US & THEM
We know ethnic prejudice is wrong, so how come it's still rife, asks
In 1992 during the war between Serbia and Croatia, The Washington Post ran
an interview with a Croatian farmer named Adem, who had a horrific story
to tell. Over the previous year Adem said discourse between local Serbs and
Croats had deteriorated as individual identities dissolved into a menacing
fog of us versus them".
Then group animosity turned into something far worse.Serbs from a neighhouring
village abruptly rounded up 35 men from Adem's village and slit their throats.
The summer before, the killers had helped their victims harvest their crops.
Earlier this year a small group of z-list celebrities caused an international
incident during the filming of the UK version of the reality TV show, Big
Brother. The seemingly racist comments made by Jade Goody and her cronies
to Bollywood film star Shilpa Shetty provoked thousands of shocked viewers
to write letters of complaint. There was a media frenzy. Questions were asked
in Parliament. Even the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, who happened
to be on a visit to India, felt he had to comment on the affair.
Two very different stories; one common theme. Proof, if it were needed, that
the human tendency to judge others in the crudest terms -race, religion,
ethnicity, or any arbitrary marker has not been consigned to the history
books, no matter how much we might wish it were so. Somewhat disturbingly,
scientists now suggest that this is not really surprising because such
prejudice is part of human nature. If they are correct, then the roots
of group animosity and hatred run very deep indeed, which maybe depressing
news for those trying to make a difference in ethnic or sectarian hotspots
from Darfur and Iraq to inner cities and football terraces.
Yet researchers also insist that facing up to our authentic nature is the
only way to gain real insight into the forces that drive group conflict,
and to learn how we might manage and defuse such urges. "We shouldn't treat
prejudice as pathological just because it offends us," says anthropologist
Francisco Gil-White. "If we aim to transcend ethnic strife, we would be wise
to understand the role that perfectly normal human psychology plays in producing
Psychologists have long known of our proclivity to form "in groups" based
on crude markers, ranging from skin colour to clothing styles. Thinkof inner-city
gangs,Italian football supporters,or any "cool" group of stylish teenagers.
"Our minds seem to be organised in a way that makes breaking the human world
into distinct groups almost automatic," says psychologist Lawrence Hirschfeld
of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Many experiments confirm this,
and show that we tend to favour our own group, even when that group is lust
an arbitrary collection of individuals.
In 1970, for example, a team of researchers led by psychologist Henri Tajfel
of the University of Bristol, UK, randomly divided teenage boys from the
same school into two groups, and gave every boy the chance to allocate points
to two other boys, one from each group. This could be done in different ways
some increasing the combined total for both recipients, and others increasing
the difference between the two. The boys consistently chose options of the
latter kind, favouring recipients from their own group.
Experiments like these are enough to convince Tajfel and others that if you
put people into different groups, call them red and blue,
north and south, or whatever, a bias towards one's own group will
automatically emerge. This in itself does not make us racist. In fact
it may not be such a bad thing: research published last year suggests at
least one useful function of our groupist tendencies.
Political scientists Ross Hammond of the Brookings Institute in Washington
DC and Robert Axelrod of the University of Michigan have discovered, perhaps
surprisingly, that it can promote cooperation (Journal of Conflict Resolution,
vol 50, p926). Taking their cue from Tajfel's finding that in-group favouritism
emerges with minimal prompting, Hammond and Axelrod decided to try to emulate
this in a simple computer model. Imagine a population of individuals, interacting
in pairs at random, and
in some activity where both would benefit from cooperation, but each was
also tempted to cheat - getting more for themselves at the other's expense.
With no insight into the likely behaviourof others, individuals in such a
world would have no way-besides pure guesswork - to maximise the outcome
of their interactions.But add one simple element, colour, and everything
People in Hammond and Axelrod's world come in four colours, assigned randomly
at birth. When interacting with others, they might now adopt one of several
basic strategies. An individual might act randomly, as before, ignoring colour
- which would make sense as the colours say nothing about how an individual
is likely to behave.
Alternatively, a person might always cooperate or always cheat, regardless
of the other's colour. Another option would be to follow a groupist
"ethnocentric" strategy-cooperating with anyone of the same colour but always
trying to cheat those ofanother colour.
