Human beings always have contradictory aspirations: their will to assert their individuality conflicts with their desire to belong. And both tendencies bring inherent problems.
Those who seek to emphasise their individuality and specialness develop conflated egos that hinder their ability to relate to others. The Vedantic sages understood this millennia ago. They differentiated between the true Self and the false self. The Self was a manifestation of Atman who the sages understood to be in turn a manifestation in each of us of Brahman. The false self was an artificial creation of the individual who was not aware of his/her connection to the unity of humankind that was provided through Brahman.
On the other hand because we did not have that understanding of our collective connection to Brahman our desire to belong was circumscribed. We sought the comfort of association with limited collections of our fellows – our family, our tribe, our nation, those of our religious beliefs, those who supported the same football team!
This in turn created the “us versus them” dichotomy. As Michael Ignatieff wrote, “The more strongly you feel the bonds of belonging to your own group, the more hostile, the more violent will your feelings be towards outsiders. You can’t have this intensity of belonging without violence because belonging of this intensity moulds the individual conscience. If a nation gives people a reason to sacrifice themselves, it also gives a reason to kill.”
In the aftermath of the European wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a doctrine was born which laid the foundations for the modern nation-state. It was called toleration. Essentially it privatised conscience. It allowed that people might belong to a civil and political order without necessarily subscribing to the beliefs of the majority. Usually this is thought of as part of a process of secularisation. John Plamenatz rightly notes that in Milton, Locke and others it had an essentially religious underpinning. It involved moving from the view that ‘Faith is supremely important and therefore all men must have the one true faith’ to the proposition that ‘Faith is supremely important, and therefore every man must be allowed to live by the faith which seems true to him.’
But the Rabbinic scholar Jonathan Sacks points out the test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in His. Can we create a paradigm shift through which we come to recognize that we are enlarged, not diminished, by the 6,000 languages that exist today, each with its unique sensibilities, art forms and literary expressions?
There are anthropologists – Roger Keesing of ANU among them – who believe that differences between people have been exaggerated by anthropologists, and that anthropologists choose the most exotic possible cultural data as their texts and give them the most exotic possible readings. These anthropologists believe that the other, wherever he comes from, is basically like you in most ways.
But this accentuation of difference was not always the case. Theodor Waitz in his book “Introduction to Anthropology” printed in 1863, emphasised the unity of mankind. His disciple, Franz Boas after spending a winter with the Inuit at Cumberland Sound in the Canadian Arctic, argued that “the origin of ethnic differences lay with history, experience and circumstance and not with physiology and psychology.” Though he focused on the impact of the environment Boas still recognized an impact of genetics. He made the crucial distinction between the individual and the race. It was precisely because he recognised profound differences in the personalities of those of the same race that he sought to discount the innate differences between races. This was later proved genetically correct by Richard Lewontin, the American evolutionary biologist and geneticist. He demonstrated that the genetic differences between individuals in any one race are greater than the average differences between races.
We, in order to create and then preserve our illusion of separateness and specialness, often also fall into the trap of the anthropologists in exaggerating our differences and ignoring our commonalities.
We are faced then with an awkward dichotomy. Abraham Maslow, many years ago, pointed out in his book “Towards a Psychology of Being” that each person’s inner nature is in part unique to himself, and in part species-wide. Physically our species wide similarity has been reinforced by the work of Dr Paul Ekman who has demonstrated the gestures and facial expressions we use are ubiquitous, irrespective of race, culture or geography.
My friend Dr Phil Harker has been telling me for some time that no one is special. And whilst it took me a while to come to that realisation, there is no doubt that he is right. What we extol as our special attributes are merely accidents of fate. We are gifted perhaps because of our genetic heritage and our fortunate circumstances. It is not something that we could take personal responsibility for!
You might wonder what stimulated these thoughts about commonality and difference. I gave you a clue in the e-mail I sent last week accompanying my blog notification. It came about by my contrasting our rightfully compassionate response to the terrible flooding disasters we were then experiencing (particularly with that dreadful event in the Lockyer valley) to our concerns for those in Brazil who were experiencing an even greater tragedy. I personally don’t know any of the people killed in our floods just as I don’t know anybody killed in Brazil.
Propinquity seems inevitably to make a difference. No, I may not have known anyone who died in the Queensland floods but I know the places they came from and the communities they resided in. Add to this the extensive media coverage of those events. For a couple of weeks now our news bulletins on television and radio as well as our newspapers have been dominated by these stories. We have seen the hurt, the damage, the social disruption and the bewilderment of those involved. The disaster in Brazil, though much greater in terms of lives lost earned barely a mention.
In the end it goes back to how wide our compass of inclusion is – more parochially who is “them” and who is “us”. I am not seeking to moralise here. Very few of us, it would seem, can include every human being into the circle that circumscribes “us”. What interests me is that it is apparent that the bigger I try to make my sense of self (ego and not “Self” in the Vedantic tradition) the less room there seems to be to include the “other”. Indeed the exhortation from the New Testament ( echoed in most of the wisdom traditions) that I should love my neighbour as myself, inevitably falls short because of who we might include in the category of “neighbour”. I suppose the terminology gives it away. Most of us only relate to the “neighbour” if it is the one that lives next door!
As a postscript, it is amazing how we can rationalise away our lack of concern. In the Australian newspaper the other day, there was a letter from someone who asserted that we should have no concern for those unfortunates in Brazil impacted by their floods. The writer stated that they only had themselves to blame because seeing as they didn’t practice birth control they had too many children and could not therefore house them properly being compelled to build shanties on mountain slopes and other inappropriate locations! Is human compassion so meagre?