Monday 14 October 2019

Is humanity's tribalism the root of all that is most evil in this world?

We can blame Islamism in the East or guns in US, but Sarah Carey argues our primal instincts lie behind the violence

SADNESS: The scene of Thursday’s attrocity in Nice, now adorned with floral tributes. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol
SADNESS: The scene of Thursday’s attrocity in Nice, now adorned with floral tributes. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Sarah Carey

Regular readers will know that I live in Enfield. It's a fairly inconsequential village, but we have a geographic peculiarity that has taught me much about the human condition. Enfield is in Co Meath, but we're surrounded by Kildare on three sides.

I do a Sarah Palin thing where I shrilly declare: "I can see Kildare from my house!"

I really can. It's just across the river at the end of the field. We joke that if the Lilies get a glint of ethnic cleansing in their eyes, we'll be the first ones to go. Between that and the Dublin flags provocatively displayed in the housing estates, it doesn't take much to imagine a Balkan descent into conflict as the GAA championship season reaches its peak.

Okay, it's a joke but a dark one. For when news reaches us of another appalling attack - this time in Nice - you really have to wonder if all that separates us are circumstances. Confronted with the horror and bewilderment that one man can do so much damage - it's too easy to box it off as the actions of a crazy immigrant or the particular product of a radicalised religion.

Blame Isil; blame the internet; blame Blair or Assad; but I think human beings, no matter where they're from, possess the capacity to slaughter one another. Give us the conditions and I'll show you the violence. Isn't this exactly what was done across the border for 30 years? Of course, it's not all humans. Just a few. But there'll always be enough to do the slaughtering. And not enough of us to help those running away from it.

Civilisation and liberal democracy curb the worst tendencies in our part of the world. You can argue that Christianity had within it the capacity to tolerate the Enlightenment even as it fought against it. But those basic instincts are there; ready to be unleashed by poverty, war, exploitative politicians, or channelled benignly into sporting rivalry.

From Trump to Brexit to Orlando to Nice; it's merely a spectrum. Damn those Mexicans, Romanians, Westerners, Islamists, gays and Blacks. Take their dole. Run them out. Build the wall. Rape their women. Kill them all.

When this violence erupts far away, a natural and practical response is to figure out how we can stop it - either through military intervention, better policing or perhaps economic aid. But do we spend enough time accepting that the fundamental urge to group ourselves according to race, class, religion, sexual orientation or gender is the driving force behind it all? What is the psychology at work here, and is there a cure?

If humanity is tribal and tribalism is the root of all this evil, is tribalism evil? Is it diversity itself that we need to eradicate so that the message: humanity is our race and love our religion, can penetrate these primal instincts?

That's why I was delighted when the Galway International Arts Festival chose Identity as the theme of its First Thought public talks and especially when they asked me to interview David Berreby, author of Us and Them, the Science of Identity in Galway this coming Saturday.

Berreby has some brilliant examples of the extraordinary consequences of labelling people as one of "Us" or "Them" and how little it takes to earn a label. He describes an incident during the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda in 1994. Tutsi villagers fled to a local convent seeking sanctuary. But when the Hutus arrived, the Hutu abbess handed over the Tutsis for slaughter; but not the Tutsi nuns.

What was the difference between the Tutsis she allowed to be killed and those she protected? Just a piece of cloth: the veil. That was all it took. So much for Christian solidarity. ("Yes, but they were Africans," you whisper to yourself. "They're different." So how do you react when you see a Muslim veil?)

Some argue that those fatal tribal resentments were the product of deep historical grievances. But Berreby quotes incredible experiments where the triviality of difference was explored. In one by Henry Tajfel, a group of schoolboys were asked to look at paintings by two artists and say which they preferred. The boys were divided into two groups, with one being told the paintings they preferred were by Kandinsky and the other group told the paintings they liked were by Paul Klee.

Finally they were given a hypothetical amount of money to divide between all the boys. There was a chance for them to distribute the money to maximise the reward for all. Instead they divided the money in a way that created the largest difference possible between the two groups. The twist? The so-called artistic preferences weren't even real. The experimenters just divided them randomly.

All the boys needed to know was that there was a difference between one group and another, and that was enough to discriminate. And that's why I'm really starting to wonder if the modern tendency to accentuate and celebrate diversity leads to more trouble, not less.

For instance, in the gay community there's a lot of tension between what's known as Queer Activists and Assimilators. The Queers are those who argue that their homosexuality renders them fundamentally different and they should celebrate their difference from heterosexual culture. The Assimilators think that who they sleep with shouldn't dominate their personal identity. It's the difference between being the Gay Politician, and the politician who happens to be gay.

Or what about Travellers? The crime of the mainstream has been to discriminate and isolate them. But do the claims of Travellers to ethnic distinction and the right to live alongside mainstream society, but not fully of it, accentuate that problem? Would they be better off insisting that they aren't that different from the rest of us? That actually, they're just Irish people who should be treated as such and aren't a separate group in need of separate rules?

Of course, I see the problem when you go down this road. We can't all be the same. We shouldn't be the same. The challenge is to acknowledge the difference, but eliminate the discrimination that goes along with it. The real trick is to recognise both that which differentiates us - skin colour or religion - and that which we share - humanity. But I have to say, I'm a bit pessimistic about our capacity to do so.

But I take solace from three sources. First, Steven Pinker's theory in his book, The Better Angels of our Nature, that over time, the world is becoming less violent. It may not seem like that, but overall, society is more peaceful. Second, that the liberal democracy of the West continues its march towards moral progress as we see the extension of civil rights to groups once excluded from society. Our own marriage equality referendum was a good example.

But finally, I loved a story Berreby tells about Charles Johnston, an ordinary 18th-century white man from North Carolina. He was kidnapped by Shawnee Indians where he discovered their other captive was a black slave who spoke English. Johnston admitted later that the "poor Negro, who in other circumstances I should have kept at a distance, now became my companion and friend".

The point being that while circumstances define our differences they also expose our commonality. It's become a tradition of sorts now to declare after each of these terrorist attacks "Je Suis Nice" or "Je Suis Charlie Hebdo".

It looks a bit glib but the motive is fair. The targets might be the French or Jews or blacks, but they're members of our tribe - the human tribe. Us, not them.

Sarah Carey will interview David Berreby at the Aula Max in NUIG on Saturday 23. Details at Her Newstalk show will be broadcast live from the Radisson Blu Hotel also on Saturday. Tickets:

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss