05 February 2016

Setting Ourselves Apart

Nihang Sikh
In this essay I will explore some issues surrounding our identity as members of a religious group (which might also be of interest to readers who aren't religious). Some of the opinions I'll express in this essay will be controversial. I'm not entirely convinced by liberal rhetoric on difference and tolerance. I do believe that we should be tolerant of difference, but when I look at the society I live in I have to admit that I might be in a minority. And given that a sizeable proportion, perhaps even a majority, of this society is not in tune with liberal rhetoric, what does that mean for religieux in practice? My purpose here is to try to understand issues of identification with a religious group and how that might play out in practice in the actual society I live in, rather than with reference to an ideal society that does not exist. Clearly there is a certain amount of intolerance towards minorities here. I think an evolutionary perspective on humanity helps us to understand why that might be, and at least to me, it suggests that our approach to diversity might be flawed. It's fair to say that this essay is a bit of a ramble and an opinion piece.


I've written about evolution and human societies quite often now. The facts seem to be that human beings are evolved for living in small communities of up to 150 people. These communities may be part of larger units—multiples of 150—but larger units tend to fission for purposes of daily life, coming together on special occasions. This limit is imposed, according to research by Professor Robin Dunbar, by the ratio of neocortex to brain volume. Larger groups require more neo-cortex because we have to keep track of more relationships in real time (family, friends, lovers, feuds, alliances, etc). Other primates mainly use one-to-one grooming to ensure individuals are well integrated in the group and that it has overall cohesion. Our groups are now so big that we could spend all our time grooming and still not interact with everyone in our group. And we have to eat and sleep! So we evolved group activities to help balance our time budget. Cooking food also helped by making our food more calorie-rich, reducing our foraging time.

Some of our most important faculties, such as reasoning are designed to work in small groups. Our orientation to the world as a social primate, like all social animals, is safety in numbers and cooperation to achieve common goals. An aspect of this is that we are distrustful of strangers and intolerant of individual differences where they threaten group cohesion. Our distant ancestors survived and prospered by ganging up and pulling together. Individuals who were loath to work with us or who worked against us were bound to be neutralised either by assimilation back into the group, or by expulsion from it (or in extremis by being killed). One of the most powerful means of social control we have is isolation: shunning, exclusion, banishment. Ironically, loneliness is often a feature of urban life, especially as we get older.

In his book on the people living in the New Guinea highlands, The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond explains that a hunter-gather tribe there has a well demarcated territory in which they can forage for food. They usually have uneasy relations with immediate neighbours and encroach on their land at their own risk. To be caught outside your own territory is to risk being killed on sight. A person living in this environment would seldom, if ever, stray much beyond the traditional borders of their tribe. They would never meet their neighbour's neighbours. Of course New Guinea is densely populated compared to some other places. However, rather than clump and blend, the tribes there stayed small and distinctive, with hundreds of languages between them. They are vastly more culturally diversified than similarly sized countries in the rest of the world. Australia was similarly diverse before the arrival of Europeans. We are evolved to suit this kind of situation of small groups and strong in-group/out-group boundaries. Since then our culture has changed at a very much faster rate than evolution can keep up with.

About 10-12,000 years ago our communities began to clump together. This is usually associated with the invention of agriculture, though at first this was a relatively unsuccessful venture that led to reduced food availability. It took centuries of trial and error for settled agriculture to begin to produce enough food to be a more effective way of life than hunting and gathering. It's likely that domestication of herd animals like sheep, goats, and cattle, was a key move towards larger groups, since it makes more protein available in a more reliable way. As long as there is pasture, herd sizes can increase exponentially (according to Dunbar the limiting factor is rainfall). Once we worked out how to produce a food surplus that would support non-farming society members, the stage was set for a revolution in how we lived. Numbers in our groups began to swell beyond the limits of neocortex. Once a few members of our society were freed from the necessity of finding food they could specialise in other activities (though they still had to sleep and participate in community bonding activities). Civilisation began to emerge. By which we mean groups with large populations and institutions to enable them to live together: division of labour, kingship, land ownership, organised warfare, religion, etc.