Finally, agents might be anti-groupist-only cooperating with someone of another
colour. The researchers randomly assigned one of these strategies to each
agent. They also gave all agents the ability to learn from one another, so
that any strategy that did well would tend to be copied and so spread.
What happened then, they discovered, was that agents of each particular colour
began to gather together. At first, a few groupist agents of the same colour
might find themselves together by chance. Within such a group, cooperative
interactions lead to good outcomes, causing others nearby to copy their strategy,
swelling the group.
In the model, Hammond and Axelrod found that strongly ethnocentric groups
of different colours came to fill the world, at the expense of others. Anyone
who did not follow the groupist strategy tended to suffer. Even someone ignoring
colour -and remember colour initially signified nothing about an agent's
behaviour -would also get wiped out.
In short, once people begin to act on colour, it comes to matter, What's
more, it turns out that the overall level of cooperation is higher in this
world where there is in-group favouritism than in a world where agents are
colourless. "Ethnocentrism is actually a mechanism for generating cooperation,
and one that does not demand much in the way of cognitive ability," says
Hammond. Axelrod and Hammond are well aware that their model is a far cry
from the complexities of real-world racism. Still, it is interesting that
colour prejudice emerges even though colour has no intrinsic significance.
Modern genetics has dispelled the naive notion that racial divisions reflect
real biological differences. We know that the genetic variation between -
individuals within one racial or ethnic group is generally much larger than
the average difference between such groups. As in the virtual world, race
and ethnicity are arbitrary markers that have acquired meaning. But you won't
get far telling Blacks and Hispanics in the racially charged areas of Los
Angeles that their differences are just "superficial" cultural constructs.
"Race doesn't matter because it is real," says historian Niall Ferguson of
Harvard University, "but because people conceive it to be real."
What's more, this misconception seems to be deeply ingrained in our psyche.
For example, Hirschfeld found that by the age of 3 most children already
attribute significance to skin colour. In 1993, he showed a group of children
a drawing of a chubby black child dressed up as a policeman, followed by
photos of several adults, each of whom had two of the three traits: being
black, chubby and dressed as a policeman. Asked to decide which person was
the boy as a grown-up, most children chose a black adult even though he was
either not overweight or minus a police uniform.
"Kids appear to believe," says Hirschfeld, "that race is more important than
other physical differences in determining what sort of person one is." More
recent brain imaging studies suggest that even adults who claim not to be
racist register skin colour automatically and unconsciously. In 2000, a team
led by social psychologist Allan Hart of Amherst College in Massachusetts
found that when white and black subjects viewed faces of the other race both
showed increased activity in the amygdala - a brain region involved in grasping
the emotional significance of stimuli. Yet consciously, these subjects reported
feeling no emotional difference on seeing the different faces.
In another study of white subjects, in the same year, neuroscientist Elizabeth
Phelps of New York University and colleagues found that those individuals
whose amygdala lit up most strongly also scored highest on a standard test
for racial prejudice. Does this mean that our species has evolved to see
the world in terms of black and white? Not necessarily. After all, our ancestors
would not normally have met people whose skin was a different colour from
their own: neighbouring ethnic groups would have looked pretty much alike.
So, it's possible that our tendency to classify people by colour might simply
be a modern vice, learned early and reinforced throughout our lives - even,
paradoxically, by anti-racist messages. That seems unlikely, however, when
you consider our attitudes to ethnicity.
In fieldwork among Torguud Mongols and Kazakhs, neighbouring ethic groups
living in central Asia, Gil-White investigated ideas of ethnic identity to
find out whether people link it more with nurture (a child being brought
up within a group) or nature (the ethnicity of biological parents). The majority
of both groups saw ethnicity as a hidden but powerful biological factor,
unaffected by someone being adopted into another group. "They perceive the
underlying nature as some kind of substance that lies inside and causes the
members of an ethnic group to behave the way they do," he says.
