Apr 22, 2005

Moral Relativism in the Rainforest of Diversity

My flight would touch down in Kuching, Sarawak on the island of Borneo early one morning less than fifty years after the last of the White Rajahs, Charles Vyner Brooke and his family had finally ceded the State to the British Crown. This would become the first of many trips to Sarawak for me where I would eventually gain a deep affection and understanding of the people there.

The very first thing I noticed about Sarawak when I first arrived was how beautiful and green everything was and how fresh the air smelled. Both Malaysia and Island of Borneo are home to the World's Oldest Rainforest said to be over 140 million years old and with evidence of a civilization going back over 40,000 years.

But interestingly enough, Borneo and Sarawak were home to something else that I found intriguing as well. For the indigenous people of Borneo, the Dayak and the Iban tribes, were once headhunters whom have in the past been described by some as the most vicious and brutal cannibals who have ever inhabited our planet.

In my many trips to Sarawak over the years, I have got to know and befriend a great many individuals of the Bidayu, Dayak and Iban tribes, the descendents of the headhunters and cannibals, many whom have for the last several generations since embraced Christianity.

During the course of a few early trips I got to know and befriended a stunningly beautiful Dayak girl named Mary who worked at the Hilton Hotel Kuching. Over the course of a few months we got to know each other quite well and she invited me one June back to her grandparents longhouse to celebrate Gawai Dayak. This was my first trip out to the countryside in Sarawak and I was quite excited and yet a bit nervous to meet her family members for the first time. When we arrived, I noticed in the longhouse along the wall up near the ceiling, human skulls. I remember whispering to her later and asking about it and having her tell me "Oh don't worry about that, you are safe here. That was during my grandfather's time, but we are civilized now!". Her grandfather later explained to me that those were the skulls of a few Japanese soldiers that he had killed towards the end of World War II and some other skulls that had been passed down through the generations.

I would stay up that first night nervously laughing and drinking copious amounts of tuak with her grandfather, father and three brothers and in my drunkenness shamefully wondering to myself if the potent tuak might accidently trigger some sort of phyletic circuitry in the brains of my hosts where they could suddenly freak out about something and lop my head off. Eventually though I passed out drunk only to woken a few hours later by a rooster's crowing.

No one had ever mentioned cannibalism that night and yet I was told later that her grandfather had in fact partaken of human flesh in the past. He had since become a Christian and had asked and prayed for forgiveness of his sins. He died a few years later and I would like to hope that he is in heaven.

Cannibalism has in the past been a big part of this culture and practiced by the natives of the region for thousands of years. It would take an English sailor and explorer in 1841 by the name of James Brooke to finally enlighten these people and make them aware of the hideously grave sin against God and nature that they were in fact committing and yet, for this he would face much resistance. While James Brooke tried his best to be sensitive to the local culture, he was viewed at the time of being intolerant and divisive of imposing his own concept of morality and Judeo-Christian beliefs on the hapless natives of Sarawak in his attempt to civilize them.

Were the natives of Borneo not civilized already? How would Sir James Brooke be viewed in light of history today? Would history be kind to him or would he be labeled a bigot and an intolerant "cannibalphobe"?

From a philosophical viewpoint, how is it that the mere thought of cannibalism can seem so utterly repulsive to our society and yet that same society can now implore of us somehow to accept the belief that two male homosexuals using their reproductive organs to impale each other's bacteria-laden gastrointestinal tracts is supposedly an act of love?


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