By Sarah Braasch
In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)
In an internet café in downtown Rabat in Morocco, a middle-aged, middle-class Muslim woman told me that her fondest wish would be to have all of the Arab nations rise up as one and slaughter every Jew on the planet. A young and brilliant male Chinese engineer and co-worker at a small high-tech firm in the San Fernando Valley in California told me that the Japanese are vastly inferior to the Chinese, and that the Chinese are vastly superior to any other race on Earth, as evidenced by all of their technological and cultural achievements at a far earlier date than any other race. My Chinese and Taiwanese colleagues derided me for my Tiger birth year. As a woman, I could not have been born on a less auspicious year. Tigers are ferocious and proud and aggressive. Woe to the Tiger woman. She will certainly never marry. And, I never have.
A Pakistani taxi driver in New York City told me that he hits Muslim women who proposition him for sex as a show of respect. He then propositioned me for sex. A family of Polish immigrants told me that they wouldn’t vote for Obama, because blacks are lazy and entitled, and Obama’s victory would only render them more so. They also told me that they hate Jews and believe them to have been responsible for 9/11. A German tour guide on the Cote d’Azur told me that the French hate the Italians for being stupid, and the Italians hate the French for being snobs. As a young Jehovah’s Witness girl, I relished my secure knowledge that I would survive to enjoy an eternity of earthly paradise while the rest of humanity would suffer horrifying and well-deserved deaths at Armageddon for having rejected Jehovah God. I looked forward to the spectacle with genocidal glee.
Christians have told me that they hate Muslims. Muslims have told me that they hate Jews. Whites have told me that they hate blacks. Florentines have told me that they hate Sardinians. Sunnis have told me that they hate Shi’as. Ethiopians have told me that the Amhara hate the Oromo who hate the Amhara, all of whom hate the Tigrays. But, they really hate the Somalis and the Eritreans. Everyone tells me that they hate gays. And, women. Well, for the most part, no one says that they hate women, but they certainly act like they do.
There seems to be something about me that elicits honesty and trust. People open up to me. They reveal their true feelings. They seem to trust that I will not judge them. And, I don’t. They seem to feel that I will not condemn them. And, I don’t. They seem to think that I understand the darker sides of their natures. And, I do.
Perhaps I betray that trust. Perhaps I manipulate them. Perhaps I lure them into a false sense of security. Perhaps there is no perhaps.
Maybe it’s because they sense my utter lack of group allegiances. I claim no membership in any tribe. Of course, I must function in a world in which more than a handful of group memberships are imposed upon me by accident of my birth, but I feel no particular pride or obligation or prejudice as a result. No one can be outside of your group, if you don’t have an in-group.
I was raised in an abusive, lower middle-class Jehovah’s Witness home in suburban Minnesota by white parents of Northern European ancestry, and, if family lore is to be believed, a dash of Native American. Those are my ostensible tribal identities by birth. One of the few positive aspects of being raised as a Jehovah’s Witness was the fact that I grew up in a racially integrated religious community, even if my residential and academic communities were anything but. Nonetheless, I walked away from all of my tribes at the moment I turned 18. I rejected everything I had been. I decided to recreate myself anew.
I turned myself into a human rights activist and writer, intent on raising public awareness of the atrocities human beings perpetrate against one another in the name of their respective tribal identities. I seek the truth, but I have no desire to victimize anyone. I seek to expose and dismantle institutions and cultures of tribalism and oppression, not individual lives. I would never reveal anyone’s identity. I reveal their bigotries, their hatreds, their genocidal desires, their misogyny, their ethnocentrism, their fascism and their racism. I see them as victims too, not just perpetrators. They are also victims of indoctrination, of their divisive group ideologies, perpetuated by their respective tribes, be they defined by race, religion, creed, ethnicity, class, nationality, culture or what have you.
Tribalism seems to be the defining characteristic of humanity. The adulation of one’s own group and its defining attributes while also condemning and demonizing all outsiders and their respective groups, including their allegedly contrasting attributes. We will either learn to overcome this vestigial proclivity or be overcome by it, like an infected and inflamed appendix. Evolutionary sepsis, if you will.
And, does it really need mentioning that all of these tribal identities that we hold so dear don’t actually exist? They are arbitrary and illusory social constructs. Man made. Artificial. Fake.
Racial distinctions? Not real. National boundaries? Not real. Religious affiliations? Not real. Cultural distinctions are nebulous and amorphous, fleeting and evanescent. Cultures rise and fall and twist and turn like the unrelenting and dispassionate vicissitudes of the turbulent seas. Efforts to protect and maintain cultures and to grant groups rights invariably lead to the most egregious human rights violations.
Many of my colleagues would recoil at such a claim. This approach ignores the wrongs of biblical proportions, which have been perpetrated against human beings because of their group identities. How do you go about seeking justice for the countless persons who were murdered or tortured or dehumanized in genocidal campaigns without addressing the fact that these atrocities were committed because of the victims’ tribal identities, social constructs or no. Real or illusory though they may be.
What is the alternative? Sometimes when you act as if the circumstances are as you wish them to be, you can effect positive change via a self-fulfilling prophecy. We may just have to resign ourselves, as a species, to letting go of our lust for retribution, in order to create a world in which we all may live. We may need to shed our tribal allegiances in order to survive.
So, what’s a well-meaning human rights activist to do? It seems positively hopeless. Never-ending cycles of oppression and victimization based upon artificial divisions within humanity or wish fulfillment.
