The Cancer in Our Communities

Robert J. Gregory

In a remote part of Tanna, an island in the South Pacific chain now called Vanuatu, I found people who knew of and used a plant, similar to mistletoe, in various herbal treatments when I lived there some years ago. This particular plant grew rapidly in the tropical rain forests, but only at the top of other trees. Called nakiskis in the Nvhaal language, this parasite was entirely dependent upon the host tree for life, and in return, nakiskis slowly but invariably strangled the host. Surprise, however, for once the host died, so too did the nakiskis.

Not surprisingly, the same name, nakiskis, is applied by these Nvhaal speaking people to Europeans, that is, visitors from overseas, that is, the white man. "They ride on our backs," an informant told me, "just like the nakiskis plant rides on trees. It would be fine if they had regard for us, for our lives and ways of life. But, they do not, they think only of themselves," he added. Another informant added, "just like the nakiskis, eventually it kills the tree, and in so doing, it will kill itself. But white man never listened to reason," he laughed, recognizing he was talking sensibly to me and amused at the insider's joke between us. I knew then I had been accepted by the people as part of their social group.

The situation of a parasitical plant is much like that of the disease, cancer. One or a clump of cells go berserk, expanding and multiplying, drawing strength from the rest of the organism. Rather than cooperating in a symbiotic relationship with the whole, the clump begins to take all it can get, irrespective of the long term well-being of the organism. The clump grows, but also spreads, sending particles off to other parts of the body to colonize. I thought about how well cancer paralleled nakiskis, sucking strength from the host, spreading and expanding, until both died. Perhaps aided by genetic or physiologic or environmental factors, cancer and nakiskis spread out to achieve the same inevitable effect.

In watching trees struggle with the added weight of nakiskis or people cope with and die from cancer, one learns to respect the power of parasites, for they are or seem to be inexorable and unstoppable, except upon the death of the host. Sending out metastases, reoccurring even if surgically exorcised, resisting heavy chemical treatments and even radioactivity, cancer is a formidable and deadly foe. As one of the major forms of human death, the symbolism cannot be easily shed or avoided. The dread associated with the name and fact of being diagnosed with the disease is rightfully extreme.

Parasites in the Community

Psychologists have a role of examining the status of communities, to observe and study the processes and structures, and to predict or even intervene in ways that enable communities to survive, grow, and thrive. Communities, like trees and individual persons, should maintain their satisfactory life ways for all their inhabitants. But like other psychologists, I am well aware that human communities have what appears to be a cancer growing within, an epidemic that is raging beyond control. Sad to say, this blight is destroying our human communities as surely as nakiskis kills trees, as surely as cancer kills individuals.

Those who survive cancer know full well they have fought a hard battle, with luck on their side. It is not a matter of virtue, or right and wrong, or fancy words and ideas. Rather, it is luck, the type of cancer, the speed with which it is identified, the sacrifices that were endured in the battle, and so on. Thus a psychologist, pondering the health and long term well being of a community, has plenty of metaphors and similes. These and similar ideas can be used to conceptualize what happens, and perhaps also, to plan for what should happen.

The powerful and the elite have long been with us. The kings and midas like creatures of literature and fable have played an on-going role in all of human history. Driven by the goal of amassing wealth, or power, or both, these human appearing creatures suck the life blood of the other people residing in the community like predators. Nazi like, they gain power and then seek to accrete more and more power, until they can rule the masses, or even the world, or as much of it as they can conceive. Some were born with or trained to have skills over new technologies - spears, guns, machine guns, airplanes, nuclear bombs. Others were born with or gained skills over ideas and words - religion and churches, statehood and legislative or judicial or executive roles, corporate rule with CEO's and financial managers, national and political forces of diverse types.

Given the advent of ever increasing populations, the "me" generation, and the even more right wing X generation, those individuals who do well to gain power and wealth and status, then seem to cut themselves off from the rest of the community. They accept and honour no obligations. They appear to have no empathy. They appear insensitive, in fact, they have little if any sensitivity to the situation of others. By absolving themselves of any responsibility, of any ethical or social linkages for others less well off, or for others upon whom their own personal fortunes rest, they break any social contract, any relationships with the masses. That is, these elites give up their historic or social relationship with their community. These are the takers, who take from the givers, without offering any returns for their gifts.

The remainder of any community relies on a variety of decision makers and elites for leadership and special skills. Unfortunately, these elites feather their own nests, and fail to make or honour their links to others.

Psychology must be concerned with reestablishing those links, with creating accountability, with strengthening the masses, with discovery and development of social mechanisms that assure long term survival for the entire community and its inhabitants. The alternatives are problematic, for allowing or permitting a complete separation, that is tantamount to creating revolution. When elites are of value to the rest of the community, they have a positive role and place. When elites are of no value and when they fail to contribute, they should be forced to resign, or in a worst case scenario, be forcefully removed. In this way, the community learns to take charge of itself, rather than be dependent upon those who act as nakiskis or cancer.

Though written and statistical evidence could be gathered and recited, only one simple statement needs be made to support this line of argument about our human communities. In 1997, some 245 or so billionaires control over 45 per cent of the wealth of the entire world.

The metaphor and analogy are then, complete and accurate. It is past time that psychology got on with their most essential and primary task. The heart of the matter is that we in psychology have failed to address power and elites, and their relationships with the larger community of people, with the attention required.


Robert J. Gregory
Department of Psychology
Massey University
Palmerston North

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