Man, there’s a lot of hate out there.
I’ve been thinking about the things that unite us and divide us. For reasons obvious and not, our differences are important, positive, even. Sometimes they challenge us to think differently and pave the way for innovation: my steam engine is faster than your horse; you may have launched the first satellite into orbit, but we will land on the moon before you.
Our differences also inspire our worst instincts: need I enumerate the ever more efficient ways in which we denigrate, impugn, accost, jail, maim and kill our fellow men? I think not, but if you need examples turn on the news. Anytime.
The Conventional Hate the Unconventional
Our disdain for our fellows knows no bounds. Monday, the Wall Street Journal had an article about the collaboration between Rolling Stone Keith Richards and drummer Steve Jordan for the new Richards album, “Cross-eyed Heart.” A reader commented that “somehow, successful degenerates” don’t make him feel “warm and runny inside.”
In response, I wrote the following:
You probably would not have liked Christ, Galileo, da Vinci, van Gogh or Einstein either. They were all successful degenerates according to the cultural norms of their times.
Seers, visionaries and creatives march to a different drummer, create new standards for spirituality, art and science, suffer the remonstrations of their cultures, and not incidentally, remake their societies along the way. If they sought approval from conventional “leaders,” or sublimated their authentic selves to the whims of current society, we would all be poorer for it.
Or, as Salmon Rushdie said, “The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas—uncertainty, progress, change—into crimes.”
That’s an example of the least destructive form of disagreement: an argument over art and artists. And it is proof that we will fight about anything.
My Ethnic Group Hates Your Ethnic Group
Blood is rarely spilled when debating the relative merits of painters or guitar players, but you don’t have to wait very long for carnage to ensue when the topic is class, religion, nationalism, or ethnicity. Sure, we could write a multi-volume book (we’d call it A Bloody History of the World) about the purges, putsches, assassinations, deportations, mass-migrations, burnings, bombings, and all out wars caused by religion and culture clashes, but for the sake of brevity, let’s just lump all those things together here, and say that where you live and how you were raised powerfully influence your time on earth.
In listening to the NPR talk show, “On Point” this morning, I was struck by the large conversation that is preceding the release of the buzz worthy movie, “Meet the Patels,” a docu-styled film about Indian culture generally, and arranged marriage specifically. It’s an internal culture clash that has some traditionalists saying they will not walk away from their cultural institutions like arranged marriages, and some younger, more Westernized Indians saying they can’t get away from arranged marriages fast enough. The discussion was primarily between Anglicized Indians and their parents in the old country, and it got fairly pitched.
Loud, and at times uncomfortable, at least it wasn’t violent, which is more than we can say for so much of our collective past. Whether Hitler trying to exterminate the Jews, or the sectarianism of ISIS Sunnis trying to exterminate their rival sect, the Shia, history is rife with examples of cultural cleansing of the “other.” Through ritual, suspicion, fear, ignorance, superstition, tribalism and religion, our species does not play well with “others.”
A friend loves to tell the story of her racist father’s reaction to the election of Barack Obama in 2008. He cried to his daughter that he just couldn’t believe we had elected a black man President, to which she replied, “No, Daddy, he’s only half-black. You know, like your grandchildren are going to be.” Of course her sarcastic remark was made out of petulance and frustration, but a la Shakespeare, many a truth is said in jest.
Inter-Marriage as Salvation?
I have no empirical data to support this idea, but maybe, to cure most forms of bloody disagreements, we just need to marry one another. Common sense points us toward this goal, and at the same time predicts that we cannot overcome our innate suspicions and culturally derived prejudices, making the effort to save ourselves futile. If nothing else, imagine the beautiful babies! So pick a side: we save ourselves vs. we are doomed to destroy ourselves.
Maybe in our race with extinction, our only way out is to erase the biggest perceived differences. It would take many generations of marriages across cultural, socio-economic, racial, ethnic and geographic lines for us to become one color, one sect, one religion and one culture. And time is not even the entirety of the trick. The really hard part is to integrate the species without obliterating the useful and meaningful contributions that the disparate parts have brought to the whole. A cautionary tale might be the histories of two great nations: The melting pot that is America, a place of new beginnings and second chances where anything is possible, has spawned some spectacular innovation. Compare that to the cultural homogeneity of China that has bred out innovation in favor of conformity. I’m not willing to give up innovation for conformity.
I’m sorry to do this to you, but I have to leave this on a question, for I do not know the answer: Is it possible to live in peace and find motivation to innovate in art, technology, science and medicine, or do we have to be driven by our darkest selves? And are we likely to kill our species before we find a way to live together?