The Black and White Mistake

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!

5 thoughts on “The Black and White Mistake

  1. i am SO glad you put this up… i hadn’t seen it, got here through casnocha… this kind of thinking is extremely important, as you recognize…

    the thing about egoic identity at the end of your post… the need to have an identity as a limited set of conditions, i am this, not that, comes from fear and feeling vulnerable… correcting this is the essence of a word that we often shun, “spirituality”… which is all about letting go of anything that is a limiting concept of self, thereby going beyond ego and ego-cenetered thinking…

    some interesting lines of thought are converging in this world at this time…. out of necessity, me thinks

    enjoy, thanks for this post, gregory

  2. Humans are led by perceptions than latter day relationships (Perceptions are structured to reinforce divisiveness than conform)- I can explain;

    a) Our eyes are trained to recognize colors no sooner we open them and start mentally segregating black and white, caucasian and african, Aryan, Dravidian and Mongolian. That visual appeal is the first chord that strikes. Perception naturally runs deeper in our system than the relationships or`hood’isms (Father, Mother, Sister, Brother) that come into being much later in our lives.

    b) Divisiveness help mask internal insecurity – when you feel powerless against a certain power, aligning with either side yields support, a sense of security in numbers, that gives you the power of sum of parts. Who wants to be weak?

    c) You focus better when in small groups – Imagine the whole world had just one class `humanity’. Would you think it would be any less chaotic or just love filling the air everywhere? I think it would be riotous, ultra competitive and bloody.

    I figure one can’t wish away perceptions as they are innate. But maturity can be demonstrated and examples set by visualizing the purpose of classes (it’s just visual!) and limiting that decisiveness to just that purpose while advancing the cause of humanity that is one, without doubt.

  3. the economist published reasearch about three years ago on the perception of difference… and the results are interesting…. what do we notice first about someone new…. first, gender…. second, age, third, generic difference, as if from another tribe

    “race”, or “color” was only a subset of “difference”… and not the primary signifier of difference…

    and yes, to krish… it is just visual, has not meaning beyond that… like porn on hte internet is just pixels… it is the mind that creates as arbitray meaning…

    fruitful stuff, and quite appropriate for a blog on capitalism to consider such things

  4. Interestingly, where some of the worst, most violent episodes have occurred in the 20th century, the people involved have been remarkably similar: Hutus and Tutsis, Irish protestants and catholics, semitic Jews and Palestinians, etc. Even today, in American culture, southern African-Americans and southern whites felt like part of a (dysfunctional) family, apart from northern whites. Which makes sense: civil wars are always more bitter and bloody than wars between strangers. So sometimes it’s what binds us that causes the hatred.

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