The World Until Yesterday: 2. Compensation for the Death of a Child

Following the schedule of our Reading Calendar

This chapter is centred in the way traditional societies manage peaceful conflict resolutions and how it differs from our modern justice systems. It begins explaining an interesting story about a boy killed by a car in New Guinea and how the victim’s and driver’s communities managed the situation.

Unlike modern societies, conflicts in little communities tend to involve people that are related in everyday live and that are going to live together in the future. The main objective, when a conflict arises, is not to determine who is wrong or right, but to “restore relationships and achieve emotional closure” that can allow the community to function with normality in the future and to avoid turning to violence which could have disastrous consequences.

Conflicts are always treated in the form of negotiation and there is not, in any case, an external power (chief, judge) that can impose a resolution. However, this negotiation, involves not only the individuals directly affected by the conflict but whole communities, clans, families, etc. The negotiation should end in the form of a “compensation” which should show the will of both parts to end the conflict and should close the issue and restore confidence between the involved parts.

Diamond goes in length to explain how all this differs from modern state organized justice systems which are thought to allow the resolution of conflicts involving unknown people with no previous and, probably, no future personal relationship among them. And this system allows to mitigate the level of violence that could generate such complex society.

Maintenance of peace within a society is one of the most important services that a state con provide. That service goes a long way towards explaining the apparent paradox that, (…), people have more or less willingly surrendered some of their individual freedoms, accepted the authority of state governments, paid taxes, and supported a comfortable individual lifestyle for the state’s leaders and officials. (p. 98)

In fact, the chapter seems in some places more a declaration of love to our modern justice system than an overview of traditional societies.

Our criminal justice system (unlike the civil one) shows the biggest distance from the traditional approach in the sense that, victim compensation and retribution, are not taken into account at all. Criminals break laws and are condemned consequently to foster deterrence, retribution or rehabilitation. It’s a business between the criminal and society as a whole. Justice is not a service to victims.

On the other side, Diamond hints at the possibility that we could try to foster the traditional negotiated resolution style in our modern world, especially when it involves conflicts between people closely related as in divorce or inheritance issues. In this cases, confidence restoration should be a priority and current court litigation achieves just the opposite: to destroy for ever personal relationships. But again, it seems to me, the author is full of reserves and far from convinced.

So, more “let’s thank the state” than “let’s learn from the salvages” again. And, I have to say, I have learn interesting things about how our modern justice system works and its logic. That was not what I expected from this book but is really welcomed.

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3 thoughts on “The World Until Yesterday: 2. Compensation for the Death of a Child

  1. I enjoyed this chapter more than the former one. This second chapter is more story driven and less data driven, so it makes a more attractive reading.
    And it turns almost philosophical. It reminds me of the classical debate on the nature of the state and the institution of the social pact, Diamond placing himself in between Rouseau’s good savage and Hobbes’ man is a wolf to man, but somehow close to Hobbes, I’d say.
    Like you say, Carlos, the chapter made me think about how is our legal system, and maybe that’s one of the aims of the book: to use traditional societies as a conceptual tool to take a fresh look towards our XXI world.
    Looks like the Tok Fisin quotes are here to stay, we’ll just have to get used to them…

  2. I think that I am beginning to understand why I like the books of Jared Diamond so much. He explains lots of elemental things of our world in a basic way as it was explained to an alien who just arrived here. These are the kind of things that, not only I should know, but I think that I know perfectly well when in fact I don’t. So I never take the time to learn about them and even I don’t feel I have to. Then Mr Diamond comes, repeats something 60 times until all my intellectual resistances to avoid hearing it fall down exhausted and I finally understand the 101 of the judicial system.

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