In these early stages of our social evolution, religion emerged partly as a way of helping groups members experience themselves as connected to the others. As already mentioned, Robin Dunbar has argued that as group sizes increased in our early ancestors, our usual primate methods of group bonding became ineffective. The time taken for one-to-one grooming with every group member, for example, became more than the time available. A variety of many-to-many grooming substitutes had to evolve alongside our burgeoning groups. Amongst these were group laughter, singing, and dancing. Presumably story telling also played a part. The first anatomically modern humans to migrate from Africa almost certainly carried myths with them that then took root and survived in far flung places like New Guinea and Australia. These group activities result in the production of the endogenous opioids (or endorphins) that produce a feeling of well-being. Religion took the form of collective rituals, often involving group dancing, singing and story telling, and explicit shared beliefs. This helped the group to experience a sense of connection and common purpose. Rites of passage for children becoming adults often involved a shared ordeal that helped to bond group members. A distant echo of this is "hazing" and groups often haze new members to help bond them (ironically this may involved inflicting suffering or humiliation on them). One has to be willing to undergo hardship for the group. And lastly groups of people like to ensure that they look different to neighbouring groups. One of the ways that tribes of people, multiples of 150, identify each other is through distinctive clothing, symbols, or body modification. In small societies every one is marked the same way. Armies still use this concept in their adoption of uniforms, flags, and insignia.

However, many of us now  live in massive, multi-ethnic societies in which any number of sub-groups exist based on ethnic identity and/or religion amongst other things. And members of some of these communities are still going out of their way to identify themselves with their sub-culture through wearing special hats, special grooming practices (involving hair in particular), and/or adopting special clothing. The subculture might be based on ethnicity or religion or it might be based on something more abstract. And we might identify with more than one subculture.

A lot of the discussion in the UK at the moment is over how Muslims fit into Britain. Many Muslims feel bound to make strong statements of their identification with their religion often through grooming and sartorial statements, or through beginning their contribution to public debates with the words "As a Muslim...". They are Muslims first and they want everyone to know and acknowledge this. A few vocal people, who adopt the same identifiers, are openly critical of the British way of life and wish to impose a traditional Middle-Eastern form of governance (ironically if they got their wish they'd almost certain lose the right to freedom of speech). Some extremists argue for violent overthrow of the state and the culture, and some are currently plotting to kill British people to make their point. Muslim terrorists have succeeded in one major terrorist attack, ten years ago, and several other plots have been foiled. I'm using Muslims as an example because they are in the news. We Buddhists also get involved in flouting our religious identity, and not a few would love to overthrow the current government and impose some kind of Buddhist rule (though they are generally speaking more circumspect about this). I sometimes see monastics wandering around in their robes and shaved hair. Or one sees people with ostentatious jewellery: badges, mālās, vajra-necklaces,  monk's bag etc. I do it too some extent because I prefer to use my Buddhist name in most circumstances. To religious people, religious identity is important. And usually we want other people to know we are religious. If it's not obvious from our hair or clothes, we'll habitually bring it up in conversation. We're tedious like that.

Society & Tolerance

It's not that long since British people felt their society to be relatively homogeneous. Yes, it was riven by strong class divisions, but these divisions were familiar, and the classes were unified to some extent by their rejection of outsiders. Even today Brits are almost nostalgic for the version of the class system of the 18-19th century - witness the constant rehashing of stories set before liberalism took hold. British people will joke about incomers to some villages being treated as the "new people" for three or four generations. This is a joke based in reality. Some people are really like that.

In fact immigrants have long played a part in British society, though usually on a small scale. An almost continuous series of waves of immigration from Europe have arrived over the centuries. Some were completely absorbed (e.g. Huguenots) and some were not (e.g. Jews, Roma). For their own reasons Jews tend to retain their identity, live somewhat apart from the mainstream. Hasidic Jews are definitely separatist. Which brings us closer to my main point. Ironically this very practice of separatism has itself often been a trigger for prejudice against Jews. This is not a justification or an excuse. I'm not saying that it is right! I'm saying that anti-Semitism is a something that Jews still encounter and that sometimes they inadvertently trigger it.

