Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-4

(Continued from yesterday.)

Strong allegiance to a tribe, and the belief that one’s tribe is better and more virtuous than others may actually cause members of your own tribe to act in worse ways than they might otherwise do. First of all, people who have a high sense of self-righteousness and an inflated sense of their own virtue are capable of committing the most heinous of crimes because they think that just because they belong to a good group, the acts they commit for the benefit of that group must be in the service of good too. They lack the questioning doubt and self-reflection that lies behind truly ethical behavior.

I am sure that the inquisitors of the Catholic Church who tortured and killed the alleged heretics, and the Puritans of New England who killed the alleged witches, were convinced that because they were high officials of religious groups, what they did was good. After all, they were serving god by advancing the interests of their group.

Furthermore, knowing that others will support them uncritically, and find all kinds of justifications for them whatever they do, will remove some of the restraints on people’s behavior. Surely some of the reasons that the soldiers at Abu Ghraib behaved so abominably must be due to their feeling that as Americans, they were automatically the ‘good guys’ and their Iraqi charges were the ‘bad guys’ and that therefore anything done to the bad guys was acceptable. And further, as we have seen so many times before and is shown in the Vietnam cases, the fact that superior officers and colleagues are willing to cover up their actions and shield them from repercussions, and that their family and friends and communities would make excuses for them, can breed the mentality that they can do anything with impunity.

The only way that we are ever going to be rid of the kind of tribal warfare that we are seeing is if we stop idealizing some groups and demonizing others. The progress on this front is not encouraging.

Since the events of September 11, 2001, the level of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment in the US has been nothing less than appalling. We thus have commentators like Michelle Malkin (who approves of the internment of US citizens of Japanese ethnicity during World War II) now advocating the profiling of Muslims and Arabs, and columnist John Podhoretz suggesting that the US may have been able to avoid the current insurgency in Iraq if only ‘we’ had just killed many more 18-35 year old Muslim males during the initial invasion of Iraq. Podhoretz says: “What if the tactical mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn’t kill enough Sunnis in the early going to intimidate them and make them so afraid of us they would go along with anything? Wasn’t the survival of Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35 the reason there was an insurgency and the basic cause of the sectarian violence now?” (His column uses the old device of phrasing things as questions so that he can later deny that he was actually advocating such a barbaric genocidal policy, but merely raising an issue.) Such people can say these things (and worse) against Muslims or Arabs and people do not recoil in horror. Instead they continue to be given high visibility platforms to voice their truly disgusting views.

The attitude towards Israel and the Jews in the US is more complex and ambivalent. As far as the elected representatives in Congress and the major mainstream media goes, there is hardly any serious criticism of the policies of the Israeli government or its military. The kinds of things said routinely about Arabs and Muslims would, if said about Jews, result in loss of either their positions or their public platforms. Spirited debates about the merits of Israeli policies are much more likely to be found in the Israeli press, in newspapers like Ha’aretz, than in the US.

But while there is strong official support in the US media and government for the policies of the governments of Israel, there has long been hostility to Jews as an ethnic or religious group. This used to be more overt in the past but is now latent. The recent incident involving Mel Gibson is an illustration of this. An even more disturbing example can be found in this video in which British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, as his alter ego “Borat Sagdiyev from Kazakhstan” (his other famous alter ego is Ali G.), manages to get all the people in a bar somewhere in the US to join him in a rousing rendition of “Throw the Jews down the well.” It is disturbing to see how easy it is for him to get the crowd to sing along with him.

Most well-meaning people do not want to feed this kind of anti-Jewish sentiment and thus are reluctant to criticize the actions of the Israeli government. This same reluctance can be found among well-meaning expatriates from Sri Lanka who hesitate to criticize the actions of the Tamil Tigers, even when they commit the most appalling acts of brutality against civilians, because they fear giving ammunition to the anti-Tamil Sinhala chauvinists.

But not criticizing the actions of a government or organized entity because of fears that this will embolden that group’s enemies is not a good thing. The fact that Tamils have undoubtedly been discriminated against in the past does not, and should not, give the Tigers any immunity or absolution for committing atrocities against others.

We cannot overcome racism simply by praising the tribal groups who are discriminated against or avoiding criticizing them. We should recall that the way that people feel towards specific ethnic or religious or national groups is a very fickle thing. Being in the ‘in’ group now is no guarantee that one will not be in the ‘out’ group in the future. Admiration one day can easily turn to hate the next. Recall how American views towards Germans, Italians, Japanese, French, Poles, and Jews (to name just a few groups) have changed dramatically, and even see-sawed back and forth, over the past century.

The fundamental problem does not lie in the nature of our current attitude towards this or that particular tribe, but with the tribal mentality itself, the need to feel that one’s group allegiance is paramount over everything else, even to the sense of shared humanity. We need to realize that we are not really all that different from others. The only way to do that is to realize that ethnicity, religion, and nationality differences are purely cultural and superficial, just accidents of birth. Making them out to be anything more than that is to help perpetuate the historical cycle of tribal warfare.

