in the pre-agricultural era.

The Paleo Diet, radical vegan movement and associated animal liberation movement are expressions of an outlook not grounded in science or even the lived experience of human kind over many millennia, although their objections to deliberate animal cruelty rightly enjoy wide public support.

Notwithstanding the latter comment, I think their ideas are the confections of affluent, cosseted, urbanised westerners who know little or nothing about what hunting or gathering actually means in real life.

Papua New Guineans do know about this because, for many of them, this is their lived experience. I wonder how many adherents to the Paleo Diet or radical vegans would willingly adopt a genuine hunter-gatherer life style as practiced in rural and remote PNG?

So, in the early 21st century, far too many people living in the so-called civilised world are falling back into ways of thinking that are essentially medieval or worse.

Utterly discredited and pernicious ideas such as race theory have reared their ugly heads once more.

The internet has spawned groups like the malignantly misogynistic mob of misfits who call themselves involuntary celibates, as well as the so called social media influencers who get paid to advertise stuff to their gullible followers, not to mention rabid gun enthusiasts (who, gratifyingly, sometimes shoot themselves by accident).

And, of course, there’s the usual collection of batshit crazy religious fanatics.

I believe that today’s rampant cynicism, relativism and preference for irrational beliefs over demonstrable facts are poisoning the world’s democracies.

PNG appears to be mercifully free of all this at the moment.

Perhaps life is so hard and demanding for so many Papua New Guineans that they have neither the time nor the inclination to indulge in phantasmagorical nonsense.

Attending to the garden or building a new house or finding enough money for buying even very basic necessities is the priority, not speculating about whether vaccination is a good thing or pondering the supposed dangers of fluoridation.

Given that I and many others besides were accidental or sometimes knowing carriers of enlightenment ideas, I am cautiously hopeful that many Papua New Guineans have been successfully imbued with them. On the whole, they are good ideas and universally applicable too.

If his words are to be believed, new PM James Marape could be the harbinger of PNG’s own age of enlightenment, where a genuine belief in truth, justice and fairness for all, as well as the efficacy and utility of the scientific method, truly guides the government in its thinking and finally begins to be translated into action.

I guess that time will tell if his words come from the heart or are merely wind. If he and his colleagues actually back their words with deeds then it might truly be said that an age of enlightenment has finally come to PNG.

With luck, Papua New Guinea will be free of self-serving whinging, self-promotion, hypocrisy and sheer bullshit that currently afflicts the supposedly civilised world.

I certainly hope so.


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Paul Oates

If you think tribalism has disappeared in so-called western culture Philip, just look at last night's State of Origin clash.

Cultural differences are sometimes subliminal in practice but still rule the human race.

Those that seek to rise to power often appeal to this part of our DNA to stir up allegiance with notions of nationalism and even sometimes seek fanatical adherence.

Philip Kai Morre

The PNG worldview is mixed up with empirical science, spiritualism and personalism.

Scientific and medical knowledge was lacking to explain the cause and effect of sickness and the treatment of diseases.

People looked for someone to blame for the cause of deaths, sicknesses and accidents. Even natural causes were attributed to witchcraft, black magic and causes by evil spirits etc.

The cultural values and norms control behaviour and regulate ethics or morality but was rather remote and isolated.

Frequent violence and immorality was experienced but was solved immediately by the people themselves creating peace and harmony among individuals and the community.

In PNG people were more organised into groups like families, extended families, sub-clans, clans, tribes and language groups which made it easier for kiaps to do their work effectively.

Social stratification and the hierarchical structure of our society was found and there was a chain of command and authority from leaders to common people.

Every person belonged to a sub-clan, clan and tribe with identity, recognition, values, and standing in the community.

In the white men's world cultural identity and ethnic grouping seemed to disappear in the midst of modernisation.

Migration to other countries created a cultural or traditional vacuum except for people like the Jews who kept their traditions and identify alive wherever they went.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Couple of points Chris.

I think that 'baby boomers' refers to the children born just after WW2 and up to the early 1960s.

That makes us baby boomers and our teachers, who were born 20+ years previously, something else, maybe children of the Depression.

Also, Papua New Guinea is not entirely free of "irrational beliefs over demonstrable facts" because much of the population is religious. Perhaps not so much of the "batshit crazy" kind but adherents nevertheless.

In the companion article above I note that James Marape's goal of a rich, black and Christian nation is very problematic.

Much of the Pacific region is religious, it fits in well with their older traditional beliefs and by and large it is a good thing.

I think it's an evolutionary phase in the regions intellectual development which will one day pass and be replaced by a thinking secular society with a strong ethical bias.

In our society I think that the fanatical, crazy vegans and the rabid anti-Adani, ban coal mob etc. are harbingers of this new secular ethics.

Something really significant happened in the last few days too. Donald Trump pulled a strike on Iran because he didn't want to kill anyone. Hopefully its not another of his lies.

If it's true it's a significant step.

Footnote: The generation preceding the 'baby boomers' is known as the Silent Generation, presumably because it was rendered mute by being born in the hard times of the Great Depression and World War II. I am one of it, but the silent bit failed to take root - KJ

Paul Oates

A good expose Chris. Thanks for the inspiration to do some collective navel gazing.

The essence of human nature is that the more you scratch the surface, the more it all starts to look the same.

From the earliest recorded history, and I refer to cave and rock paintings, it would appear that humans have believed in the supernatural in order to explain what they don't or can't understand.

When we first went to PNG we were amazed at how PNG societies were able to maintain order without the use of a police force. We now know that a plethora of spiritual beliefs and customs kept traditional PNG people in line, possibly far more rigidly than our so called modern societies can do now.

It seems as if humans can't manage without some cause or creed to follow. Sometimes even the claim that they have no beliefs is an acceptable alternative.

Human societies either have an accepted code of ethics or they tend to lapse back into chaos. It isn't hard to imagine therefore, that in order to advance past an extended family group, human societies must have some collective beliefs. This tendency clearly developed as part of our evolving DNA in a recognition of a Darwinian process that tends to favour the fittest in order to survive.

So perhaps PM Marape is correct and that PNG needs some form of objective or mantra to aim for, so that progressive achievement can in fact be measured against it?

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