Criticisms of a prominent BBC broadcaster, who made an offensive, racist remark a couple weeks ago about what he calls “primitive” people, keep reverberating. Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 program “Moral Maze,” Michael Buerk said, “the only really primitive societies to survive into the modern age are the tribes in the remote parts of New Guinea, and whenever they come across a stranger they kill them.”
Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International (SI), took offense immediately. He was able to place an opinion piece in The Independent on Friday , Feb. 27, that excoriated Mr. Buerk’s comment. Corry asks, rhetorically, if protesting the use of words like “primitive,” when describing traditional societies, isn’t just another example of so-called “political correctness?”
Corry answers his own question by arguing that terms such as “primitive,” “stone age,” or “savage” often directly lead to the destruction of societies and peoples who are given those labels. Corporations and governments use terms like those to marginalize and remove indigenous people from their lands when they are in the way of enterprises that will benefit the wealthy—and perhaps the majority. Removing inconvenient people frees the lands and their resources for exploitation by outsiders.
People in power often use the term “development,” Corry argues, to justify brutal policies of removing minority peoples from their lands. In his opinion piece, Corry rebuts the notion that the societies of New Guinea are primitive: he maintains that they were practicing agriculture long before the people of Britain.
He admits that some of the cultural practices of New Guinea may seem barbaric, but so are some of the activities of people in the West—and in all societies around the world. The real issue is that the terminology of denigration such as Buerk used can lead to an acceptance of policies that lead to the persecution of communities. Corry castigates the government of Indonesia for its brutal policies in the West Papua part of New Guinea.
In a press release last week, SI kept up its criticism of the terminology that destroys societies. It singled out the destruction of the G/wi and G//ana of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve by the government of Botswana under the pretext of “developing” them. The government maintains that they were forcibly removed from their lands and moved into resettlement camps for their own good, despite the fact that they have been dying from alcoholism, diseases and hopelessness ever since.
The two San, or Bushmen, societies won a prominent case in Botswana’s highest court in October 2006, but that government continues to prevent them from returning to their homelands. The Botswana government continues to claim that their actions are solely in the best interests of the people themselves, but their denial of even the right to have water belies their claims. The government recently awarded a contract to open diamond mining near a settlement of the indigenous people. The diamond mining company was allowed to drill boreholes for water for its own use, but it was forbidden from providing any of that water to the nearby community.
SI could have used numerous other examples of governmental persecution of minority societies—the Chewong, the Kadar, the Lepchas, and so on. The news release mentioned that a human rights organization in West Papua, Elsham, also had condemned Mr. Buerk’s remarks as “regurgitating racist stereotypes.” The controversy continued in the media throughout last week.