Thursday, May 03, 2007

"Us" versus "Them"

Mom and Pop - Albrecht Durer - 1507
David Seaton's News Links
A very wise man once said that there are only two kinds of people in the world: those that think that there are only two kinds of people in the world and those who don't.

The other day I posted an article by Gabriel Rachman from the Financial Times, dissecting neocon-über-guru Bernard Lewis's view of Islam.

Rachman said something very basic that I'd like to underline.
The tell-tale danger sign in Mr Lewis's argument is that he constantly refers to Muslims in Europe as "they" - an undifferentiated mass. (...) Once you start thinking of the more than 15m Muslims living in Europe as a single, hostile bloc, you close the door to understanding and open the door to racism.
This readiness to quickly divide the world into "us" and "them": this need to stimulate tribalism, is at the heart of right wing populism and the only difference between right wing populism and fascism is the degree of organized violence that they finally produce.

If you observe humanity closely it is hard to apply the word "them" to any mass of it. Perhaps only creatures from outer space could really be "them"... Humanity is "us". This is not to underestimate or obviate the cultural differences that exist. They exist because our species is unique in having memory, unique in its ability to accumulate
and tell stories about itself. And also unique in living under the shadow of death, which other species ignore until it is upon them. Geography, climate, memory, language and death are the origins of culture.

Under our important cultural differences we have a species that that is defined by living in society with its fellows. Different cultures facing different geography and climate have devised different strategies to make that possible, but all cultures have been faced with the same problem of integrating large groups of "us" into something manageable and productive enough to survive.

Most if not all of these strategies for social survival place value on such concepts as truth and peace and what the Chinese philosopher Mencius called, "human heartedness" or "innate goodness". His famous example (hat to Wikipedia) is called "The Four Beginnings" (benevolence, righteousness, respect and the capacity to distinguish right from wrong).. To show innate goodness, Mencius used the example of a child falling down a well. Witnesses of this event immediately feel:
  • Alarm and distress, not to gain friendship with the child's parents, nor to seek the praise of their neighbors and friends, nor because they dislike the reputation [of lack of humanity if they did not rescue the child]...
  • The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of humanity; the feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness; the feeling of deference and compliance is the beginning of propriety; and the feeling of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom.
  • Men have these Four Beginnings just as they have their four limbs. Having these Four Beginnings, but saying that they cannot develop them is to destroy themselves.
These values make it possible for human beings to live together, to eat, to breed and to buy and to sell... and to realize their humanity.

Mencius's Four Beginnings could probably be a practical starting point for a constructive dialog, leading to peaceful coexistence, between any groups of human beings who have ever inhabited this planet. The challenge today with globalization and the phenomenon of mass immigration is to simultaneously respect that climate, geography, memory and death have made us all "different" while our common humanness has made us all "the same". DS


RLaing said...

It's true that "us-vs-them" is a crappy description of objective reality, but unfortunately, "moral relativism" is an excellent description of objective reality.

We depend for our own well-being on the quality of the society that immediately surrounds us, but have mostly had no such dependence on the human race as a whole.

So the following description of moral relativism at work is quite 'rational', even if our 'rationalizations' are not:

As a function of distance: virtue is a virtue to the extent that responsibility for it is 'here', and a vice is a vice to the extent that liability for it is 'there'. So although the 'virtue' of defeating the Nazis plainly belongs for the most part to the Russians, few American can remotely imagine such a thing: instead they are quite convinced that 'we' did that. Similarly, the 'sin' of shooting down civilian airliners is plainly a great crime when perpetrated by the Russians (KAL 007), but most likely the fault of the victims when the U.S. does the same thing (IR655).

As a function of scale: an individual can feel remorse over a bad act, whereas a nation cannot. So although many Japanese soldiers now feel quite badly about their participation in various crimes of WWII, their government still prefers to deny that any crimes were committed at all.

I could choose from literally thousands of other examples to illustrate this relativism, I'm not trying to single anybody out. I don't believe for a minute that you cross a border and suddenly encounter the good or bad folk, but the fact remains that under certain circumstances, this is a useful way to look at the world.

It's easy to say war is a bad thing; but for most living things, the big competitor is other members of the same species. Over 99.99% of the time that we have been around, the only thing worse than war has been to come in second. Historically, the 'Jesus Camp' people are right: faith is a real weapon, and reproductive competition is one of the ways that one society comes to dominate another.

Sure, condtiions have changed: nuclear weapons, collapsing ecosystems, climate change. This would be a great time for our species to slow down on the faith-based reasoning. But after a million years of competing with each other to be the best at bullshitting ourselves, to change in a few decades, however pressing the circumstances, would be like a speeding freight-train spinning on a dime and going back the way it came. You never know with our lot, it may happen; but I'm keeping a few year's worth of groceries in the attic just in case.

Anonymous said...

Your worldview is too limited. You don't know much about Europe nor Asia. The US is in no way the navel of the world. The 'West' is going into stagnation, from Anglo-Fascism to 'intellectual property' a movement of decay. Something like that happens in cycles, China had over 300 years of this, the Muslims are kind of down right now..

What goes up must come down, subiendo abajo.

And just because some regions of the world missed the first rush of industrialisation doesn't mean thats going to stay that way.. If you actually knew about your place in the world, you would also know where the fascists are taking you. Not to another smug victory, it's never been like that. Historically, the "Jesus Camp" fascists are wrong.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

Couldn't agree with you more! The "west" is going to find the next fiew decades humilliating.

The problem with the USA at this moment is that, in fact, it still is the belly button of the world... and everybody is staring at it, but it just can't produce... This decadence has worldwide repercussions, because the rising powers don't seem to have any ideological content at all and Europe is clapped out in that respect too.

I find it significant how few good films, books, paintings, music etc are coming out of either Europe or the States.... compare the situation to the 60s and 70s