This week's Economist has a great little piece on a recent report with the unwieldy title, "Civil Paths to Peace: Report of the Commonwealth Commission on Respect and Understanding."
The report, which is the work of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, along with Kwame Anthony Appiah, Adrienne Clarkson, and Lord John Alderdice, takes the common practice of reducing the world into black and white categories (e.g. "Muslims" and "Americans") and tears it a new one.
"People who are trying to put an end to conflict—be they soldiers or nice peace-brokers—often fall into the same trap as the belligerents, by assuming that people naturally divide into simple categories.
Instead of addressing, say, Protestants and Catholics and urging each “side” to think better of the other, it may be wiser to remind them that they have lots of other identities too: as parents, sports enthusiasts, believers in a political or economic ideology, music fans or whatever."
The principle articulated here is simple, but critical. We all have a very human desire for simplicity which manifests itself in Manichean "good guys and bad guys" thinking. I'm as likely as anyone to start chanting "U-S-A" when the Olympics roll around, or to demonize Yankees fans.
But the kind of chauvinism which seems like harmless fun in the sporting world (unless you have the misfortune to encounter British soccer hooligans) becomes far more sinister in the real world, where demogogues have always excelled in getting people to focus on a common identity and a common enemy in order to wield power. Whether Hitler's focus on Germans versus Jews, Vladimir Putin's dichotomy of Russians versus Westerners, or Pat Robertson and Lou Dobbs' division of Americans versus everyone else, the purpose is to present a simple story that requires little effort to swallow and follow.
Moreover, the real insight here is that even peacemakers are far too apt to fall into this black and white trap. Trying to reconcile the two sides of a conflict implicitly assumes that there *are* two sides. You end up treating the symptoms, while ignoring the underlying cause, which is the politics of division.
This gets to the heart of something which has always bothered me, but which I couldn't articulate until now, which is the way that political correctness actually reinforces the divisiveness it is supposed to combat.
If you're trying to fix the problem of racial prejudice of one group against another (say, whites against African-Americans), perhaps your first step should be to stop treating the two groups as two distinct and monolithic groups. The tendency of activists to emphasize group identity via the concept of "pride" is simply the other side of the bigot's coin. Two wrongs don't make a right.
"The existence of lots of competing affiliations which pull people in different ways is the best hope of silencing gloomy talk of a “clash of civilisations” (with religion, and Islam in particular, often seen as the defining characteristic for giant global blocks). Such thinking is “deeply flawed on a conceptual level and deeply divisive in practice,” the report says.
As everybody knows deep down, the authors suggest, people belong to lots of categories (family, language, personal interests, political ideology) and spend their time shifting between them—unless some conflict arises in which a detail of family history becomes a matter of life and death.
At a minimum, say these authors, the authorities who are trying to keep inter-communal peace should not empower people whose authority depends on keeping divisions sharp. "It could be argued that, in Britain and America, attempts at engaging against terrorism...have had, at times, a perverse effect of magnifying the voice of extreme Islamists...faith-based approaches make it more difficult for politically secular Muslims to speak out against terrorism and violence."
I recall reading that even in that most intractable of conflicts, Israeli vs. Palestinian, projects that have brought the various residents of Israel together in a different context (youth basketball, etc.) help the participants realize that they all share similar interests and experiences, regardless of how their various governments and politicians attempt to keep them apart and at each others' throats.
Why is it that we focus on national, religious, and political identities, rather than universal ones like "father," "sister," "teacher," or "student?" Are we simply too lazy to deal with the potential ambiguity? It's all too telling that the only movies that depict all nations banding together generally involve alien invaders or killer asteroids. Why do we need a "them" in order to be "us?"
The next time you're tempted to think in terms of "us" versus "them," or even more insidiously, as "these" versus "those," step back, and try to remember all the identities that they have in common, rather than the ones that divide them.
P.S. Why on earth isn't the full text of the report available online? One would think that such a work should be disseminated as widely as possible!