A Powerful Lesson About Equality From “Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World”

June 25, 2021

minute READ 

Symbols are powerful.

It’s why the sight of a swastika makes Westerners shudder these days. We associate it with all the terrible things the Nazis did

In Hindu and Buddhist culture where the swastika originated, it means something entirely different: it is a holy symbol, associated with divinity and spirituality. Hitler appropriated this symbol, hijacked it for nefarious purposes, and in the process changed its perception in the West. 

I recently read something that changed my view of a mathematical symbol. In his excellent book Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, Tyson Yunkaporta associates the symbol “>” with the Emu. 

Emu gone mad

At this point you might be wondering: ‘Wait, what? What’s wrong with emus?’

In a creation story Yunkaporta shares in his book, Emu (with a capital E) is the world’s original malignant narcissist: 

“There are a lot of stories that explain how all this began… My favorite one comes from Nyoongar Elder Noel Nannup in Perth, who tells the Dreaming story of a meeting in which all the species sat down for a yarn to decide which one would be the custodial species for all of creation. Emu made a hell of a mess, running around showing off his speed and claiming his superiority, demanding to be boss and shouting over everyone.”

Does that behavior sound familiar? Does it remind you of anyone? 

Whether we’re talking about Hitler or Napoleon, a bunch of historical and contemporary figures are pretty much Emu in a human body. 

Yunkaporta also explains in his book how this all ties into the symbol “>”: 

“Emu’s problem can be seen in the mathematical greater-than/less-than interpretation of the symbol. Emu is a troublemaker who brings into being the most destructive idea in existence: I am greater than you, you are less than me. This is the source of all human misery.”

The terrible legacy of “>”

Yunkaporta’s insight blew my mind. After thinking more about it, I realized that most terrible things that are done by humans can be traced back to a belief that is captured in this simple symbol. 

Here are some of the evil things that the “>-belief” has caused: 

  • genocide, 
  • slavery, 
  • colonialism, 
  • nationalism, 
  • many wars, 
  • all discriminatory -isms (racism/sexism/ableism/ageism, etc.), 
  • homophobia and transphobia, 
  • a system that serves a select few, 
  • “my god is greater than your god”-thinking/crusades/religious intolerance


The pervasiveness of this perverse belief

It’s important to deeply consider just how much “>” has poisoned our culture. 

I mentioned some of the worst expressions of it but it also shows up in less extreme ways in the lives of almost all of us: incessant comparison, harsh judgment (of self or others), and the belief that we need to prove our worth instead of being inherently worthy. 

All of these are based on the “>”-belief. And the more a culture believes in it, the worse it gets. 

At this point in the timeline, the USA is one of the firmest believers in this idea. The predictable result includes the concept of American Exceptionalism (“more special than”), a long history of military interventions in other countries, and an extreme wealth gap. 

And since our global culture is heavily Americanized, this ripples out to other countries and cultures.

The path forward

I wonder what our global culture would look like if it was based on another symbol. 

What if we made “=” the basis of all our interactions? 

What if we told Emu to stop yammering and instead listened to saner voices? 

What if we stopped playing the “better than/less than”-game and instead recognized our fundamental equality? 

At this point, people often freak out. They think that fundamental equality means that we can’t make any useful distinctions. But we can all be fundamentally equal and still acknowledge our different skills and capacities. 

As a trained lawyer, I’m better at understanding legal documents than my husband. That doesn’t mean I’m more worthy than him, it just means that I am the one to read any contracts we sign. 

As a scientist, he’s better at navigating complex Excel spreadsheets. That doesn’t make him fundamentally better than me, it just means that I let him handle the spreadsheets. 

That’s what human interactions can look like when we combine fundamental equality with functional specialization. It’s the key to true abundance. 

It’s really quite simple. And unlike the “>”-fallacy, it has the benefit of being based on Truth (with a capital T). 

We are all inherently worthy. 

It’s time to stop letting a mad Emu tell us otherwise. 

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About the author

Bere is the founder of Leader for Good. She's a former lawyer and academic who moved from Germany to the United States where she started her own business. Today, Bere loves helping her coaching clients and students connect with their passion and purpose. You can find out more about her coaching business at www.workyoulovecoach.com.

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