Perhaps you’ve seen the recent viral news on an American missionary travelling to the infamous North Sentinel Island to spread the Gospel to the primitive residents there, only to be killed by their arrows. There have been other victims before him, but he is of significant interest due to his purpose for being there. I wish to take this opportunity to talk about well-meaning idiots, who seem to be everywhere in this world.
Take note that this post was written not to outright disparage the subjects in question, but merely to explore their motivations and the decisions that led them to unintended consequences. It’s good to think about the dynamic between one’s good intentions and the results of actions better left unfulfilled.
Perhaps you can say I’m also a well-meaning idiot as well for writing this piece because I’m sure someone will still take it the wrong way somehow, no matter how carefully I preface and disclaim it.
John Allen Chau: Victim of the Sentinelese
Missionary work is seen as noble by the religious, and sort of a nuisance by the atheistic. I was educated in a school that championed the further dissemination of the Christian gospel, but I’ve since turned away from Christianity in favor of exploring what it truly means to believe.
As of now, I’m an agnostic whose attitude towards religion has gone from hostile to a bit more understanding within a fairly short period of time. As of this writing, I’m digging more into my family’s Buddhist leanings to learn more of how things are on that side of the fence.
John Allen Chau was sure about his faith and his drive to share it with others. But it seemed like it wasn’t enough to knock on doors in suburbia and counsel the desperate in troubled urban centers. He wanted to preach to those who have never even heard of Jesus Christ before.
Whatever it was that led him to attempting contact with the Sentinelese people must have been one hell of a motivation because no one else in their right mind would want to venture to the middle of the Indian Ocean to encounter a group who had been isolated for approximately 60,000 years.
The Andaman Islands are located in the Bay of Bengal, with India to the west and Myanmar to the east—the island chain is much closer to the latter. Despite that, it’s under the jurisdiction of the Indian government, which had prohibited contact with the various people groups there, including the Sentinelese of North Sentinel Island.
His last request was for his family to not blame the inhabitants of the island if he were to die in his mission. It does seem like he had an understanding of how dangerous his mission would be. Contrary to most people’s view of him being a shoe-in for this year’s Darwin Awards, he went there knowing that it could be his last moments on this earth.
Despite that, he may not have known the full history of these people. They weren’t always uncontacted—contact with them had merely been limited.
An Outsider Named Portman
There may also be another reason why the Sentinelese are incredibly hostile towards outsiders, and it stems from what a very unusual white man did to their forefathers when he landed on their island in 1880.
Maurice Vidal Portman was a British naval officer who documented and pacified the Andamanese tribes for his own purposes from 1879 until 1901. He was quite the disturbed individual who abducted members of these tribes to pose for his mock-Greek homoerotic compositions.
Basically, there’s a history of heinous exploitation of the Sentinelese. From then on, it’s likely that they have associated outsiders with demented perversion, only wanting to harm them in the most humiliating and torturous way possible.
There Was a Glimmer of Hope
After reading some stuff about this, I recall what Chau wrote on a note—“I have been so nice to them, why are they so angry and so aggressive?”
Apparently, this was not his first contact with the Sentinelese. He had made a couple of trips to the island on a canoe over the last few days before his death. He further noted that some of them were friendly, while others were aggressive.
That was most likely why he was spurred on to get as close to them as he did. It was likely that he saw there was hope for him to establish rapport with the Sentinelese and eventually be able to introduce the tenets of Christianity to them.
Earlier Contact with Another Andamanese Tribe
I’ve put this here to provide more context regarding the establishment of contact with these tribes.
The Jarawa, who inhabit the South and Middle Andaman Islands, while still mostly shunning interaction with outsiders, seem to have more contact with the outside world than the Sentinelese.
This documentary was filmed back in 2002, two years before the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The Andamanese tribes, including both the Jarawa and the Sentinelese, survived this great natural disaster and continue to inhabit the islands to this day.
Much of recent contact with the Jarawa is through the Great Andaman Trunk Road (National Highway 4 of India), constructed during the 1970s, which goes through most of the bigger islands and has become a lifeline for the inhabitants.
It was only as late as 1997 when some of the Jarawa started coming out of their forest to visit nearby settlements. A measles epidemic then broke out within a few months, and again in 2006. While no deaths were reported, it just goes to show how the “outside world” can affect these long-isolated people at a biological level.
While contact is still being limited to a reasonable degree, the prospect of tourism and the inhabitants’ desire to no longer being fully cut off may result in further opening of the Andaman Islands to civilization.
Dr. Thomas Midgley, Jr.
Thomas Midgley was an inventor who, like with his counterparts, sought to solve technical problems to make things easier and more feasible. It’s this drive to affect change and create something from the seemingly impossible and nonexistent that has propelled the human race throughout history.
But like how some inventions tend to be created by accident and/or have unforeseen side effects, Midgley’s most famous inventions would be widely implemented, only to later bring more harm than good.
The first of the two great Midgley inventions was to solve the problem of knocking noise in automobile engines with a fuel additive. He then came upon Tetraethyllead as the solution.