It is heartening that there are examples of people overcoming their tribal allegiances, even in the heat of tribal battles. I am reminded of American pilot Hugh Thompson who risked his life to save some Vietnamese from being murdered by his fellow troops. I think of those Iraqis who, in the heat of the invasion of Iraq, risked their lives to treat US soldier Jessica Lynch for her wounds and return her to her American unit. I think of the Israeli pilots who defied their orders and deliberately missed their targets in Lebanon because they did not trust that their superiors had given them correct targets which housed guerillas, and they feared killing civilians by mistake. Such people should be inspirations to us all, showing us that it is possible for us to see ourselves as human first, and as tribe members last or, better still, not at all.

The current conflicts in the Middle East undoubtedly have their roots in many long historical and secular causes. The political and government leaders who perpetuate these wars may well have cynical non-tribal reasons for doing so. But goals such as oil and land and power and geostrategic calculations are usually not enough to keep the general public supportive of wars over long periods. To keep the people willing to fight and die, you have to inflame their tribal instincts, and there is no doubt that tribal allegiances to such things as religion are the fuel that keeps the true believers perpetually up in arms.

In order to counteract the negative image of religion that arises from these religion-based conflicts, apologists for Christianity and Judaism and Islam (the religions at play in the Middle East, but the same applies to religions in general) often argue that each of these religions is inherently peaceful and that it is extremists who have distorted their message.

At one time I would have been sympathetic to this point of view and have even espoused it myself in the past. But this benign view of religion is becoming, at least for me, increasingly hard to sustain. There seem to be too many people, even the majority, in each of these religions who feel that their religion approves of the killing of people of other religions. There seem to be too many priests and rabbis and imams of each of these religions, even the majority, who are eager to trot out doctrines of ‘just wars’ that happen to conveniently justify the current war of ‘their’ side and are thus willing to condone and support and even encourage actions that at other times would be considered murder. As Voltaire said, “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” (See also Mark Twain’s The War Prayer.)

Religious leaders often condemn wars in general and even criticize past wars and the wars conducted by other countries, but somehow find reasons to justify the current war engaged by their own country or religion or nationality. All these suggest that a good case can be made that these religions are actually enabling and even inducing wars.

Nobel-prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg puts the dangers of tribal allegiances perfectly, at least in relation to religion. He says:

“Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.”

I would also add unthinking allegiance to ethnicity and nationality as additional drivers that cause good people to do evil things.

We need to get beyond these tribal allegiances if we are to have peace in the world. If god existed, the best thing he/she could have done for us to further the goal of peace would have been to answer Robert Burns’ appeal:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us

But since god does not exist, we have to learn to do this ourselves.

POST SCRIPT: V for Vendetta

Some time ago I wrote a very positive review for this film when it came out. It was just released on DVD last week and a kind reader of this blog sent me a copy as a gift. I do not often see films more than once but I found this one very enjoyable even the second time around. I was able to see more nuances and appreciate better the points it was trying to make. There is no question in my mind that it is an excellent political allegory for our times, a film not to be missed.


  1. Ross says

    In reading your recent posts on this subject, I was reminded of a conversation I had with an Iraqi from Baghdad shortly after dozens of Shiites were shot at a fake checkpoint. I said, “How did the Sunnis know those people were Shiites? Do they dress differently? have slightly different facial characteristics?” “No,” he said. “Sunnis and Shiites have the same appearance and speech. The only way they could know those people were Shiites was to ask them their names (which have different characteristics). That’s why the checkpoint was so useful: They had to ask them their names before they could decide whether or not to shoot them.” This is a case where the “otherness” is purely religious and not racial or ethnic.

  2. Paul Jarc says

    Do you have a source for a more complete context of that quote? It seems to me to be saying not that religion causes good people to do bad things, but that religion allows people who do bad things to still be considered good. I guess it fits either way, though.

  3. Radhan says


    ” The fact that Tamils have undoubtedly been discriminated against in the past does not, and should not, give the Tigers any immunity or absolution for committing atrocities against others. ”

    This is undoubtedly true. But using the Tigers’ atrocities as analogous to the State-terror of the Israeli government is a bit odd. It would be more appropriate to cite the indifference of Sri Lankan expatriates to the atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan Government; an indifference born of racism, a casual racism which underscores the point you make about the demonization of the ‘other’. Scores of Sri Lankan civilians have been killed by aerial bombing in the past two weeks. Where’s the outcry?
    True that this has little to do with the point you were making. And also true that you have used the expatriate Tamil community (and the Tigers) as an example because you are possibly more familiar with them than you are with expatriate Sinhalese. But I believe that the casual condemnation of the Tigers out of context (as you have done) is unfair.

  4. says

    Came across this site searching for Kazakhstan and education; hope you don’t mind if I intrude. This is a wonderful post and I wanted to add another point. As an American teaching English in Kazakhstan, I see a fascinating dynamic where Kazakhs have a great deal of national pride coupled with an inferiority complex. And both feed each other. So a student will say to me, “Our country has no well-developed Internet services but America is so superior and developed.” And another student will defensively criticize America and praise something good about Kazakhstan such as, “But Americans do not respect families. Kazakh families are very strong.” Prompting every student to either say something good about Kazakhstan and bad about the US or bad about the US and good about Kazakhstan. Getting them to try to hold a more cosmopolitan view beyond nations or trying to get them to link their sense of nationhood with something other than comparison is very hard.

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