Friday, February 16, 2007

Which side are you on?

A mailing list I'm on was having a conversation about the Catholic Church protecting child molesters which led to the subject of group formation and protection. I contributed this:
I vividly recall my experience when I first did extensive travel out of the US (Europe, Middle East, and Africa). This was during the Reagan years, and all of a sudden I, who had opposed Reagan and Republicans for all my life, was now being held responsible for him. A lot of my conversations with non English speakers went something like: "Oh, American! Ronald Reagan! Bang-bang!" Those were the friendly ones. Then there were those with more hostile European Marxists where I found myself in the unaccustomed position of defending the US. It was weird being a capitalist oppressor all of a sudden.

Remember Ward Churchill and his crack about the people in the WTC being "little Eichmanns"?

I just read this rather terrible book by David Mamet, _The Wicked Son_, The book is addressed to Jews who don't identify strongly with Judaism. The thesis is basically, everybody hates the Jews so you *better* strengthen your group identification. I heard a variant this growing up, roughly "you may not consider yourself Jewish, but
the Nazis will".

There's this awful dynamic of intergroup hostility leading to stronger group identification leading to collective blame of the other side leading to more intergroup hostility. A society of mixed, peaceful, weakly-identified groups can easily precipitate out into strong and hostile groups when conditions change. The former Yugoslavia may be the purest example, and then there's Iraq right now.

Then I saw the exact same issues come up at Abstract Nonsense, this time in the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict:
Caroline Glick at the Jerusalem Post writes a wonderful article that aims to delegitimize every Palestinian political group, no matter how prepared it is for peace. The standard is always the same: nothing short of total acceptance is okay, and nothing short of total obsequity is peaceful. I see it among pro-Palestinian extremists who portray Israelis as uniformly oppressive, and among pro-Israeli extremists who portrays Palestinians as uniformly pro-terror....An Israeli who doesn’t refuse a priori to talk to anyone who’s more pro-Palestinian than Peace Now is seen as a traitor; a Palestinian who doesn’t refuse a priori to talk to anyone who’s more pro-Israeli than Rachel Corrie is seen as a collaborator.

Years ago I had one of those dumb/smart insights -- the real conflict in life is not between the obvious sides (Israelis/Palestinians, Shia/Sunni, whatever) but between those who want conflict because they thrive on it and those who want peace so they can get on with their lives. The problem is is that the peaceniks are naturally less prone to fight (of course) and it is difficult for peaceniks on one of the ostensible sides to coordinate with those on the other. There are groups that promote negotiation on an informal level, and then there are the sort of people that Alon Levy is talking about, who try as hard as they can to prevent well-intentioned people on different sides from talking.

One more example, from which the post title is taken.
Which Side Are You On?
by Florence Reese

Come all of you good workers
Good news to you I'll tell
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell

(Chorus)
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

My daddy was a miner
And I'm a miner's son
And I'll stick with the union
Till every battle's won

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You'll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Unions have their own rather specific history of building solidarity and defining the enemy, but that's a post for another time.

2 comments:

Neko said...

Always easier to incite the people against others. I think the main reason the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hasn't been resolved is the fact that hatred towards Israel is the only thing that keeps some Arab Muslim dictatorships (Syria, Iran, etc.) alive. That's why they support violence and supply weapons to anti-Israeli terrorist organizations - the perpetual fighting will always keep their people's hatred pointing outwards. Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen) addressed the Palestinian people just a few days ago, told them to stop fighting eachother (Fatah vs. Hamas), and "point their rifles towards the Jews".

Machiavelli wrote about it hundreds of years ago, not much has changed...

goatchowder said...

This kind of polarisation has happened locally here due to a recent election too. It was a brutal battle, but my side won, and I'm hoping that the rifts heal.

But a small group of militants on the losing side aren't clear on the fact that they lost, and are still trying to fight the war. Unfortunately, they may succeed in keeping it alive, due to the dynamics you outline in your post.