Month: December 2013

The Minority Identity

Ride the New York Subway on a regular day and you would realise what it means to live in a place where everyone is an outsider. Perhaps this is the reason why New York cannot be termed tolerant, because being tolerant implies that you are aware of the other’s identity, bothered by it and putting up with it. New York doesn’t care: it is indifferent, it accepts. This idea of racial/ethnic acceptance in a multi-cultural society had been going on in my head for the past few months due to its direct relevance to India, and I wanted to share some personal insights, with a little bit of science thrown in to demonstrate the point better.

Hardly a day goes by in the Indian media and political arena without a reference to the biggest religious minority of the country, the Muslims. Even though a good portion of the online population has wised up to the silly politics of religion, most people are not sure about how to go about discussing this touchy topic in a public setting, though most of them are brimming with their opinions about it. I often wondered why this was so, why was this problem so difficult to understand, for the solution begins at understanding. It took me a good deal of bigotry, cockiness, and an overdose of self-belief to allow myself to write radical comments against “the stupidity of Islam”, and the inherent aggression in it to be humiliated later when I was to re-read them again a couple of years later. What had changed in the two years is that I had undergone a change of, or development of a, perspective. I’ll talk more about that later, I want to share a few theories with you first.

At the core of this problem are the same psychological phenomena (at the cost of being too simplistic) that are responsible for the perennial gender issues, endless wars, racism, football hooliganism, the holocaust etc. Humans are irrational animals: they are motivated and influenced more by their asymmetric and biased world view than the objective understanding of the complete picture, for the complete picture is often too difficult to comprehend, even for those with a gifted imagination. Couple these biases with the inherent needs for a self-image and belonging, and we have men that cherish nationalism, for example, as a quality that defines the highest among them.

In one of the most unsettling of psychological experiments conducted on humans by a very important social psychologist called Muzafer Sherif, a group of boys at a camp were separated into two ‘tribes’ to understand how social hierarchies evolved in a natural setting, with the eventual intention of studying the interaction of the two tribes were they to meet.

You can read the details of the experiment in the link given, but to draw the relevant essence of the experiment here, the boys separated into the tribes perceived the differences between the groups, exaggerated them, ignored the similarities, growing more hostile towards each other than accepting. They also became very competitive and their work rate towards competitive activities increased. This is reflective of human nature in general, and can be explained quite easily from an evolutionary perspective- the stronger the collective spirit in a small group, the more likely is it to survive and fend off difficult circumstances. This might result in some intra-species struggles, but as we know from examples in other species, it is not something that is unprecedented. And even though the times have changed, outdating this line of thought, evolution isn’t keeping up. Nationalism, to stick with the same example, is a modern rendition of the same bigotry. It is not necessarily bad, as it can motivate people to often work hard for their country, as evinced by the boys in the experiment, but I feel the philosophical harm it causes (that often has tangible effects in the form of wars, terrorism etc.) outweighs any positives. It should be easy for the reader to see how the same bias is responsible for strife between different religions, races, etc.

Let me elaborate this with my own example. In India, I belong to the religious majority, the Hindus. I am thus fairly certain that when it is my turn to be judged by my peers, I would be judged irrationally on one less parameter compared to someone not from the majority. In other words, my identity is not defined by my religion, it is more defined by what I do, what I wear, what I say, how I behave, etc. This is a privilege of the majority. To elaborate this further, let us take the example of how society would view my moral transgressions. If I were to commit a mild treason by, let’s say, criticizing my country, I would be judged, more or less, on the gravity of my arguments. On the other hand, if I were a Muslim, I would instantly become a representative of the views of my religion, and with each step, I would be integrating my example to the archetype that would eventually become the Muslim stereotype (assuming it is not already created and being reinforced by my act). Why does this happen?

Because we have divided our world view into us and them. The minority identity for the majority is them, and in this particular case, the Muslims. To understand the often complicated reasons behind their treasons, we take refuge in the laziest of explanations: that it has to do something with their religion. This effect is called the Realistic Conflict Theory, and the biases in this form of irrationality are supplemented by yet another of the most prevalent biases we humans have, the Conformation Bias, which is a tendency to select the examples that suit our preconceived notions and ignore the ones that go against it. It creates a skewed world view where the end result might be, in an extreme but common enough situation, to assume all Muslims to be aggressors or terrorists unless proven otherwise, a dangerous, hostile and scary world view indeed.

There is a particular political faction in the country that would have us believe that pampering the minority, treating them differently in almost every sphere of interaction, is the way to their eventual integration into the mainstream. There is another that has a reputation for being downright hostile to the minority. I refuse to believe that they do this because of their naiveté. Most of the politicians in India are motivated more by greed than by adding value to the country, and very few of them have their hearts in the right place. They prey upon the religious difference among the people of the nation to achieve their ends, effectively stepping into the shoes of the colonial powers that preceded them. It again falls upon the great people of this nation to fight their oppressors.

I apologize for the digression. I am more concerned with having this article touch the readers at a personal level. I want to offer a simple thought experiment to counter this bias when you feel yourself succumbing to it.

I have lived in India most of my life. I left my country for the first time about a year back, and have lived in a lot of different parts of the United States. It is not a country that is particularly hostile, at least outwardly, towards people of Indian descent, but something about my situation here was ominous. After thinking about this vague feeling of insecurity over and over, I was finally able to point a decisive finger at it. I was a minority, for the first time in my conscious life.

I have called myself an Indian here in one year way more than I have called myself an Indian in India all my life (even if I count the daily pledge in school). Suddenly being an Indian is my identity, although I hate Bollywood, watch more American TV than Indian TV, hardly listen to any Indian songs, hardly read any Indian authors, love Sushi more than any Indian dish, and a million other “non-Indian” things, like a lot of my other Indian friends. A lot of people I meet here have been utterly disappointed that I call Art of Living a sham. Surely a lot of things about me are Indian, but there is much more that I would want myself to be associated with first before the concept of a stereotypical Indian guy. But that is how I am being defined now. I was never approached like this in my life, and it flipped a switch in me. My radical notions about Arabs and Pakistanis suddenly started dissolving away now that I could closely feel how my remarks would sound to someone from that part of the world. I loved (and understood the reason behind) the feeling of indifference in a melting pot like New York City, compared to the feeling of being an outsider in a less diverse state like North Carolina.

So here is my thought experiment. Whenever you find yourself making sweeping (negative or positive) statements about a particular community, country, culture, colour, gender, etc., you should stop talking for a while. Recognize that you may have taken the wrong line of thought there. Place yourself in the shoes of the other (like the children in Ms. Jane’s blue-eyed/brown-eyed class do) and think how fallacious what you were saying about yourself (as you are now) a minute ago was. Maybe that would help with the perspective. With all the intelligence and information at our disposal in this age, perspective is the thing we lack the most.

Humans no longer fear an existential threat from other species: they can afford to be friendly, helpful and less hostile, within themselves and without. We are (should, rather) no longer living in small groups, other than at a very intimate emotional level, and are moving towards a society that has the perspective of seeing itself from space, as one collective species out of many, floating on top of a rock in space. Our evolutionary instincts need to shift, or at least rationally modified, and it is a process we can accelerate through language and the internet.

The tensions between the warring tribes in the experiment by Muzafer Sherif was lessened by activities that involved both the groups to work together to achieve some goals. Our globalized world is the one camp we are in now, we are all humans, and we need to work collectively to strive towards a world with lesser misery, lesser suffering, and lesser strife, with more equality, more peace, and more happiness: a world that is more understanding and more rational.