The trouble is that if you are apart from the mainstream, then when times get tough the mainstream may well turn on you. This can happen in any number of ways. In contemporary Britain there is a backlash against people who accept welfare for example. It was relatively socially acceptable in the 1970s, but nowadays if one accepts welfare it is, for example, very difficult to rent a house to live in. All people who accept welfare are tarred with the same brush: lazy, unreliable, and criminal; whereas British people generally see themselves hard-working, steadfast, and honest. Fifty years ago the Brits described people of Afro-Caribbean ethnicity using the same slurs. Before that it was the Irish. The Spanish have often been a target. As have all people of colour from Africa, America, Pacifika, and Asia. Outsiders, especially minorities, are easily portrayed as representative of the antithesis of in-group values. The English language has many apparently innocuous terms that were once ethnic slurs: French letter, Dutch courage, Wandering Jew, and so on; and even more outright terms of abuse, such as nigger, kraut, frog, dago, wop, spick, etc. The English will still depict the Scots as miserly (when in fact they were just poor, mostly because of the English). Within England the English make fun of the accent of Birmingham, or suggest that people from Norfolk are inbred. It's often done in a jocular way, with a nudge and a wink, but its done almost continually. Where there is smoke, there is fire. And the thing is that this kind of attitude is general amongst people I've met. In India the low caste Buddhists I know tell me that even the very low castes have other low castes that they look down on. Despite how caste has blighted their lives, they are still caste conscious. Where I grew up, people from Auckland are called jafas (after a sweet called a Jaffa). This is an acronym for Just Another Fucking Aucklander. And we told jokes about Australians being stupid and immoral (they told more or less the same jokes about us). When I lived Auckland, my neighbours from mainland China confided in me that they "did not like Indians". The awareness and marking of difference seems to be ubiquitous. I would argue that it reflects an evolutionary outcome of being a social species: high in-group trust, low out-group trust.

I want to argue, against the liberal mainstream, that this distrust of strangers is not a bug of society, its a feature. Again, this is not an endorsement. It is an attempt to understand an apparently senseless behaviour in evolutionary terms. I believe that the better we understand our unconscious motivations, the better able we will be to overcome the conditioning. But the first step is admitting that most of us don't like strangers. If there is any doubt about this, I can cite various politicians such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Tony Abbott, Marine La Pen, from around the world who represent a silently fuming body of people who are fed up with multiculturalism, tolerance, and immigrants; fed up with liberal values being pushed down their throats. The danger is that we don't understand this phenomena and fail to take adequate steps to counter it. We ought to be reflecting on our failure to effectively communicate evolution for example. If we believe that tolerance and migration are good, then we need to better understand why some people oppose it and why politicians who voice that opposition are increasingly popular at the moment. But too often liberals are not at all interested in how their opponents think. Rather ironically, they define conservatives as out-group and demonise them.

The Religious Other & Liberalism

This essay was sparked by reading a news item about a Sikh man who had been beaten up by a red-neck in America. The Sikh man's family had lived in their adopted town in the USA for over a century. And the man who beat him shouted, "Why are you here?" Chances are, the Sikhs migrated to America before the red-neck's family did! Any thoughtful American would already have concluded that they have more to fear from "white" Americans with guns than from any Sikhs. A quick trawl through the long list of mass shootings in the USA suggests that none of them were carried out by Sikhs. In fact one of the shootings involved a white American shooting up a Sikh temple and murdering many people. So it seems that a Sikh is significantly more likely to be the victim of mass murder than the instigator of it. So why would a red-neck target a Sikh man?

Part of my answer is to do an image search for "Sikh". The top 100 images are mostly of men with long beards, wearing turbans. The images are of Sikhs are mostly men, but from all walks of life. Importantly Sikhs often serve their adopted countries in the military (usually a high status job for red-necks). But a Sikh man is instantly recognisable as a Sikh. Sikh men ensure that they stand out as Sikhs. What I am suggesting is that if you were never educated about Sikhism, and most Americans are not, and at a time in history when the news was full of stories about foreigners who want to kill Americans, and all you saw was someone making a sartorial statement along the lines of "I am not one of you, I am a Sikh", then that might trigger a primal, aggressive response. I'm going to emphasise this point: this explanation is not an excuse, the point here is to try to understand why people become aggressive towards strangers and suggest ways to mitigate such reactions. 

