Sunday, April 15, 2012

Discrimination, distrust and xenophobia: Part 1

A few days ago I wrote about racism, religious intolerance and other forms of prejudice. That post attracted a fair amount of attention, both here (in Comments and via e-mail) and elsewhere. Some feedback has been thoughtfully, rationally and politely framed; some has not. A few commentators in other forums have gone so far as to engage in personal attacks, or allege dishonesty on my part. Presumably those individuals thought that I was unlikely to read their comments, so they could say whatever they wished. I'm profoundly disappointed in dishonorable conduct like that, but I won't dignify it with a response here.

Nevertheless, I'd like to respond in general terms to the differing views offered by many respondents. I initially tried to do so in the form of a 'regular' blog article, but that format doesn't lend itself to a discussion like this. I'll therefore respond in the form of a dialogue, taking each point in turn and trying to illustrate its problems while providing my response. At times I've paraphrased the comments of others so as to blend multiple comments into a single question. I'll try to post and respond to one question or comment each evening over the next few days.

To begin, let me ask you to read my earlier article. The questions and responses here are directly derived from it, and from the discussion it's provoked. If you've done that, we can proceed.

Q: It's all very well to say "judge a person as an individual", but what if you don't know the individual? How are you to assess him except by other factors, including group affiliation?

A: That's easy in theory, but hard in practice. Let's begin with first principles. How do you expect - how do you want - someone who doesn't know you, to assess you? I guess all of us would like others to be at least neutral towards us until such time as they've been able to establish our bona fides. Many of us would be upset if we knew others regarded us with suspicion and apprehension, as a potential threat, without knowing anything about us as individuals. After all, we know we're sterling characters! How dare they impute anything but the highest of motives and intentions to us? Yet, when assessing others, if there's anything noticeably 'different' about them (color of skin, manner of dress, language, religion, etc.), we often approach them with precisely the same suspicion and apprehension that upsets us when we encounter it in others, directed towards ourselves.

I'd love to say that we should expect only the best from others. After all, I'm a Christian, and Jesus commanded us: "Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them". This so-called 'Golden Rule' is found in very similar forms in many cultures and religions. However, while it's a great theory, its practical application is tricky. Should we immediately trust a stranger sufficiently to apply the Golden Rule in our approach to them? That may be spiritually desirable, even laudable, but in certain all too practical situations it might be extremely unwise!

I think a tongue-in-cheek approach often expressed by US Marines of my acquaintance fits very well here: "Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet". Marines (at least the ones I've met) don't live in a permanent state of paranoia, but they understand that the world is a dangerous place. They'll be polite and professional as a first response to anyone, but they'll also be prepared to change that response to something more direct if that should become necessary. The trouble is, many of us leave out the 'polite and professional' preliminaries. We default to distrust. I think if we were to apply politeness and professionalism while assessing a person or situation, we might defuse a great deal of potential suspicion and antagonism, and open the door to receive a polite and professional response in return. On the other hand, if our approach exudes suspicion and antagonism from the start, need we be surprised if we elicit precisely the same responses?

I think this is a very practical way of applying the Golden Rule. It works in civilian life and in military situations. I've used it in a combat zone, as have many of my readers. One may not know whether a civilian, or group of civilians, in Iraq or Afghanistan is a threat to US personnel or not; but if one behaves threateningly towards them, is it any wonder that they might respond in similar vein? I know there's a school of thought expressed by the old saying "Grab them by the balls - their hearts and minds will follow". However, that only works when you have overwhelming force and they don't. In many situations, any attempt to apply that philosophy, whether literally or figuratively, will result in the other party trying to do the same to us - and possibly succeeding!

