Keeping It Together, Politically

At least since the 1960s, terms such as “Racist”[1] and “White Supremacy” have been associated with horrifying images of lynch mobs and bodies hanging from southern trees, with the KKK, with angry, hate-filled faces shouting abuse at children trying to get to school [2]

Very few people would define themselves as racist – It is such an ugly idea. Our incompletely democratic societies are at least founded on principles of equality. That’s entirely compatible with the Consumer Capitalist ethic that we all live by[3]. In recent years, our schools have made a pretty good attempt at teaching children that “Racist” is a very very bad word, although we’ve been less good at teaching them what it actually is or how to identify it in ourselves or others. So, most citizens believe sincerely and passionately in the equal value of all peoples. In principle

Tribalism is another matter. All nations are too highly populated for our primitive little ape-brains to cope with. We can’t comprehend such numbers and so can’t possibly embrace everyone as being part of our gang. The larger a nation’s population, the more likely it is that it will fragment into many different factions. 

Our brains are hard-wired to generalise from our limited experience and thus to make assumptions. It’s a highly desirable trait. It makes us able to approach new things with caution and common sense, to make speedy assessments and decisions. It equips us to meet the world. 

We are also hard-wired to view difference with suspicion. That is a survival trait as well. Creatures will probably have fewer chances to reproduce if they think, “Hey, I wonder who that big, angry-looking dude with the blood-smeared fangs and claws is. I’ll go and introduce myself.”

It is to overcome these reluctances, and forge a sense of common identity, that modern democratic nation states have promoted values of equality and fraternity[4]

[1] The earliest usage that Merriam-Webster has found for the word “Racist” is 1902, where it is used much as we would use it today. This suggests that it has always had a negative meaning, I think. 

[2] See, for example, Robin Diangelo’s White Fragility (2019, London: Allen Lane/ Penguin)

[3] An oppressed and impoverished minority is a lost market opportunity.

[4] Unity and size endow the state with the power to protect its citizens. Fragmentation makes us vulnerable.

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