Dave Pollard's environmental philosophy, creative works, business papers and essays.
In search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.

March 31, 2006

What Do We Do When We Can’t Get Along? The Pros and Cons of Homomemeity

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 10:54
OK,so you are talking to your neighbour, someone you trust very much. She tells you that she has undeniable evidence that one of your other neighbours regularly beats his wife and child, and asks for your advice what to do. What do you do:
  1. Call the police, anonymously, and report it, along with your neighbour’s evidence.
  2. Confront the man and tell him that your community does not tolerate such behaviour, and that if there is any evidence of repetition you will call the police.
  3. Try to get the wife or child alone, and when you do, tell them that you will find them safe sanctuary if they would like it; if you can’t get them alone, do nothing but keep vigilant.
  4. Try to persuade your neighbour that it is her duty, as the one with evidence, to do one of the above.
  5. Do nothing. It is not your business.

Now, a week later, you happen to find yourself at a meeting attended by a large group of people including the abusive neighbour, where a major local rezoning proposal is being discussed. After the meeting, several of you get together on an impromptu basis for coffee to talk further. During this discussion, the man admits freely that according to his religion, God chose men to lead the family, and to dispense “firm justice” to their family members in any way blessed by their religion that they saw fit, to keep them on “God’s path”, and that this was men’s right and sacred duty as leaders of the family unit. Now what do you do:

  1. Argue, drawing your neighbours into the discussion on your side, that the law of the land stands above the rules of the church, and warn the man that any dispensation of justice that was not tolerated by your country’s laws would also not be tolerated by your community.
  2. Argue, drawing your neighbours into the discussion on your side, about the morality of any religion that treats women and children as little more than property.
  3. Do not bother arguing immediately, but repeat what you did a week earlier (see earlier question) or do one of the other alternatives you did not select a week earlier.
  4. Do not do anything more. What you did a week earlier is all that is called for. A statement of beliefs is not an admission of having actually done anything illegal.

The discussion continues. One of your neighbours is a homosexual, but few of your neighbours know this. The abusive neighbour continues to discuss his fundamentalist beliefs, and states that he thinks homosexuality is a grievous sin, an offense against God. Where he comes from, he says, homosexuals are rightfully jailed or sent to indoctrination centres to have such depraved behaviour beaten out of them. “It is God’s will that we act. These people cause great harm to others. Even death is too good for them”, he says. Now what do you do:

  1. Confront the man for his intolerance, and warn him that unlike “where he comes from”, there are laws that protect people with different beliefs and lifestyles here, and that no one has any business passing judgement on others, and certainly not taking the law into their own hands.
  2. Shake your head, indicating your disapproval, but walk away and say nothing. You can’t argue with people like that.
  3. Do nothing immediately, but organize a vigilante group of your neighbours, tell them what he said and what he is reportedly doing to his wife and child, keep a close watch on him and ostracize him.
  4. Do nothing more. As hard is it is to do, such people must be tolerated at least until they act or clearly threaten to act on their beliefs.

An article called The Dutch Model in this week’s (April 3/06) New Yorker (not online), written by Jane Kramer, explains that the people of the Netherlands are facing these kind of questions with increasing frequency, and are extremely uncomfortable trying to come up with workable answers. The article concludes (emphasis mine):

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the country remains preoccupied by what happened to [radical filmmaker] Theo van Gogh [he was assassinated by a fundamentalist fanatic] and what the politically correct position toward people who live in your midst but feel free to kill you should be. Friends who a few years earlier would walk you through a neighbourhood like the [multicultural] Baarsjes, with its shrouded women and its state-funded Islamic school and its defiantly secretive mosque, and call this a “multicultural success” or a “model of tolerance” have begun to suspect that that peculiarly Dutch myth of a democracy integrated but not assimilated might be not only a contradiction in terms, but a dangerous fiction. But, like everybody else in Europe, they have no adequate answer to the question What now?

I want to try to rise above the issue of Islamic fundamentalism and get to the larger issue of how to cope with fundamentalist belief systems (a) that believers in principles of democracy and social liberalism find repugnant, and (b) whose adherents believe they have the authority and imperative to impose, by any means at their disposal, their belief systems on others.

