Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Why can't we all get along?

Soon after a new Iraqi government was formed in the post-Saddam years, in my class I showed students the photographs of the three top most people.  One was a Sunni, the other was a Shia, and the third person was a Kurd.

I asked the class whether they could tell who was the Shia Iraqi.

Of course they could not.

In another meeting, I showed them a photograph of an Indian male and and a Pakistani male.  They didn't see any difference.

You can see where I am going with this.

People might look the same, eat pretty much the same foods, listen to the same music, and yet they could be ready to kill each other.

We humans are strange, eh!

Reading Branko Milanovic's blog-post reminded me of those classroom exercises.He questions, challenges, the assumption that "people who live close to each other are “similar”, have similar preferences and want to live together in a country or a union."

I grew up in Tamil Nadu, and I could never understand why I was in the same country with many others.  Well, other than the couple of years when I was consumed by an "Indian" rage.  It is not that I thought any less of the other parts of India and the people there.  I did not see any reason why I had to be in the same country as the people in the north, west, and east did, similar to how I did not see any reason for Tamil Nadu to be in a political union with Iceland.

Just because we "live close to each other are “similar”" did not mean we had to be in the same country.

Milanovic warns us about:
the common misconception that one often hears even today, namely that ethnic or religious conflicts are somehow the product of lack of knowledge of the two communities about each other and that if people only spent more time with each other, the conflict would lose its raison d’être and dissipate. 
Shia and Sunni in Iraq are warring not because they do not know each other well enough: they have lived together as neighbors for centuries. Does anybody think the Spaniards and Catalans do not sufficiently know each other? Or Serbs and Croats and Bosniaks who speak the same language and who have intermarried prior to the Civil War in the 1990s more than if the marriage pairing was random? The same is true for ethnic and religious wars in other places: Catholic and Protestant Irish, Ethiopians and Eritreans, Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Even the worst civil conflict of all, the Holocaust, did not happen because ethnic-German Germans and Jewish Germans did not know each other well or did not intermarry sufficiently. On the contrary, it is often argued that of all countries in Europe, Jews were most integrated in Germany.
I think  -–and I trust that this is something increasingly confirmed —that similar people are as likely to want to share a state as to be willing to split up or to go to war; and that believing  conflict can be prevented by people knowing each other better is just an illusion.
So, ... what can be done, right?

We can only wait for, and work towards, better leadership.  Like Helmut Kohl, for instance:
"Helmut Kohl was not just the architect of German unity. He contributed substantially, more than others, to the reconciliation between European history and European geography" ...
Kohl’s successor and one-time protege, Angela Merkel, struggled to rein in her emotions as she hailed “the chancellor of unification”.
“Without Helmut Kohl, the life of millions of people, mine included, who lived on the other side of the wall, would not be what it is today,” she declared.
Those of us who are old enough remember all too well how bleak and "cold" the world came across in 1988.  Then, the world became very different in 1990.

But, Kohl's own life and death show us how complicated all these are.
His apparent anger and bitterness towards them is said to be behind his refusal to even allow a state funeral to take place on German soil. Many of his former colleagues and friends have not been invited. Even his driver, Eckhard “Ecki” Seeber, often described as his closest confidant, is believed to have been excluded. So too Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
His elder son has gone so far as to describe the funeral plans as “unworthy” of his father. It is unclear whether Walter Kohl or his younger brother Peter, who have been estranged from their father for years, will even attend.
Such is the human drama on this planet!


Ramesh said...

Tribalism is a product of billions of years of evolution. The animal kingdom displays it in abundance. Its only homo sapiens that is trying to fight it and come out with "human values". Its not easy. Give us a few million years more ! After all we have been around for a mere blip in time.

I don't think being different is not a cause of conflict. A lot of human conflict over history can be traced to "difference". The Crusades are a great example. And there is ignorance even between communities that live adjacent to each other simply because proximity does not mean mingling. We can lead completely separate lives and know nothing about each other despite living geographically close.

I believe knowing and experiencing others' way of life will encourage respect and understanding. It may not eliminate conflict but will certainly help.

But in the end, you have to give us time to fight the natural process of what has been encoded in our genes.

Sriram Khé said...

"you have to give us time to fight the natural process" ...
I suppose people like me are impatient. We cannot accept the sloooooooooooow rate of change, which is why in our younger years we sided with those who called for revolutions.
Now, as an oooooooold man, I have come to accept that changes take time. I mean, they are fast in a cosmic sense of time, yes. But, at our existential level, they are a tad slow.

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