Like race, ethnicity has no biological sighificance, yet this is exactly
how we perceive it. Many researchers now believe that we have evolved a tendency
to divide the world along ethnic lines. For example, anthropologist Rob Boyd
from the University of California, Los Angeles, argues that our ancestors,
given the rich social context of human life, would have needed skills for
perceiving the important groups to which individuals belonged. Being attuned
to ethnic differences would have allowed individuals to identify others who
shared the same social norms people with whom it would have been easiest
to interact because of shared expectations. It would have paid to attend
to cultural differences such as styles of clothing, scarification or manner
of greeting, that marked one group out from another.
In the modern world, colour is simply mistaken as one such marker. That might
explain why we tend to divide the world into groups and why we use ethnic
differences and skin colour as markers to help us do this. It even gives
a rationale for in-group favouritism. But what about out-group animosity?
Is prejudice part of the whole evolved package? Gil-white believes it is.
He argues that within any group of people sharing social norms, anyone who
violates those will attract moral opprobrium - it is considered
"bad" to flout the rules and benefit at the expense of the group. This
response is then easily transferred to people from other ethnic groups. "We're
tempted to treat others, who are conforming to their local norms, as violating
our own local norms, and we take offence accordingly," says Gil-White. As
a result we maybe unconsciously inclined to see people from other ethnic
groups not simply as different, but as cheats, morally corrupt, bad people.
Natural but not nice
"I think all this work refutes those naive enough to believe that ifit weren't
for bad socialising, we would all be nice tolerant people who accept cultural
and ethnic differences easily," says Daniel Chirot, professor of international
studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. That may sound disturbing,
but being biologically primed for racism does not make it inevitable. For
a start, what is natural and biological needn't be considered moral or legal
"The sexual attraction that a grown man feels for a 15-year-old female is
perfectly- natural Gil-White points out. But most societies forbid such
relations, and all but a very few men can control their urges.
Besides, if ethnocentrism is an eyolved adaptation to facilitate smooth social
interactions, it is a rather crude one. A far better way to decide who cand
be trusted and who cannot is to assess an individual's character and personality
rather than to rely on meaningless markers. In today's world that is what
most of us do most of the time. It is only when it becomes difficult to judge
individuals that people may instinctively revert to the more primitive
Hammond and Axelrod argue that this is most likely to happen under harsh
social or economic conditions, which may explain why ethnic divisions seem
to be exaggerated when societies break down, as a consequence of war, for
example. "To me this makes perfect sense," says Chirot. "Especially in times
of crisis we tend to fall back on those with whom we are most familiar, who
are most like us."
Knowing all this, it may be possible to find ways to curb our unacceptable
tendencies. Indeed, experiments show how little it can take to begin breaking
down prejudice. Psychologist Susan Fiske from Princeton University and colleagues
got students to view photos of individuals from a range of social groups,
while using functiona! MRI to monitor activity in their medial prefrontal
cortex (mPFC), a brain region known to light up in response to socially
significant stimuli. The researchers were shocked to discover that photos
of people belonging to "extreme" out-groups, such as drug addicts, stimulated
no activity in this region at all, suggesting that the viewers considered
them to be less than human.
"It is just what you see with homeless people or beggars in the street,"
says Fiske, "people treat them like piles of garbage." In new experiments,
however, she was able to reverse this response. After replicating the earlier
results, the researchers asked simple, personal questions about the people
in the pictures, such as, "What kind of vegetable do you think this beggar
would like?". Just one such question was enough to significantly raise activity
in the mPFC. "The question has the effect of making the person back into
a person," says Fiske, "and the prejudiced response is much weaker." It would
appear then that we have a strong tendency to see others as individuals,
which can begin to erode our groupist instincts with very little prompting.
Perhaps this is why, as Chirot points out, ethnocentrism does not always
lead to violence. It might also explain why in every case of mass ethnic
violence it has taken massive propaganda on the part of specific political
figures or parties to stir passions to levels where violence breaks out.
If the seeds of racism are in our nature, so too are the seeds of tolerance
and empathy. By better understanding what sorts of situations and environments
are conducive to both, we may be able to promote our better nature.