Think about that. There are ‘quaint’ tolerated religions in North America where physical beating and subjugation of women and children, and even child marriage and bigamy (by men only) are accepted and sometimes even mandated. The McCarthyism era in the US was a sustained, nation-wide reign of terror perpetrated by a gang of ideological fundamentalists who, for a long time, had the levers of power at their beck and call. The white supremacist movement in both North America and Europe is very much alive and well despite its sordid history and reputation. Many Christian fundamentalists today believe it is their right and duty to convert or subvert opponents and unbelievers by whatever means is necessary — such as assassinating the elected president of Venezuela, murdering abortion doctors and gays, and imposing Christian fundamentalist law (which some might see as the Christian equivalent of sharia) on the women of South Dakota.

There is a compelling (and disturbing to us liberals) argument put forward by some anthropologists that says humans, like our chimpanzee cousins, evolved to be basically tribal and to interact minimally with other tribes, for two simple, Darwinian reasons:

  • very separate, differently-evolving gene pools made the species more resilient to pandemics, and
  • as we are by nature a fierce species, interactions between tribes historically tended to be inherently hostile, suspicious and often violent (so we survived best when such interactions were minimized).

I put this argument forward not as a defense of racial, religious or ideological intolerance, but as an explanation of its deep-rootedness. Things are the way they are for a reason, and they have been that way for millions of years. 

Until recently, when we ran out of inhabitable frontiers, those who were different were generally cast out, and ‘encouraged’ to become pioneers in a faraway uninhabited land. Even then we have demonstrated our inability to get along: The Europeans who were cast out because their beliefs were unwelcome in crowded Europe had no compunction about genocidal slaughter of the native peoples in the ‘new’ lands ‘they’ discovered in the Americas. 

I continue to be astonished, everywhere I travel, by the continuing de facto segregation of races, cultures, and social classes within seemingly cosmopolitan areas. There are invisible lines in most cities (especially noticeable in the US) where the predominant ethnicity seems to immediately and sharply change from block to block. In business and social activities, the observable lack of interaction between those of different cultures, religions, and political beliefs in cities that are so utterly multicultural is astonishing. It does not surprise me at all that America’s ‘red’ states and ‘blue’ states both seem to be becoming decidedly more so, or that the balkanization of nations seems to have no end.

In fact those who are truly blind to physical, religious and ideological differences seem to be a special class unto themselves, not really accepted by left or right, black or white, orthodox or secular. It is almost as if their very tolerance is intolerable, as if they have become their own ‘metro culture’, distinguishable by its very lack of distinguishability. Meanwhile, everyone else seems to end up, sooner or later, seeking to be “among their own.”

It seems to me, therefore, that neither the assimilation approach that the US has taken, nor the ‘integration without assimilation’ approach that other affluent nations have taken, is working. So as Jane Kramer says, What now?

Regular readers know I’m a big fan of intentional communities, a modern imitation of ancient tribes. The advantage of such communities is that they are truly self-selecting, and by virtue of that their members are much more likely to get along than communities created by happenstance factors like proximity to favoured schools, housing prices, or even thinly-veiled exclusionary zoning practices. Even if we could get around all the legal, logistic and zoning obstacles to intentional communities, however, and get everyone living in small, self-selected neighbourhoods, we would still have to deal with three complex problems that such communities would not solve, and might even exacerbate:

  1. In our crowded and overpopulated world, there would likely be little space between, and hence a great deal of constant friction between, neighbouring intentional communities.
  2. Vast economic disparity, endemic in the current economy, would be next to impossible to eradicate in intentional communities. In some cases this disparity would be so crushing as to be intolerable by anyone.
  3. Some of these communities would inevitably consist of religious or ideological fundamentalists who would object to the actions of other intentional communities, or would impose conditions on their own people that, even if the members ostensibly had chosen to live in that community, many or even most people in other communities would find abhorrent.

These problems were much less pervasive in the pioneering intentional communities of previous centuries, because population, space and the disparity of economic wealth and opportunity were not such a problem, and because knowledge of what was going on elsewhere was much scarcer. Overpopulation, obscene disparities in wealth and opportunity, and the ‘global village’-creating information explosion have made the option of ‘getting along by staying away from those we can’t get along with’, non-viable.

