In today’s politico-media sphere it is easier than ever to define some evil Other and blame “them” for the problems “we” face. The right-wing attacks on teachers and other public servants are the most recent example of a pernicious human habit that is now and always has been a real threat to a civilization’s social, political and economic viability.
The habit is a threat (to say nothing of its immorality) because real problems go unaddressed as potential solutions to shared difficulties are left unexplored. Ritual stonings of some Other are no more effective than the tossing of a virgin into a volcano to please an angry god. We seek to save ourselves only to go hurtling after the virgins into the flames below.
History is full of examples. Nazi Germany accelerated its demise when its demonizing of Jews and others lobotomized its intellectual abilities. The Soviet Union bled itself to ruin in Afghanistan (and with its costly Cold War efforts to keep its boot on Eastern Europe).
Here at home, it’s impossible to estimate the cost of the historical ghettoization of the Irish, Poles, Italians, African-Americans, Hispanics and others. An enormous advantage in natural resources – and the hobbling of global competitors by the 20th Century’s great wars – temporarily veiled those costs. But a look at today’s prison, police and military budgets lifts the veil.
I need to distinguish the “pernicious habits” of group suspicion, scapegoating and prejudice from the beneficial and creative ability to sort and resort ourselves into kinds. As David Berreby says in his important book, Us & Them: The Science of Identity, we use both facts and beliefs to decode the behavior of others. Those suffering from autism can’t process the codes. What Berreby calls “kind-sight” – the ability to sort others into kinds – is essential to our humanity.
The problems arise when we forget the roles belief and culture play in our sortings of us and them. When a creative process intended to facilitate our interaction with others is overtaken by hardened beliefs that the “facts” of our kind or some other kind are essential and eternal, we cut ourselves off from the rest of humankind. In the extreme, we become sociopathic if not pseudo-autistic.
Still doubt the ubiquity of the habit? Even the work of yesterday’s classicists is implicated. Driven by nationalist fervor and imperialistic drives, early 19th Century classicists went to extreme lengths to give Greece an autonomous history and intellectual lineage separate from the rest of the ancient Mediterranean world. German “Aryans” were one of the cultural-political outcomes.
It turns out that Near Eastern influences on the ancient Greeks were many and profound. In the 1960s, scholars like Cyrus Gordon and Michael Astour were attacked and dismissed by traditionalist colleagues for proposing Semitic influences on Greece. I’m still proud of the fact that Gordon, before he passed, acknowledged my identification of the shared, mirror-image motifs in the stories of the Old Testament Jacob and the Greek tragic hero Orestes. Now the influences are so widely accepted that the Wikipedia entry on Ancient Greece discusses them.
Today, a Breitbart post or a FoxNews segment is all it takes to scape the goat, so to speak. One moment, teachers are simply our children’s tutors. The next, they become greedy demons sinking our economy with their unjustified salary and benefit demands.
David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency specialist, once said:
If bin Laden didn’t have access to global media, satellite communications, and the Internet, he’d just be a cranky guy in the cave.
Berreby uses that quote in a hopeful passage about the growing recognition that identity is not destiny. And it is true that global-village media have made it easier to see the fluidity of identity, to recognize similarities and differences of others. The more we look the more we see we’re all made of many kinds, that kinds change with beliefs and cultural shifts.
But it is also true that today the poison travels faster to the brain.
We need to keep the antidote always at hand. And the best antidote, I think, is knowledge of our own dangerous, demonizing habits.