Sunday, July 16, 2006

people vs People

"The mayor has declared mob rule" - Ken Brockman

The latest Israel-Palestine-other-enemies blowup has inspired a flood of truly insightful writing, I think, on the part of other bloggers, particularly Billmon and Digby, and I don't have anything particularly original to add to their analysis. However, it does bring up an issue that has troubled me so some time, namely the discrepancy that (apparently) most of us carry between dealing with people as people and people as a People.

When I was in the Sudan in the early 80s (during one of the very few periods when the fighting in the South had eased), I was continually struck, as was every other traveler there, with the wonder of the Sudanese people. To a person, they were generous, gentle, funny and generally seemed to enjoy their life despite their crushing poverty. Particularly in the South, the level of interactions between different groups (i.e. the numerous tribes and the northern Arabs, was notable). So it was hard for me to believe, later on, when I read how they were massacring each other. I did not get much insight on this from the Sudanese themselves, because of limited communication, and also possibly because at the time I was there the civil war in the South was fairly low level and fair away from urban centers, so it was easy to dismiss as something happening somewhere else.

Similarly, I was in Israel (earlier on the same long trip) the interaction between Israeleis and Arabs was amazing to me who had been led to believe they were at each other's throats. This was pre-intifada, when you could walk from Jerusalem to Bethleham (not very far at all, as it turns out) but post-Jenine massacre so there was a lot of tension between the groups. But in an Arab-run hostel I worked at, Israelei soldiers would come by and hang out (bringing lots of hash they had seized in Lebanon), I had an Israelei friend who worked at an Arab-run car wash, I knew mixed couples, all the things one thinks would not happen in such a divided society.

We all like to think that individual human relations trump in-group out-group dynamics (as in the Simpsons episode where Homer joins an anti-immigrant crusade until he realizes that Apu would be deported) but the history of the world shows otherwise. This was really outlined in stark relief for me when I read about the Rwandan woman who had helped organized the Hutu massacre of the Tutsis (and mass rape of Tutsi women) who was half-Tutsi herself.

Now I am not a social psychologist (I had a Ph.D. in Psychology, but in Sensory Process, so I can talk with some authority about stimulus thresholds, but I have never even taken a class in social Psych), but it seems to me that all theories I can come up don't really work.

1) Hatred of others is really inspired by self-hatred. This is plausible in the case of Hitler (who may have had some Jewish ancestry) or perhaps in the case of the Tutsi woman mentioned above, but I believe that the number of cases for which this is applicable are severely limited. I think most people in the world do not hate themselves - most of them, on the brink of poverty, don't have time to think about such things.

2) People are easily swayed by extreme opinions of a few, particularly when those few are people in power. This Machiavellian "bad apples leading a lot of sheep" theory does have some support. When I was in Jaipur, India, I fell in wih a group of taxi drivers, which included a Brahmin (upper caste Hindu) and a Muslim who would embrace each other and call each other brother. At one point I asked them about the religious conflicts in Jaipur in the 70s (which killed about 15,000 people, a large number for anywhere else but India). Their response was "Well that was just some bad people causing trouble." In the Sudan one of the few comments I elected from a Southerner regarding the nothern Arabs was that "They are fine, but when their government starts talking, it becomes bad."

But to me this smacks of more of a post hoc excuse than actual motivator. It certainly does not seem to explain the intensity of the venom with which people turn on other people who have shared their lives for many years (see Bosnia, and now Iraq with the Sunnis and Shiites). Anyone who was ever seen Triumph of the Will is struck by how much the German people truly believed this, really bought into the mythos Hitler was peddling. I do think that no government could convince their people to brutally kill their nedighbors unless at some level the people really wanted it.

Which brings us to:

3) As humans, we always need an "other" to define ourselves against, and to blame for our problems. Perhaps it is an innate aspect of our humanity. The documentary "Paris is Burning" is a remarkable portrait of gay blacks who dress up as women and compete in fashion shows, a sub-sub-sub-culture if there ever was one. But even within this small, highly oppressed, enclave, there were rifts between groups that actually erupted into physical fights (seeing two guys dressed as showgirls slugging it out is quite something). So perhaps we are inherently clannistic, and our loyalty to our clan trumps even our loyalty to friends and family. That attitude certainly had survival value when were in our "first act of 2001" phase, but is distinctly counterproductive in a highly interconnected world with lots of very efficient ways of killing each other, individuals willing to exploit this tendency of ours, and very fast mass communication to spread the hysteria more quickly than ever.

How to break this cycle is difficult. The checks that political systems are supposed to have to put brakes on public hysteria are being increasingly bypassed - the Senate, which was designed to be removed from public opinion, is hysterically debating anti-flag burning measures, anti-gay-marriage measures, anti-late-term abortion measures, and other nonpressing social issues.

But the link we as bloggers can attack is the role of mass media in perpetuating cycles of misinformation. Sadly, the mainstream has fallen flat on its face in this role, particularly in the US. Perhaps bloggers can will pick up the slack, but since blogs are written by humans, they show the same tendency towards herd behavior as the public in general.

So you can see I am not optimistic. Maybe evolution is slow, and eventually we will come to appreciate that the ties that bind us are more important than the divisions between us. But a lot of people will have to die first and a lot of progress undone before than will happen, I fear.

1 comment:

kissyface said...

Where did I hear this recently, I'm wracking my brain, oh, I believe it was an interview with Pema Chödrön, in The Sun. Anyway, she was saying that when they were discussing teaching Buddhism in the West, someone, maybeit was she, brought up the issue of having to deal with the self-loathing of Westerners, before some teachings could be imparted. The Dalai Lama apparently was quite dumbstruck by this notion; he really couldn't quite fathom what it was they were talking about. It seems that is not a characteristic of people in the East so much. I bring it up in regards to point one.

Glad to see you're blogging again.