I know there are those who believe that, with education, time and practice, and perhaps a little well-intentioned hegemony, we will all become culturally homogeneous and/or tolerant, that like those in the ‘metro culture’ we will get past our religious, cultural and ideological differences. I’m not so sure. While a homomemeous (to coin a new word: “sharing the same worldview”) community may make sense, and a homomemeous world might well be peaceful and tolerant, such a world would also probably be uncreative, boring, and vulnerable to perilous memetic overreaction and groupthink. 

Homomemeity is, in fact, a desired end of both the assimilation (“give us enough time and you’ll think like us”) and integration (“give us enough time and our thinking will converge”) models. It’s not happening, however, because there is a Darwinian force within each of us pushing in the opposite direction (“that thinking threatens our thinking; we must get together to resist this threat to our beliefs”). You see this resistance in every separatist movement, every minority group, and everywhere in the blogosphere. Diversity, of every kind, is selected for as an evolutionary essential. It’s good for us.

So I would argue that the reason we haven’t found a model that works, that balances the tension between affinity and diversity and lets us all get along, is that there isn’t one. We will only find one when we create the conditions necessary for one to emerge: A much, much lower human population, without waste, pollution, and overconsumption, in a world with lots of space for us to create community and define our boundaries, a world of abundance instead of scarcity where there is more than enough of everything to go around. A world where information, not armies, will liberate the few of us suffering from oppression, and where we will be so busy delighting in our chosen community, making a living with those we love, we will not have the time or inclination to meddle with other communities who choose to see the world differently.

I’m sorry I don’t have an easier answer. Complex problems rarely have simple solutions. No matter how much we may wish to, or see the logic and even the morality of doing so, we cannot be what we are not.

Photo: From the BBC a year ago. One-year old hippo Owen, rescued from the Asian tsunami, has befriended100-plus-year-old tortoise Mzee, and the two are now inseparable.


  1. Gee, what conditions could we get to vastly decrease the human population?I realize it’s a big problem, but wouldn’t mind finding a ‘How to Save the World *and* the People in It’ website.

    Comment by Mike — March 31, 2006 @ 13:10

  2. Mike, are you suggesting, perhaps, that how we phrase ideas makes a difference in how others receive them?It seems to me that Dave’s mood and presentation style sometimes reflect whatever he’s read recently. Still, the seed ideas for saving the people in the world may underlie this post, and some of Dave’s others. I find it difficult to appreciate them sometimes, because there are other ideas that seem to compete for my attention.Is that similar to your perception, Mike, or do you have something else in mind?

    Comment by etbnc — March 31, 2006 @ 13:45

  3. etbnc: Both fiction and history feature save-the-world plans that involve massive depopulation. Pollard obviously feels much toward the earth, and I read all his posts, but cannot get past what I see what might be termed crypto-genocidalism. Saying there’s no solution, but maybe we’ll find one, if we get the population down to “much, much lower” levels, is to me the same as saying there’s no solution, or rather, that he can’t think of one.If you want to build a new society with a hearty band of like-minded individuals in a pristine wilderness, I’m all for it. Perhaps Mars, the moon, or other unpopulated places in the solar system would be the ideal place for this. I’m all for that, and if or when possible, I’d go in a minute.There’s 6.5 billion people on the earth. Which ones are problems and which ones have solutions? Would you accept Dave as judge?I want to save the world too, though my bent is more technological. Say reversing global warming or some such will cost many $trillions. Perhaps those same trillions could be spent building a space elevator and establishing orbital colonies, or populating Mars, or some other technique that would get folks off the planet. Maybe then the global warming problem would (at least partially) solve itself.Many, many years ago I read an essay about looking for solutions not in the problem box, but in the solution box. It’s affected my thinking ever since.

    Comment by Mike — March 31, 2006 @ 14:36

  4. Mike, I think your ‘solution box’ is a very nice statement. Thanks for remembering it for us.Here in Europe, you can still find the evidence of peoples and persons adopting great courage and changes of mind, to survive and return on the problem they found themselves in 60 years ago. They did it, and so can we all now, as the world changes. Good fortune to you.