I think this also opens the way to assessing others in terms of the information initially available, and then going further. You may believe that members of a particular group are a higher risk to your safety than others. For example, as someone pointed out, "Swedish Lutherans didn't hijack those airplanes on 9/11 and crash them into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and that field in Pennsylvania!" That's quite true; they were all hijacked by fundamentalist Muslim terrorists. However, that doesn't mean that all Muslims are also both fundamentalists, and/or terrorists. One might as well imply that because some Christians have committed mass murder and terrorism, all Christians are equally suspect. Consider atrocities committed within the past half-century by those who claimed to be acting in the name of the Christian God. They include, but are not limited to:

I could also cite terroristic acts perpetrated in the last half-century by Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, and followers of many other religions and/or political parties and/or nationalist groups and/or cultures. The fact that some followers of all those persuasions have been terrorists does not imply that all of their followers are terrorists. In the same way, you may regard a particular group as a threat: but don't assume that every individual who shares that group's faith, or perspective, or philosophy, is necessarily a threat.

Tomorrow we'll continue with a discussion of Muslim reactions to the 9/11 atrocities, and what this implies. Meanwhile, please feel free to respond to this article in Comments. I'll incorporate interesting perspectives in future articles.



Hack said...

I agree with much of what you write here. However, I have to differ on the issue of Islamic terrorism. If you'll study the day to day terrorist activity in the world within the last decade, you'll find that 95% of attacks and foiled attacks have been perpetrated by Islamic radicals. There really is no comparison.

Peter said...

Hack, with respect, that doesn't address the point of this article. Sure, in recent history most terrorist attacks that have been widely publicized have been perpetrated by Islamic terrorists - but that still doesn't mean that the majority of Muslims are terrorists! Furthermore, there have been a great many terrorist attacks by non-Muslims - it's just that the news media haven't given them much publicity. Look up the Lord's Resistance Army as just one example (see the link in the post above).

Mad Jack said...

You gotta watch them Swedes... they're always finding some excuse to run around nekkid.

...there have been a great many terrorist attacks by non-Muslims...

So what? He's talking about radical Muslims here. What other groups do or don't do is irrelevant.

You're point about judging the individual by the group they belong to is valid. Individually, people are much more than the function, morals and behavior of a single group. And, as you point out, unusual circumstances can provide for unusual behavior.

All that being the case, if I'm confronted anywhere by a group of black teenagers wearing hoodies, butt hanger baggies and sideways baseball caps I am not going to assume that they could just as easily be on their way to choir practice as they are looking for their next armed robbery victim. I'm going to instantly profile this group, assign a tag and avoid them. If they are in my upper-middle-class all-white neighborhood I'm going to call Officer Friendly and tell him about what I saw and let him deal with the group as he sees fit.

And, by the way, if you take the same group of teenagers and dress them up in boy scout uniforms, then I'm going to offer them a cordial greeting as I pass on the sidewalk and not think much about it.

My thinking is that if it looks like a black gang banger, it very likely is a black gang banger.

Anonymous said...


It's perfectly reasonable to point out the myriad of reasons why those living in many countries, Muslim or otherwise, have reason to dislike the US, and a foreign policy that has spent the last 70 years ranging from outright profiteering to benign indifference is certainly among them. It might also be instructive to try to find a 'better' example - does anyone know of a nation whose foreign policy could be described as altruistic?

You raise an excellent point that the majority of Muslims are not terrorists, even in particularly fundamentalist groups (Neither are the Westboro Baptists, as offending against good taste is not yet a crime in the US!). Similarly, the majority of people complaining of pain in their chest aren't having a heart attack. Still, from a medical perspective, the consequences of 'missing' a heart attack are dire, so chest pain gets treated with suspicion until it can be ruled out. That doesn't mean everyone with chest pain gets a pacemaker and emergent surgery, but it does mean reasonable, low-cost and low-risk measures are taken to substantiate or disprove that purely hypothetical heart attack.

Isn't this how any kind of screening is supposed to work? You pick tests that are quick, easy, and 'cheap', in the knowledge that no quick and easy test (or even lengthy, expensive test) is perfect.