Mark Buchanan is a writer based in Oxford, UK
Dr SUESS - The
Pupil 'ran off to die for Islam'
A SCHOOLBOY was recruited via the Internet to become a martyr
for Islam, the Old Bailey heard yesterday. Mohammed Irfan Raja left a note
for his parents saying they would meet in paradise. The 18-year-old skipped
school and took a bus to meet his online contacts at the University of Bradford,
it was alleged. They hoped to head to Pakistan for terror training. But Raja
returned home within a day after his distraught parents - Orthodox Muslims
who did not support his views - said they 'might die', the court heard. The
boy 'was not as firm in his purpose as he hoped he would be', said prosecutor
Andrew Edis QC. Raja, of Ilford, Essex, is one of five students charged with
possessing articles encouraging terrorism. They all plead not guilty and
the trial continues.
Radical Muslim is held over 'terror' speeches
BY JOHN HIGGINSON
SPEECHES made at a mosque two-and-a-half years ago led to
dawn raids by police yesterday. Six men, including radical Muslim Abu Izzadeen,
were arrested on suspicion of incitement to commit or financially support
terrorism. Scotland Yard said the arrests were 'part of a long-term, proactive
and complex investigation'.
The speeches under investigation were allegedly made at a mosque in London
in November 2004. The men, aged between 21 and 35, were held at addresses
in East London, Southall in Middlesex and Luton, Bedfordshire, at 5am.
Izzadeen, a former electrician who was born Trevor Brooks, lives in Leytonstone,
East London, with his wife and three children. He is best known for barracking
Home Secretary John Reid in September. Mr Reid's speech was repeatedly
interrupted by Izzadeen, who called him 'an enemy of Islam' and 'a tyrant'.
Muslim scholar Anjem Choudary confirmed that his 'close friend' Izzadeen
had been arrested - but insisted he was 'completely innocent'.
OUR 'FASTER AND FITTER RESPONSE'
|A 'FASTER, brighter and more agile' response to terrorism
is being promised by Home Secretary John Reid. The push will be led by the
new Office For Security and Counter Terrorism which will seek to exploit
'science, innovation, the private sector and academia' to deal with the danger,
Dr Reid will say today. The new department, which comes into being on May
9 with the splitting up of the Home Office, will 'provide a new drive, cohesion
and greater strategic capacity', the Home Secretary will add. His remarks,
in a speech in London, follow yesterday's first meeting of the Government's
new terror committee. Tony Blair and Cabinet colleagues were briefed by the
new head of M15 Jonathan Evans on the threats facing Britain.
He added: 'People collect a lot of money for orphans and widows at Ramadan,
but we know Muslims are guilty until they can prove themselves innocent.
'All these arrests must be seen in the light of the crusade which the Blair
regime has launched against the Muslim cornrnunity, trying to justify their
foreign policy through demonising Muslims, and targeting ordinary innocent
Muslims.' A Scotland Yard spokesman said searches were being carried out
yesterday. At Izzadeen's house, curtains were drawn but plain-clothes officers
appeared to be moving around inside.
Attack: Abu Izzadeen interrupts John Reid last November Picture: Getty
[The MetroWednesday, April 25, 2007]
Pope abolishes state of limbo
BY SUZY AUSTIN
concept of limbo, in which unbaptised babies who die are said to be stuck
between Heaven and Hell, has been abolished by the Pope. Benedict XVI said
there were 'serious grounds' to believe that children who died without being
baptised could go to heaven after all.
His decision followed a three-year study by a theological commission. The
problem has been the Catholic belief that baptism is the only way to remove
the stain of original sin that they think all children are born with. In
the fifth century, St Augustine said babies who died without being baptised
went to Hell. In the 13th century, theologians came up with the concept
of limbo as a place where dead babies were denied the vision of God but
did not suffer. The latest report said: 'There is greater theological awareness
today that God is merciful and wants all human beings to be saved. 'Grace
has priority over sin and the exclusion of innocent babies from Heaven does
not seem to reflect Christ's special love for the little ones.
The report added that baptism was the only way to remove original sin and
urged all parents to baptise their babies. British priest Father Paul McPartlan,
who helped compile the report, added: 'We cannot say we know with
certainty what will happen to unbaptised children. But we have good grounds
to hope that God in his mercy and love looks after these children, and brings
them to salvation.' [The Metro]