Saturday, November 20, 2004
How to get along with other Americans
By Sam Smith
The Progressive Review
The most important fact about prejudice
It's normal. That isn't to say that it's nice, pretty, or desirable. Only that suspicion, distrust, and distaste for outsiders is a deeply human trait. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote that "all primitive tribes agree in recognizing [a] category of the outsiders, those who are not only outside the provisions of the moral code which holds within the limits of one's own people, but who are summarily denied a place anywhere in the human scheme. A great number of the tribal names in common use, Zuñi, Déné, Kiowa . . . are only their native terms for 'the human beings,' that is, themselves. Outside of the closed group there are no human beings."
Many attempts to eradicate racism from our society have been based on the opposite notion -- that those who harbor prejudice towards others are abnormal and social deviants. Further, we often describe these "deviants" only in terms of their overt antipathies -- they are "anti-Semitic" or guilty of "hate." In fact, once you have determined yourself to be human and others less so, you need not hate them any more than you need despise the fish you eat for dinner. This is why those who participate in genocide can do so with such calm -- they have defined their targets as outside of humanity.
What if, instead, we were to start with the unhappy truth that humans have always had a hard time dealing with other peoples, and that much ethnic and sexual antagonism stems not from hate so much as from cultural narcissism? Then our repertoire of solutions might tilt more towards education and mediation and away from being self-righteous multi-cultural missionaries converting yahoos in the wilds of the soul. We could turn towards something more akin to what Andrew Young once described as a sense of "no fault justice." We might begin to consider seriously Martin Luther King's admonition to his colleagues that among their dreams should be that someday their enemies would be their friends.
Finding the right words
Linguists say that when something matters greatly in a culture there are many words for it. Here in America, we have no single word for a four-wheeled vehicle. Yet when dealing with issues of race and sex, we have comfortably settled on racism and sexism, two overburdened words called to fulfill an astounding collection of functions. The net effect is to dissipate the power of the most violent acts and to exaggerate minor transgressions. Linguistically, we have put genocide and the failure of a professor to assign any reading by a black author on the same level.
In the end, how well we get along will be decided not by our cultural differences but by the significance we place upon them. We may all be creatures of our own culture, but we are also all free to determine just what that means. Most important, the future is the one culture -- for better or worse -- we will all inevitably share and all help to make. We are, each of us, brothers and sisters in the tribe of tomorrow.
To read the entire article, which by analogy offers insights into the Israeli-Palestinian problem,