I don't mean to single out Sikhs, it's just that the news story featured a Sikh man and they do often make this strong statement of setting themselves apart. Another group who often suffer this kind of abuse, in Britain at least, are Muslim women who insist on wearing full-face veils, something which is almost an anathema for mainstream British women who fought for the rights to be seen and heard, and are still fighting for equality. The British women I know find the wearing of veils and face coverings very difficult to empathise with. They are still concerned with finding an equal footing in society with men. They continue to fight inequality and discrimination and the veil seems to represent both. I recall quite an interesting radio interview with a British Muslim woman who became so fed up with hearing cat-calls from men that she decided to wear a full-face veil. She would go out covered from head to toe with only her eyes showing. But unfortunately this change in her appearance meant that cat-calls turned to sometimes violent abuse. It was awful. She was in an invidious position, but it was made considerably worse by her adoption of ostentatious religious garb that set her apart from the people around her. It was not an effective strategy. Anyone who looks, speaks, or acts differently from might become a target for hostility - where difference is entirely relative to the situation.

As I say, our distant ancestors survived and prospered by ganging up and pulling together. Nothing unites people like a common enemy. Who that enemy is, is also entirely relative. 

Liberals seem to naively expect society to just accept differences. To be sure, they have had notable successes in outlawing prejudice against people who are different in ways that they have no control over. It is illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, sexuality, or ethnicity for example, which is not the same as saying that it has been eliminated. But for example, being sexually oriented towards your own gender carries far less stigma than it used to. We have also made it illegal to discriminate on some differences that are based on individual choices, such as political views (up to a point) or religious profession. Social liberalism has been a force for good in that it has helped minorities to emerge as equals in society. And it continues to have successes, in the form of marriage law reform for example, despite a decisive shift to the right in politics in Britain. But liberalism has to some extent steam-rolled these changes through. And under these circumstances there is always the risk of a backlash.

The Liberal response to all of the situations I've described: aggression towards a Sikh, cat-calls, and violent abuse is the same each time. Such things should not happen. Every one must be tolerant. Our laws reflect these values. But our streets, apparently, do not. We invent new crimes to make it clearer. Now if you abuse someone of a different race or sexual-orientation, that is not simply a violent crime, it is a race hate crime that carries harsher penalties than mere violence. We've defined a whole variety of hate crimes with harsh penalties. These offences often come with new labels. We mistaken refer to hatred of something as a phobia (or fear). I'm not sure this confusion of terms helps. Islamophobia is not a fear of Islam, it refers to a hatred of Islam. It's not born from fear, it's more likely born from disgust, the response to a stranger. Similar homophobia is not a fear of homosexuals. Personally I see theistic religion as a rather negative influence in society, though for some people it can be personally positive. Hate is probably too strong a word for what I feel. I'm certainly against theists having more say in society and would very much like to see the Church of England disestablished and a true separation between church and state. Nor do I hanker for a Buddhist state, since all the Buddhist states in history have been awful or even monstrous. In this sense I'm a secularist.

Making a law and punishing offenders is not the same changing the culture. A more successful strategy might be to welcome different people into public life. It's only in living memory that Britain allowed radio and TV presents to speak in regional accents. People of colour are still vastly under-represented in public life. And as we've seen some institutions, like the Oscars, seem determined to resist any liberal reforms that would make them treat women or Africans as being of equal status and value. TV is currently squeezing in a trans-gendered character where-ever it can, because this has become a cause célèbre. No reason it should not be a time for more awareness of this issue, but it's not as if we have solved the problem of under-representation in a broader sense. Women are still vastly under-represented in the higher echelons business and politics for example. The chances of an African American winning an Oscar are still minimal. And so on. Equality laws are not going to change things while, say, a woman only rarely gets a senior cabinet post in a British government (and this true of the cabinet of the only woman Prime Minster we've had as well).

With regard to "race" it's important to emphasise that skin colour is a particularly bad determinate of relatedness. Skin colour is simply a measure of how close to the equator your ancestors lived. If they were from the tropics, you'll have dark skin. If they were from higher latitudes you'll have pale skin. It's all to do with how much vitamin D one can synthesise and it changes quite rapidly - just 5000 years and your skin will change to suit. Humanity is all one species by any definition of the word. That said, the human population of, say, Africa is far older and thus far more genetically diverse than the rest of the world. Thus any two Europeans with pale skin are far more likely to be related than any two African people with dark skin. It's only legacy thinking that makes us think of dark skinned people as homogeneous. Of course in countries where Africans were transported as slaves, the slave population became a melting pot. The whole concept of "race" is bankrupt and more or less meaningless. The fact that Britain uses "black" and "white" as ethnic terms still makes me feel deeply uncomfortable, because the terms are meaningless (no one in the world is either black or white), but also because they preserve the prejudice of the recent past and reflect continuing discrimination against people with brown skin.