The second was to revolutionize refrigeration and air conditioning all over the world. It was a chemical that made both more feasible, and it was trademarked as Freon, which contained chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
Both leaded gasoline and CFCs became widely used and Thomas Midgley became recognized as a great inventor who brought change to the world. Unfortunately, it turned out most of that change was for the worse.
Exhaust from cars running on leaded gasoline turned out to be an incredibly toxic air pollutant. Meanwhile, CFCs wreaked havoc on the Earth’s ozone layer, the part of the atmosphere that shielded the surface and its denizens from harmful ultraviolet rays from the Sun.
Both inventions are no longer being used. They were later replaced and their destructive effects were eventually curtailed. What’s left are old and dilapidated cars, refrigerator, and air conditioners that used those old technologies.
Environmental historian J. R. McNeill once said that Midgley “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.”
At the end of his life, Midgley’s inventive streak was still there and would end up being his demise. Having become less mobile due to poliomyelitis, he designed a harness system that let him move in and out of bed by himself. One day, he got himself stuck in the contraption and suffocated to death at the age of 55 in 1944.
He never lived long enough to see the full extent of his inventions’ negative effect on the environment. Perhaps the closest he got to that was being stricken by lead poisoning in 1923.
EDIT(11JUL2022@10:40PM): It turns out he wasn’t just a well-meaning idiot after all. I rectify this mistake in a separate blog post here.
“Better Safe Than Sorry”
I’ll be brief with this as I intend to write separate pieces about this in greater detail for the near future. There are plenty of different types of people who take the adage “better safe than sorry” way too seriously, and I can only talk about a few of them here.
Commenting How Some News is Better Left Unreported
I saw this news item shared on Facebook that reported people boiling sanitary napkins to achieve intoxication. That in itself was fairly interesting and it looked almost like a satirical article as it seems quite ridiculous.
Many commenters thought it was irresponsible for the news outlet to report this story as it may inspire kids to do it themselves. On one hand, it seems like a leap in logic. On the other hand, they may have a point.
However, while they may have a point, I can argue that not reporting it would be more of a detriment since people are doing it anyway. We now live in the Internet age, and I myself have learned a lot of bad ideas from various websites and forums in the 2000s.
Now with social media and a lot more Internet-savvy users out there, finding out about these things is easier than ever, but usually only if you look. Sure, you may sometimes find out about such things serendipitously like weird posts that pop up on your Facebook news feed or a viral video that a friend may share with you. But a lot of times, these things are sought out.
The news item is for those who may not be interested in doing bad things, but may need to be aware of them anyway for important reasons like parenthood or being in positions of authority. If you’re worried about your children being influenced to do bad things, then you should be aware of said bad things in order to catch signs of that influence.
Sharing Fake News and Fallacies Because It’s ‘Better Safe Than Sorry’
I encountered this myself. There’s a specific demographic prone to doing this (I won’t name names here) whenever they encounter health-related posts on social media, even if they’re actually hokey.
The case I remember most is that of a post being shared on how certain canned goods in Thailand have been rumored to contain HIV. Not only does HIV not work that way at all, but the news item is from a very questionable website. It was most likely fake news.
It was shared by the girlfriend of a close friend, and we pointed out her error. Her response was a very firm “BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY,” which we didn’t want to contend with further. But it did show how medical fallacies and untruths tend to spread on the Internet — by well-meaning idiots who want to inform, but don’t look into any further.
This has been going on since chain emails were still a thing.
The “better safe than sorry” attitude in this context is detrimental due to propagation of HIV misinformation, which I am vehemently against. However, while it’s a subject I’m quite serious about, I don’t think the situation would make me mad enough to reprimand my friend’s partner, who is otherwise a nice person.
Nowadays, we have anti-vaxxers, gluten-free advocates (who don’t have celiac disease), radical vegans, people who think fluoridated water turns you into a zombie, and so on. Now I know why.
What well-meaning idiots have in common is lack of contextual understanding.
John Chau was perhaps ignorant of the history of uncontacted peoples and what happens whenever that contact does happen. Perhaps he was also not aware of the darker side of Christian missions.
Thomas Midgley had no idea about the chemical processes caused by his inventions that would bring significant damage to the environment, most likely due to not putting them up for further study.
Online commenters who either whine about news being “too informative” or share fallacies and fake news in the spirit of “better safe than sorry” do so usually because they either don’t know any better at the moment or just want to say something because they want to express themselves.
However, I think there’s another thing to it.
Their intentions are never truly pure. There’s a selfish element to their supposed altruism, causing them to be short-sighted in their endeavors and only caring for the payoff.
Becoming the savior and gaining validation for acts undertaken with little to no preparatory investigation, no matter how small, can turn even the most pure-hearted paragons into bumbling fools.
It may seem excessive at first to label them as egotistical for trying to do right to please themselves, but I think that’s exactly what it is.
On the other hand, we must remind ourselves that even the best of us can become well-meaning idiots as well. We’re not psychics and some of us may be so tunnel-visioned that we may bite off more than we can chew. The least we can do is to learn from those mistakes whenever they’re made.
Have something to say? Do you agree or am I off-base? Did I miss a crucial detail or get something wrong? Please leave whatever reactions, questions, or suggestions you may have on the comment section below.
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Also published on Medium.