    Comment by WindInYews — March 31, 2006 @ 15:46

  5. This is a big topic and a very good one, because it doesn’t get discussed in detail enough.In reference to Mike’s first comment, This blog is called “How to Save the World.” I tend to take that to mean the entire organic/nonorganic entity that is Earth. It is clear that there is a finite amount of energy coming into the planet from the sun and some from other sources but the total amount of energy that can be used in a given time is relatively fixed. This energy must be distributed across the whole world and all the species living in it. I’ve read somewhere in the past that the Earth can sustainably hold somewhere between 1 and 2 billion people. I’m not sure how exactly that was calculated, but it’s pretty clear that if the our population is too large we start having to take resources from other species in order to support our own population and that biodiversity suffers. I’m pretty certain (gut feeling looking at population graphs over time compared to when fossil fuels started being used) that 6.5 billion people is too large of a population to support on this planet without negatively affecting biodiversity over the long haul. Thus I think our global population needs to be reduced.I don’t think Dave is advocating selective removal of bad people (even if I believed in “bad” people). On a similar note, its dead obvious that if we continue to breed with no self-control, we are dooming ourselves to resource-scarcity, no matter how big of a system we’re in. At some point in time, we’re going to have to consciously step in and reduce the amount we breed to keep our population at a certain level, that we’ll have to agree is for our own good. If we don’t do that, nature will step in and reduce the population for us. It could be a virus or bacteria or starvation or something, unless we think that we are completely capable of dominating nature.As far as colonozing the moon or space or whatever: Obviously you know now that I don’t thinkit would be a permanent solution without breeding control, but a different aspect of it was brought to my attention by comedian David Cross in his album It’s Not Funny, that most of us would never have the opportunity to be part of those that would colonize space to get off this dying planet. His punchline was something to the effect that the rich would get to colonize the moon or mars or space, and that the meek get to inherit the earth. I really doubt that the bulk of us will ever get the opportunity to be a colonist with the way our society is set up to benefit those who already have power, and if we’re going through the hassle of making things equitable for all, we’ve already done the bulk of the work necessary to set us up for sustainability.Now to comment on the post itselfI think it’s perfectly natural for people to clump together with like minds. I’m becoming increasingly convinced in the idea of holographic metaphysical reality where we pull in things that are like the vibes that we are currently emmitting, so in that sense we would tend to cluster together with like minds. On a more conventional basis, I think that the human mind will tend to clump together with other like minds in its pursuit to maintain its own worldview. We know that people have trouble “hearing” other people because when they are listening to them, they only selectively hear what already conforms with their world view and tend to reject that which clashes with it. Since people of the same culture tend to have the same patterns in their brain and thus the same (or relatively close enough) worldviews, they won’t reject those people as much as they would people with dramtically different worldviews than they have. Of course, they wouldn’t really be consciously aware of the decisions they were making, but would probably instead feel like they were just too far apart to really have a good understanding of each other or something like that.I think our big problems stem not from the differences we have with others, but in the intolerances we towards others. You seemed to mention that a lot of our intolerances stem from religious convictions. Almost all of our organized religions are fundamentally flawed in that they tell us what to think, so that’s what we think. In reality there is no real thinking on most of our religions, its just justifying what we’ve been told to believe to ourselves. All religion is is a means to come up with a model of the universe and how to interact with it to acheive the best possible result for ourselves. It’s exactly like science in what its goal is, but its different is that it can’t conform to the scientific method yet, because science hasn’t gotten to that level of understanding to be able to test it yet. Our spiritual goal is to acheive the best outcome possible in the afterlife. My point being that people need to start percieving religion as a way of trying to better fulfill their own personal model of the universe rather than as just accepting someoneelses model as their own. It’s pretty hard to be ignorant of the possibility that they’re life is more spiritually pure when you realize that you’re both just working off of a model of reality rather than one being right and one wrong. Or we could all just start talking in English Prime, where there is no certainty and everything is expressed as a perception. It’s pretty hard to be ignorant when you can’t use the word is to describe the universe.To change perspectives, I don’t really think war or oppression due to intolerance is that big of an issue. I tend to think that most people are passively complicent as far as oppression is concerned. There is a small minority that do the pushing for war and everyone else just lets them do it for the group. Removing the veil of ignorance from them so that their power can’t be used without their full consent and understanding would go a long way to prevent power from being used immorally. In other words, prevent secretive ruling of a group.Thisis getting a little long, and I’m pretty sure I could write much more on this subject, but I’m cutting the rest of this off.