An important issue in Britain is immigration. In 2015 around 100,000 people emigrated to the UK. That's a town the size of Cambridge, where I live. Providing housing, infrastructure, and services to another 100,000 people, at a time when government spending continues to fall is stretching the resources of the country. If it happens every year, and it does, then we have a major problem here. Research seems to show that migrants taken as a whole make a net contribution to the economy, but even so the government is still cutting spending on things like the National Health Service, which struggles to cope with serving the needs of the present population. Unfortunately, compared to the rest of Europe, Britain continues to attract economic migrants, both temporary and permanent. And European law says that we cannot place barriers in the way of the movement of labour within the Union. This has led to the leaders of the country to offer an in-out referendum in which the citizens can vote to leave the European Union. The issue of identity and where we belong (and how we treat outsiders) is playing out in national and international politics also. 

Britain has also seen a number of high profile terrorist attacks on our soil. These were carried out by Islamic fundamentalists. And we are told that a large number of plots to commit acts of terror are foiled on a regular basis by the security services. Some of these result in public prosecutions. And yet we are being drawn further into wars in the Middle East that appear to be fuelling the fundamentalist recruitment drive. The media that reports these situations has a vested interest in promoting negative emotions. The media thrive on our fear, anger, and disgust. And we, collectively, seem only too willing to feed the troll. The local terrorists are ostentatiously Muslim. There is a legitimate fear of religious fundamentalism amongst Muslims inspiring violence against British citizens. Some say that such people are "not Muslims". But this is facile. Islam, like every religion is split into sects that disagree on who is in charge and who is an authority. Appeals to the authority of the Koran are meaningless unless we accept the premise that it is God's word. Even then, what God meant is open to interpretation - God always seems to like to leave room for different readings. In the end it is men who decide what God's will is. The terrorists are Muslims. Very much so. The fact that other Muslims disagree with them is interesting, but not definitive, even if the British Prime Minister co-opts that view for his own ends. 


And amidst all of this are religious people who insist on asserting their religious identity over and above any other aspect of their identity. Like many groups who are insisting on their "right" they seem to unconcerned with unforeseen consequences. They have a right and it is up to the rest of us to protect that right of theirs, whatever it may cost us. In Britain I observe that there is a general unwillingness to think that one's actions might have consequences, especially if the actions are an expression of some right. If one is claiming a right then the consequences are not the responsibility of the individual. Society is seen as a guarantor of rights. And if our behaviour involves risk then it is up to society to eliminate that risk. So many people here go out at night and binge drink so that they completely lose control of themselves. And these people expect to be safe. But they are not safe. In many cases they might not even be safe doing what they are doing if they were sober. They are definitely at risk when falling down drunk. And yet they assert they have a right to be safe, whatever risks they may take. And complain when the government treat them like children. Sadly in the Cambridge News today is the story of a bright young Cambridge University student who was killed by a car: it was 1:30am, she was very drunk, wearing dark clothes, walking in the middle of the road, on a major arterial road, when she was struck by a car. The driver was going under the speed limit and watching out for cyclists with no lights (very common in Cambridge). 

Having been a victim of violence I sympathise to some extent, we all want to feel safe when we go out at night. But while society has yet to eliminate violent people, wouldn't it be more prudent to take reasonable precautions against becoming a victim of violence? Is there any rational or realistic expectation of eliminating violence from society? I can't imagine it myself. Is it realistic to expect everyone to obey the law all the time? Not really. So why would anyone expect to act as though they lived in a utopia? Of course we don't want to simply blame the victim. That's not what I'm getting at. But if you are in a minefield, there's no point in complaining that mines are illegal and immoral. One must take practical steps to get get out of the minefield without getting blown up before complaining. Nor am I saying the campaigning is pointless. We have seen a good deal of positive social change in my lifetime. What I'm talking about is a culture of entitlement. The idea that we are entitled to live in a utopia. That we ought not to have to make an effort to defend our rights from those who would deny them to us. It's the sense of entitlement that I don't understand. 

