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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
March 31, 2006
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