    Comment by medaille — March 31, 2006 @ 16:25

  6. Thanks, Mike, WindInYew, and Medaille. I think I understand better what you value, Mike.I was trained in an engineering discipline, and I’ve read a fair bit of science fiction, too. I remember reading Clarke’s space elevator novel many years ago. These days I prefer the annual Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois. He finds some writers who really think and write differently.Speaking of thinking differently, I’ve been thinking a bit differently lately compared to engineering training. A couple of years ago I encountered Peter Senge’s work on systems thinking and learning organizations. His book, The Fifth Discipline, greatly changed my view of problems and solutions.In particular, Senge illustrates how today’s solution box can become tomorrow’s problem box. In engineering school we shrugged and jokingly called that “job security,” but I take it very seriously now. As I become more attuned to the links between apparently unrelated problems, and the links between our cultural habits and our problems, increasinglyI seek ways to decouple those links or to create less harmful links. Since I’m attuned to that approach, it may be easier for me to see it reflected in Dave’s writing. But I also notice occasions when Dave seems to prefer to vent, so I can imagine how Mike could get that impression. That’s one reason I sometimes drop blatant,I mean, subtle plugs for systems thinking into this comment stream. :)Medaille, I do find that the E-prime way of phrasing ideas helps me to express myself more clearly. So I strive to use it, at least in writing. Rephrasing to eliminate those pesky “is”-es from my sentences seems easier in writing than speaking. The effort pays off though, so thanks for that reminder.Speaking of blatant, I mean, subtle link plugs…http://www.thinking.net/Systems_Thinking/Intro_to_ST/intro_to_st.htmlInfo about Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline, http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-0385260954-11and a couple of my own pieces of this puzzle, http://mybluepuzzlepiece.blogspot.com and http://home.nc.rr.com/sustain/Cheers, y’all

    Comment by etbnc — March 31, 2006 @ 17:12

  7. Interesting point on the negating influence of the overly tolerant there. I have suspected that for a while, especially as my own openmindedness is not well tolerated within my original ‘intentional’ community of large family. If only I’d realised it was all about me a long time ago and gone off and tried to find my own community…(Sigh)

    Comment by genevieve — April 1, 2006 @ 12:46

  8. Thank you all — interesting dialogue here. Medaille has answered the concerns and criticisms better than I could, so I’ll just add a couple of general points. Reducing human population, to 2 billion if we can learn to live simpler, or something less than 1 billion (what we had a mere two centuries ago) if we want to live with a lot of stuff we don’t need, is not an option: either we figure out how to do it ourselves (and I’m not, as I’ve repeatedly said, proposing how)or nature will do it for us. In a variation on Mike’s comment, we either save all species or we will save none. That will be the next dawning of truth after Global Warming, and then perhaps we’ll start to act on it. Technology won’t solve our problems, space travel, even with the most optimistically foreseeable science, will take far more energy and time than we could have, and figuring that the leveling of birth rates will solve the problem for us is hopelessly naive about human history and human nature. As for systems theory, I love it and use it frequently, but it only works for complicated problems, and will be of limited value in addressing the most threatening problems, which are all complex.

    Comment by Dave Pollard — April 1, 2006 @ 14:56

  9. Umm I tried posting here but it claims my email addy is no valid…..???

    Comment by Thomas Watson — April 1, 2006 @ 21:14

  10. and now it works….sigh, there goes my 20 minutes of posting….

    Comment by Thomas Watson — April 1, 2006 @ 21:15

  11. I feel compelled to add something that often occurs to me while reading about this topic on this blog. The Catholic church has seemed to escaped both the author and his reader’s radar on this topic. Since its Sunday, and I’m thinking about it, I used to be a Catholic and the only real reason I stopped was because of the Church’s position on birth control combined with its massive influence in Latin America. And I am not talking about the more contentious issue of abortion, just simple birth control and family planning. To my way of thinking the position of the Vatican on this topic seems marginally criminal given its moral influence in the world. I’ve never been one to blame the US or any number of corporations for their influence in the world because I’ve never been without complicity in the problem. I did a search of “catholic” in this blog, didn’t come up with much, so it does seem like a strangely glaring omission.

    Comment by theresa — April 2, 2006 @ 13:51

  12. I contacted Thomas offline about Radio’s erratic comments server.Theresa: I dunno, I took a lot of flak over this post. I generally use “organized religion” as a euphemism for the various Big Fundy churches, including the Roman Catholics.

    Comment by Dave Pollard — April 2, 2006 @ 19:17

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