Talking about these things is difficult because if one expresses a dissenting opinion one tends to become a target for trolling. Labels get thrown around and thinking through the issues gets replaced by an enforced orthodoxy. And anyone who dares to dissent from this orthodoxy is characterised as evil. Lately the trend is to label anyone who argues with the liberal mainstream as a Nazi. Its as if we've forgotten the mad imperialism that brought the whole of Europe and half the world into an all-out war characterised by massive loss of life and destruction of property. We've forgotten that the Nazis attempted genocide, murdering sex million Jews. The Nazis were not simply authoritarian or dictatorial or anti-liberal. They were mass murderers on a scale that's hard to imagine. We trivialise the word Nazi at our peril. Once we trivialise a phenomenon like the Nazi's we raise the risk of it happening again: and this at a time when far-right groups are making steady gains in some European countries. 

There's a worrying trend to argue that people should not be allowed to say things that liberals disagree with. That one should not be allowed to say things that people might take offence at. Recently the British parliament actually spent time debating whether or not Donald Trump, a major investor in the UK economy, should be allowed to visit the UK. The reason was that he'd just said that his policy would be to stop Muslims entering the USA until there was some way to be sure they were not terrorists. This was shortly after the Paris bombing, where one of the bombers had entered France as a refugee. Many people argued that Trump should not be allowed here any more. The fact that this was a debate suggests that we have lost sight of what freedom of speech means. Trump can say what he likes. Our fear can only be that people will take him seriously. Why would we fear that? Of course the Trump the irony is that apart from one egregious example (9/11) most of the murderous attacks on American soil, the mass-shootings, are by non-Muslims and Americans of European rather than Middle-Eastern origin. Their problem is not so much religiously inspired terrorism as it is gun crime.

Setting Ourselves Apart.

If we religieux wish to set ourselves apart then we need to be realistic about the possible consequences of this. Out-group members may well receive harsh treatment, especially at times when there is economic or political upheaval. Arguing that this is not fair is childish. The world is not fair. People are what they are. Liberalism has certainly made some progress in the West, but our society is far from perfect, and many places are profoundly anti-liberal. We do not live in a utopia and probably never will. (I've written about this before: Living in a Non-Utopian Universe, 12 Sep 2014)

On the other hand I don't think it's true to say that religious people have more in common with each other than with non-religious people. The shared values that we have tend not to come from religious profession, but from the wider society. Religion is paradoxical in this sense. Since any one religion is always a minority these days, identifying with it to the point that one feels one must make a public statement of identification makes for a stronger sense of belonging to the religious community, but of being more set apart from society generally. If one also characterises society as generally evil or misguided, then the "us & them" effect is even stronger. Do we ever think about what we are sacrificing in order to experience a strong sense of belonging to our religious group?

Setting ourselves apart amidst a larger community is a two edged sword. A common enemy does bring people together, but we run the risk of becoming that common enemy and uniting people against us. This ought not to surprise us. At the level of our adaptation to pre-civilisation lifestyles, this makes perfect sense. It's part of our of survival strategy. As admirable as liberal values of tolerance inclusivity, and egalitarianism are, by setting ourselves apart we run the risk of testing how deep those liberal values go. And all too often they don't go very deep. So it might be worth religious people asking themselves, is it worth it. Can we get that feeling of belonging without all the public displays of affiliation and overt tribalism? Or is the acknowledgement of strangers really that important to us? 

One thing we need to think about is why some people are happy to define their in-group as "humanity" and why for some it is so much narrower. Why for some people seeing a man in a turban is a delightfully exotic sight, and for another it is a trigger for violence. And we really urgently need to drop any moral rhetoric along the lines of "because they are stupid". Sometimes people are stupid. But pointing this out never really helps. We need to try to get beyond our own simplistic, moralistic judgements and really connect with the values of others. That we might not share those values makes this difficult, because all of us find it difficult to embrace someone who's values are different from ours. But until we understand those values we will not make a connection of the kind that can bring change.


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