Monday, January 7, 2013

The Great Silence (On Race & Culture) Part III

Chimps and Humans: Hardwired For Xenophobia?

One key point that we must advance in our discussion of racism and culture is the difference between past and present critiques of the phenomenon of diversity and multiculturalism. For much of history, the said critiques were prescriptive in nature. In other words, in most cases, their purveyors were genuine racists and xenophobes, who were opposed to the goals of equality, democratic participation, freedom of association and prosperity for All Americans. And they promoted and prescribed legal and extra-legal measures to oppose these goals. One of the most appalling examples is the Ku Klux Klan that actively  sought to economically, socially and politically marginalize African-Americans and other groups. They viewed educated, entrepreneurial and upwardly mobile African-American families as a grave threat to white, Christian hegemony and exercised great brutality in their efforts to keep them in a state of debasement.

While the Klan and like-minded organization do still exist, they have been reduced to a withered pariah, a fringe held in contempt by the vast majority of Americans. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that on the rare occasions when hate groups march, they are dwarfed by anti-racist counter-protesters by a ratio of at least 10-to-1. In the last few years we have seen the emergence of critiques of diversity and multiculturalism that are descriptive in nature. Unlike their predecessors, they unequivocally recognize that the existence of poor, uneducated, alienated communities are not in the interests of the United States. At least in principle, most support the multitude of public and private sector initiatives to promote prosperity within diverse communities and to bridge the ongoing achievement gap . Most believe that diverse communities should be welcome to maintain their cultural distinctness, while working with other communities to achieve the common good. But, their honest observations and description of how diverse societies actually do function, have led them to question the veracity of the multicultural project. And unlike prescriptive critics of multiculturalism, their reservations do not stem from fear and ignorance. For example, those who take the time to research which countries are the happiesthealthiestleast violent and most economically equal, will find that they are by and large, homogeneous, which begs the question: why do diverse societies face such challenges? 

The descriptive critique has been compelled by a growing body of scientific knowledge. Arizona State University recently hosted an absolutely fascinating discussion entitled The Great Debate - Xenophobia - Why Do We Fear Others?, in which a panel of first rate scholars and researchers, which included a primatologist, a cognitive neuroscientist, an experimental social psychologist, a theoretical physicist and mathematician, an economist and a journalist presented compelling arguments that human beings and most other species are hardwired through evolution to form in-groups and recognize and be weary of out-groups. The end goal of this clearly liberal group was to spark debate on how we could address "such an important part of our evolutionary history" that has become "maladaptive as we a face a future increasingly dependent upon cooperation and shared responsibilities towards limited resources."  A growing body of research, in evolutionary psychology and neurology has cast serious doubt on liberal narratives that present in-group preferences as simply being the product of socialization. What I found most disheartening and supportive of this thesis was research that demonstrated that infants as young as 3 months demonstrated a preference for their own race. An important caveat to this discussion is that in-groups and out-groups need not solely be defined by race and language. The most obvious example is Bosnia, in which a racially and linguistically identical population formed in-groups based on religious and cultural identity and slaughtered the religious out-groups. Conversely, many Japanese-Americans and German-American valiantly fought for the United States, even though their respective nations of origin were members of the Axis.

This growing body of research is fairly clear in its conclusion, but the perplexing question remains: what are its practical implications in an increasingly diverse society? On one hand, it does support liberal measures: if we are wired to be reserved about members of out-groups, we must continue to educate the public against racism and xenophobia. On the other hand, policy that does not also recognize the facts on the ground and understand the nature and the shortcomings of human beings, are bound to fail. This was the case in communism and unless we adopt greater intellectual honesty, it may also come to pass with multiculturalism. But we need not abandon all of our idealism; good governance must strike a balance between leading man towards how we wish him to be, while accepting him for what he is. This means that we must do all that we can to ensure peace, goodwill and cooperation among the diverse populations that already reside within the United States, while not seeking to increase diversity for diversity's sake. We must never fall prey to the lure of heavy handed assimilation policies, for they too court conflict; amicable, democratic assimilation, guided by the spirit of E Pluribus Unum would be a wise course to pursue. No nation has shown a greater capacity to expand the scope of its in-group, which at one time only included white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. This has been achieved through ever greater tolerance, coupled with a powerful melting pot; while the former remains strong, the flames of the latter have been allowed to grow dim. Given our knowledge about human nature and group conflict, we should seriously reconsider this path. In future posts we shall provide more detailed recommendations based on the historical experiences of the few diverse societies that were able to maintain relative peace, prosperity and democracy and the many that succumbed to inter-communal conflict. 

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