Maybe you’ve seen it yourself. One of the many pieces of spirit-kitch floating about the net these days is a little gem called The Native American Ten Commandments. It might as easily be labelled an Indian Ten Commandments, or even the Native American Indian Ten Commandments.
…cause extra syllables make it all better.
Either way it’s just the sort of thing that goes with overly staged old photos or pastel-tinged paintings involving beautiful people and lots of feathers. To the left, you can see a poster version of the list. It is short on feathers, but totally cosmic, cause, well, Indians are good for that sort of thing.
That’s just one version of the native decalogue. Here is another! The list looks about the same, but the order seems to be different. Apparently, the order of this list isn’t as important to the Great Spirit as it is to the God of Abraham. I know, I know. Some of you are already saying these are the same thing.
But seriously, I don’t think so.
See, one of the many things that I typically admire about indigenous peoples is that they aren’t the sort of people who normally produce this sort of nonsense.
…or at least they weren’t historically. (Progress ruins just about everything.)
So what’s wrong with a decalogue of commandery goodness? Well we could start with the commandment theme. It contains a whole host of culture-specific assumptions about ethics most of which seem screamingly out of place here, not the least of them being that ideas about how one ought to behave come from some being of cosmic authority. This one of many respects in which the politics of kings comes screaming through the metaphors of modern Christianity. Ten commandments construe morality in terms of fealty to a liege-lord who gets to tell us how to behave. Whatever else the Lord is, he’s also a Lord, which is to say neither a Democrat nor a Republican. He tells us what to do, and doing His will is what defines our own morality. That is the logic of the Ten Commandments. This logic gets softened a bit in the Native American variant. We don’t exactly know who is commanding us. It might not even be the great spirit. One imagines, perhaps an elder who wishes us to show respect for the Great Spirit, which is at least a little more egalitarian than a God who starts his list of does and don’ts with a demand that we pay more attention to him than anyone else. So, yeah, it’s a little more egalitarian.
Tossing the commandment format out altogether would be a lot more egalitarian.
…and as far as I can tell, a lot more authentic. Maybe I’m missing something, like the history behind this particular decalogue. I wonder who produced it, and just what they hoped to accomplish with it. Suffice to say, it doesn’t strike me as having much connection to the traditions of any particular Native American people. It’s language and its metaphors are those of a generic pan-Indian culture, and in this case a pan-Indian culture as envisioned from the viewpoint of an outsider.
Do I object to the principles at stake here? Not particularly. Some of them sound rather cool. It’s the total package that sets off the red flags for me, not the least of reasons being its rather non-native packaging. What bothers me about this is the fact that some people don’t approach ethics in terms of a list of rules, much less imagine them to be the product of a cosmic legislator. The Native American decalogue invites us all to appreciate a kind of difference, but imposes an artificial similarity on the subject even as it pretends to acknowledge that difference.
And why ten? Seriously, can’t your ethics come in five or eights, or maybe even thirty-twos. Actually, I’m not a huge fan of listey philosophicals in general. The numbers always seem arbitrary, and along with that goes a lot of potential for contradiction, and very little potential for substantive understanding. It’s the matter-of-fact nature of such lists that seems to me an invitation to the most mechanical of moral sensibilities.
If there is a good place for such lists, I suspect it’s in less cosmic subject matters. They seem quite appropriate for a professional code of ethics, not the least of reasons that folks don’t usually expect a professional code of ethics to be complete. If your morality is dictated entirely by your job, then most folks would say you work to much. Then we just say; “Thou shalt get a life!”
…and thou better get on it, dammit!
Yes, I know I’m misusing ‘thou’. It’s not the worst thing I will do all day, not even in this post. Trust me!
Anyway, I don’t really mean to pick on native Americans here. They aren’t the only ones to fall for the lure of the decalogue (or perhaps to have someone else fall for it on their behalf). Apparently, there is a Ten Commandments of Colour Theory. Ted Talks seem to have their own, ..um, TED Commandments. Unnamed sources tell me there is a Ten Commandments of Journalism. Actors have their own Ten Commandments. So do bartenders. I would not have guessed, but it appears that even Propagandists have Ten Commandments. Even Nudists have Ten Commandments. Writers have one just for social networking. Is there a secret to a successful marriage? Yep, ten of them. Typography has its own decalogue. Apparently millennials have their own Ten Commandments. Following these Ten Commandments will lead to weight loss. …surely. Computer programmers have a decalogue, though presumably they will work on it sometime next week.
