Tuesday, July 22, 2008

They steal skulls over there

There are thieves, there are robbers - and then there are the skull stealers.

No, we're not thinking of the recent Indiana Jones movie, which featured an outsized crystal skull along with a lot of hokum about aliens and psychic rays and whatnot. Rather, the Associated Press recently reported on a ring of grisly crooks who would invade cemeteries in the dead of night and dig up graves in order to retrieve skulls and femurs, for US$620 per head (literally). The skulls would be either ground into powder for various potions or used in bizarre initiation rites. Anyway, the police got wise to the operation after people began complaining about relatives' graves being violated: A couple of days ago, eight men were nabbed and a nice stash of human remains recovered.

All this happened in Gabon, in central Africa.

Careful now. What was your response when we fed in that last fact? Was it something along the lines of 'Well, that's just the sort of thing we can expect in the Dark Continent'? If so, you are in danger of failing the little test that we've sneakily set up. For isn't there something just a little bit presumptuous about dividing people up into 'ordinary folks like ourselves' and 'the more primitive lot over there'? No, it's not likely you thought about it in such terms. But that's what it comes down to, surely?

Mind you, we're as prone as anyone else in the so-called developed world to falling into this mental trap. And though our child-rearing adventure has only completed its 13th week, we are on guard - in the hope of transmitting as few of our unfair mental colourings to Sonny as possible. It won't be easy: Skullduggery, so to speak, was only an example. We have a whole soup of prejudices swimming about in the murk of our minds: Hidden bents towards prejudging younger/ older folk, richer/ poorer people, overachievers/ underachievers and Heaven knows who else. Again, we're not carrying about fully-formed theoretical positions towards whole classes of people. It's about broad attitudes that emerge in specific cases - though it's precisely in specific cases that we should be chary of applying generalisations.

By the way, it's no excuse to say that some of our prejudices can be tied to truths. It could well be that a global headcount would show that the world's heaviest concentration of skull-potion drinkers is to be found in central Africa (though it might also be a borough of Queens, for all we know). But when we say something like, 'Well, that's what one would expect', we're really importing a whole web of sentiments and dismissive attitudes. And eventually, these affect what we think about more urgent matters, such as the point of directing aid to Africa, say, or intervening in vicious civil wars, or even the character of immigrants from a given part of the world.

Still, we admit to wondering what one of these skull cocktails would taste like...