Tribalisms, including religion, probably served important evolutionary purposes at one point. But, times have changed. Circumstances have changed. Our well-honed ability to distinguish ourselves from one another based upon imaginary distinctions no longer serves the purpose of perpetuating ourselves as a species. We are too many. We are running out of water and land and oil and other resources. We are destroying what habitable geography we now possess. We are no longer served by trying to outbreed one another into submission. We are no longer served by keeping women as sex slaves to generate a ready source of slave child labor. And, our well-honed ability to invent illusory group divisions is matched only by our well-honed ability to invent very real methods for killing one another on a massive, even global scale.
We must either accept our new reality as a single global family of individual human beings, or destroy one another. It is really that simple. Anyone who avers otherwise is not willing to see the stark and bleak future confronting us.
The problem is time. We don’t have enough of it. Maybe if we had started the process of shedding our idiocies earlier, we wouldn’t have found ourselves in such dire straits at the latest possible moment. Maybe if we had figured out a way to colonize other planets sooner, we could have established a Christian colony on Venus and a Muslim colony on Mars and a Jewish colony on Mercury. The Hindus could take Jupiter. No one would be able to keep Earth, as this would inspire far too much rancor over one or the other religious group being able to retain their earthly holy sites while the other groups would be forced to forego theirs. No doubt there would be much bickering over who gets which planet, over who has to share, and the astrological and theological implications of the assignments.
The problem is arrogance. We have too much of it. Arrogance and self-conceptions of victimization and persecution. Everyone thinks they are better than everyone else. And, everyone wants to be able to claim past grievances, past victimizations, which bestow upon them privileges not to be enjoyed by others. Here’s the honest-to-god truth: You’re shit. Not the shit. Just shit. And, so is everyone else. You’re not better than anyone else. Your culture was not superior to anyone else’s. If it were, it wouldn’t have died. And, the current leaders will die out too. Your religion or prophets or whatever don’t possess any truth that has been denied all others. You are human. You are nothing more and nothing less. You are just like everyone else.
But, being human is wonderful. Or, at least, it can be. It could be. And, it is enough. Or, at least, it should be. But, human beings seem to be too stupid to enjoy their extraordinary good fortunate to have won the cosmological super lotto. We exist. Woo hoo. We are here. Enjoy.
Is just getting rid of religion enough? The so-called New Atheists are often criticized for taking aim exclusively at religion. Attacks against religion as a divisive group ideology, which may lead to humanity’s downfall, are derided as ignorant and facile. Opponents of the anti-theists claim political and territorial and national and military disputes as the real culprits.
In a sense, they are right. Religion is but one aspect of the greater problem. The problem is tribalism. Religion is a particularly virulent form of tribalism, because it also presupposes truths without evidence and demands uncritical devotion and impunity and immunity from criticism. The other tribalisms also have their respective dogmas. But, maybe not to the extent that religion does.
Sam Harris often says that he is not really attacking religion so much as dogma. He is attacking faith – belief without evidence. I would suggest a counterpoint to that position. I would suggest that we should broaden our attack to include all tribalisms, not just religion. We should attack all divisive group ideologies. This includes race, religion, class, creed, nationality, culture, ethnicity, etc., etc..
Even the relatively benign stuff disturbs me. The pride in artistic accomplishments or scientific feats of one’s fellow in-group members. The riotous and bacchanalian celebrations over the sports victories of the team bearing the name of one’s in-group, regardless of the actual origin of the players. The incessant retelling of military conquests by one’s ancestors of long ago.
I am not suggesting that we destroy our cultural heritage or force everyone to conform to a homogenized and sanitized set of characteristics. Not in the least. I am arguing for the maximization of freedom. I am arguing for the maximization of anarchy. I am arguing for the maximization of individualism, including the individual choice to self-identify with whichever cultural norms one wishes. I am arguing against the absurd notion of group rights. I am arguing against the even more absurd notion of cultural rights. We cannot maintain or protect cultures. History, yes. But, cultures, no. Any attempts to protect or maintain groups or cultures or nations inevitably leads to oppression and human rights violations, especially of the most vulnerable members of any group, the women and children.
Groups wish to perpetuate themselves. A group is an entity, and, like any other entity, a group will seek out its own survival. Women and children are the means of perpetuating the group. Inevitably, the group leaders will seek to subjugate and control the women and children. Religion has been a particularly useful tool in realizing this aim.
In order for humanity to survive, the individual must rule. Only individual rights may have any political or legal currency. All group ideologies must enter the free global marketplace of ideas. No special privileges any longer for religion or nationality or race or culture. Sink or swim. The clergy and the other ideologues will have to win over their adherents like shop owners have to win over their customers, like intellectuals have to win over academia. An individual may choose or not choose to participate in whichever culture or religion or group, and, if it ceases to serve him or her, leave it just as easily without death threats and labels of apostasy.
But, in a sense, I am arguing for communitarianism, but only on a species-wide, global scale. Our in-group needs to include the entirety of humanity. Each and every single, individual human being is in our tribe.
A young Kazakh man I had met told me that he was really angry about a travel program he had seen on TV. The travel program described an ancient city in Uzbekistan, near the border with Kazakhstan, as an Uzbek city, not a Kazakh city. I asked him why this would bother him so much. He said that that particular city had always been a Kazakh city for millennia and millennia, and that the Uzbeks had stolen it from the Kazakhs about 1200 hundred years ago, and that it riles him each and every time he hears this city mentioned as an Uzbek city.
I suggested that it might be time to get over it.