As I understand it, a list of Ten Commandments for Atheists has been floating around for awhile, though I assume the commandery parts of these Commandments is meant to be taken with a grain of salt. Actually, it seems there are a few decalogues for non-believers out there. Richard Dawkins seems to have produce one such list in The God Delusion. Penn Jillette has one too. I don’t remember reading it, but I’m told Bertrand Russell produced such a list long before him. Hitchens has his own list, so now his face appears on memes beside such a list. The guy at Daylight Atheism on Patheos blogs is not to be outdone. Oh look! The Atheism Reddit seems to have a Ten Commandments.
…it looks like someone else made that up.
…probably not a fan of the atheist reddit.
Hey, there is a Ten Commandments of Logic! Hm…
There is a Ten Commandments for Musicians. Better yet, Captain Beefheart once produced a Ten Commandments for Guitar Playing. Classical Musicians have their own Ten Commandments. Drummers have a list of Ten Commandments, but honestly, I think they have machines for that now.
How many commandments do RPG Gamers have? Ten. It appears that Gamemasters have ten of their own. Do game designers have ten commandments? Of course. But there is a different one for educational game designers. There is even a Ten Commandments specifically for video game menus. Game Inventors have one of their own.
Do Republicans have their own Ten Commandments? Yes, but apparently they didn’t write it. Or this one. Liberals don’t seem to have written theirs either. Elizabeth Warren once issued 11 Commandments for Progressives, cause apparently one of them is breaking the frame. Mostly, Republicans and Democrats argue about the Ten Commandments, but let’s not get into that.
I can only hope that I’ve broken at least three of them, but you can damned well bet that there is a Ten Commandments for bloggers. Actually, there seems to be two of them. No, Three. Make that four. Okay, five. Six? Okay, that’s really enough. No really, stop it! Seriously, stop it! I said STOP!
Someone here says that cats have a Ten Commandments, but they only follow it when they feel like it. Dogs have their own take on the Ten Commandments. I would look for a Ten Commandments of tropical fish, but I imagine it would just go like; “1) Gloop, 2) gloop, gloop.” Horses have a Ten Commandments. There is a Ten Commandments for pets in general.
Oh Hell, I haven’t even got to all the interesting or well known decalogues! This could take all day. …maybe even ten of them. But you get the idea. What’s fascinating about the proliferation of decalogetry, at least to me, is the seeming arbitraryness of the whole thing. Even within the Abrahamioc religions, the Ten Commandments have less to do with actual scripture than pop-Christianity. Compared to its source material, the Ten Commandments are simplified and trimmed of questionable content (one might even say that ‘politically correct’, but of course that phrase is only to be used in attacking liberals). Still, the notion caught on, and caught on so well it just keeps generating itself, time and again. Some of its children are meant to be taken more seriously than others, but an awful lot of people seem to fall quite easily into the notion that ethics begins with a list of ten principle to be declared into existence by someone (with or without the authority to do so).
In fact, maybe I’ll have a go at it myself:
The Ten Commandments of Decalogue Building
1: The Number of Commandments Shall be Ten.
2. Ten shall be the number of the commandments.
3) Thou shalt not have 11 Commandments, nor 9, except that…
4 – No Monty Python References!
5 ~ Numbers 2 through 5 are bullshit. Start over!
2b -> …or not to be. That is the question.
3b, Okay, I’ll let you get by with that one.
4b That which is numbered shall be commandments. Simple oughts and issez shall not count in the counting except insofar as one reconstructs them into shalls and shall nots, or even to fuck offs.
5c = No, not fuck-offs, dammit. Do this right!
6 This is hard.
6.2 –You’re wasting time. Do that one over!
6.3 …Okay, …No matter the subject, all that is deemed worthy of the counting shall end in an exclamation mark
7)) All commandments are to be read in the voice of Charlton Heston. Of course!
8:: The decalogue will not be televised.
- 9 You’re off topic again.
(10) I really can’t do this.
11 Cause my rules go to 11.