Thursday, August 03, 2006

Bigotry and Irrationality, Part 1

The hostilities between Israelis and their Arab neighbors have ignited into what looks like all-out war in Lebanon. (It's a funny kind of war, because although Israel is attacking Lebanese territory and Lebanese civilians are getting killed, Israel isn't actually at war with Lebanon, but with Hezbollah). In Iraq, Sunni/Shiite violence has claimed tens of thousands of Iraqi lives. Ethnic, racial, or religious conflicts have plagued Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Northern Ireland, Kashmir, East Timor, Sri Lanka, India...the list is absolutely staggering.

I don't know if I have anything to say about this insanity, except to say that all the evidence seems to suggest that this is the normal course of things, like the law of entropy. I'm not saying that we should give up; on the contrary, I'm saying that we must constantly be on guard against descending into barbarity. I have lots of incoherent thoughts on this subject, and I'm going to try to get rough drafts down as blog entries. These are along the lines of "thinking out loud" rather than polished essays.

First, even though the situation of ethnic hatred and violence is insane, the actions of individuals leading to the situation are really not so irrational. You have two groups, the star-bellied sneetches and the plain-bellied sneetches, for example. There is really no rational reason for the one kind of sneetch to hate the other kind of sneetch. However, it doesn't take much for some sneetches to come to the conclusion that the other sneetches are bigoted. The last three rulers have all been star-bellied sneetches. That can't be just a coincidence, can it? Once the suspicion arises that the star-bellied sneetches are getting more than their fair share, the plain-bellied sneetches start grumbling and being resentful. Then the star-bellied sneetches can rationally justify discriminating against plain-bellied sneetches: they are more likely to be resentful grumblers. I don't want any kind of tension, so I should probably stick to star-bellied sneetches. So discrimination grows and grumbling grows, and eventually grumbing turns into violence. Then the star-bellied sneetches learn not to go in plain-bellied neighborhoods, and the two groups become more and more polarized.

The basis for discriminating is almost completely irrelevant, except that to really get a good ethnic conflict going, the differences have to be roughly hereditary. Religious and language preferences aren't actually hereditary, but they might as well be---children strongly tend to make the same choices as their parents (especially if the people who chose differently live in different neighborhoods).

So acting on irrational bigotry is not necessarily irrational. It's a fact that people of one racial or ethnic group cannot safely walk in some neighborhoods dominated by another group. So being scared of the other group is rational, in many cases. As Yoda can tell you:
Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.


Blogger Kyle McCullough said...

I see that in the story, the Sneeches eventually learned their lesson. Not very realistic, I'm afraid.

11:31 PM  
Blogger RichM said...

Have we gotten to the part of the story where all of humanity unites to fight the alien menace come to exterminate it?

3:00 PM  

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