Commentary on Recent Readings, Pt. 2

Friends,

I hope this post finds you well and that spring has sprung for you. The weather has been beautiful lately, and it’s feeling more like weather that calls us to enjoy the outdoors more and more! This month’s post is picking up where we left off in February’s post as part of the mini series I’m writing regarding various books I’ve read and their application to both history and the here and now.

At the end of February’s post, the parting thought was that I would elaborate on two ideas: the first is the in-group/out-group mentality, and the second is toleration. Additionally, I said that these two concepts are symbiotic toward each other, and they can act as a sort of framework through which we can understand the history that has delivered us into the world we know today.

Furthermore, I wanted to reiterate the three-point breakdown of the premise we established in February’s post to help reorient our thinking:

  1. Everyday life is indeed not black and white, not absolute or finite, but rather a complex mix of intricate nuances.
  2. Those nuances are made from all of our own values and beliefs based on our individual life experiences.
  3. Communicating with each other to understand and tolerate those values and beliefs will lend to the spread of positive universal values and beliefs, creating a better global society.

Given how we utilized Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism to arrive at these three points, I believe addressing the in-group/out-group concept along with that of toleration in the context of society at large (as opposed to personal levels of community) is the best approach – at least for now. So having established the method for this post, let’s dive in…

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The first of our two aforementioned concepts for exploration here is that of in-group/out-group. Simply put, these terms of the social psychology discipline refer to how we perceive ourselves, others like us, and others unlike us. If you read the February post, you hopefully will have recognized this idea as an underlying support of the framework of cosmopolitanism. In essence, subscribing to the ideas of cosmopolitanism is sort of like a key to unlocking the in-group/out-group dichotomy in an attempt to remove the barriers between oneself and others that are different (e.g., skin color, language, ethnic background, socio-economic status, education level, etc.). This certainly makes for ready discussion on a personal level, but let us first explore this on a macro level; we will return to in-group/out-group when we get into toleration.

In 2015, “more than a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe…sparking a crisis as countries struggled to cope with the influx, and creating division in the EU over how best to deal with resettling people.” The ensuing crisis, which had fizzled out by spring 2019 according to the European Commission, illustrates the notion of in-group/out-group perfectly. According to the BBC, the top three countries from which migrants sought asylum in the EU were Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq – all of which exhibit Muslim majority populations. This ran contradictory to the widely held and highly propagandized notion of “a Christian Europe” being “in danger” from non-Christian immigrants and refugees. Despite this being a generalization, all of this lay at the very heart of many of the agendas of resurgent nationalist regimes in Europe. In the words of author John B. Judis in his 2018 book The Nationalist Revival:

“A Pew poll in July 2016 found that large majorities in Hungary, Poland, Germany, Italy, the Netherland, the UK, Sweden, and Greece thought that admitting refugees would ‘increase domestic terrorism.’ Majorities in Greece and Italy and pluralities in Hungary and Poland thought diversity was making their country ‘a worse place to live.’ A Gallup poll in 2017 asked whether people in fourteen European countries thought ‘acts of terrorism’ by migrants were ‘a serious problem.’ Huge majorities in France, Denmark, Belgium, Portugal, and the Netherlands thought they were; the median across the fourteen countries was 66 percent. Respondents from the same countries that that ‘current immigration levels’ were a ‘serious problem.'”

The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt Against  Globalization: Judis, John B.: 9780999745403: Amazon.com: Books
The Nationalist Revival

As populist parties across Europe tapped into the emotion and sentiment tied with the influx of new people of different backgrounds, support increased vertically (within a given country) and therefore horizontally (across national borders) for tighter border control and policies that regulate population flow. The catch to this, as Judis states, is that “(anti-immigrant) protests were grounded in genuine grievances, but in the hands of nationalist politicians, they descended into vilification.” Such vilification is exhibited in things like election/re-election advertisements, campaign slogans, social media movements, and even day-to-day interactions between individuals. One argument made by these types of people/groups is that Muslims can’t or won’t assimilate into local European society and culture. (This topic, among others, is given great attention by historian Rita Chin in her book The Crisis of Multiculturalism.) This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing; however, it gets compounded by incidents involving radical or fringe elements that don’t represent the median majority of migrants (e.g., the New Year’s Eve gang assaults in Cologne, Germany). I don’t know if there is any one right answer or way to go about finding a solution that satisfies the most people, but all of this certainly gives many individuals pause for considering what matters on a national scale. (The notion of rising authoritarianism-as-populism is given ample attention by historian Anne Applebaum in her book Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.)

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism: Applebaum,  Anne: 9780385545808: Amazon.com: Books
Twilight of Democracy

Something that should matter, however, is the notion of toleration. Looking beyond the (oftentimes) falsified or exaggerated facts and figures presented in the media, and certainly beyond the usually ill-informed opinions on social media, the overwhelming majority of individuals in a given out-group deserve a fair shot at fitting in and living a life free from persecution and hate. On a micro level, it’s easy to see this play out in public from day to day: whether it’s between white and black Americans or Muslims in a given European country, far too many hateful actions occur between people groups.

A key component of toleration is empathy, which is something that is indeed lacking in many societies at the moment. According to the 2011 research paper “Us and Them: Intergroup Failures of Empathy” from Princeton University:

“Empathy is generally recognized as a central component of the human condition; because it promotes prosocial behavior, it is an essential aspect of human social life. Beginning in infancy, people are affected by another’s suffering: they ‘step into the other person’s shoes’, ‘feel their pain’ and are motivated to help (Batson, 2009). One popular theory suggests that (in the absence of pathology), empathic responses arise out of an automatic, universal mechanism in the human brain that detects another person’s experience and activates a matching experience in the observer (Preston & de Waal, 2002). In this view, shared neural circuits provide a direct functional bridge between first- and second-person experiences (Decety & Ickes, 2009). Seeing another human being in pain, observers must feel the other’s pain. We know, however, that adults with normal empathic capacity also frequently fail to respond to another’s suffering. This may be because people are less likely to detect and attend to another’s suffering when the victim is distant in space, time, kinship, or across racial, political, or social group boundaries (Batson & Ahmad, 2009). Empathy is even fragile between minimal groups—groups in which the boundary is arbitrary—such that children randomly assigned to groups (e.g., the ‘red team’ or the ‘blue team’) show greater empathy for ingroup members than for outgroup members who are socially rejected (Masten, Gillen-O’Neel, & Brown, 2010).”

If we assume that space and time are the key factors described above, then theoretically it is easier for us to experience and cultivate empathy when we are able to exercise it “up close and personal.” By extension, then, we are (and should be) more able to practice toleration with those with whom we interact and see in our daily lives. Reading or hearing about Muslim refugees traveling from Syria to Germany in 2016 won’t elicit nearly the same emotion as a neighbor (or in my case, a student I have this semester) living on your street who is dealing with prejudice in the here and now.

I am not saying that everyone is perfect, nor that any one person is above or below another, but I am saying that the world would be a far better place if we stepped into the shoes of ‘the Other’ for a moment. Tune ourselves out from the media, unplug from our Facebooks and Twitters, and simply observe those around us whom we view as different. For if this can be done on a micro level, then it would not appear as such an issue on the macro level – and then we wouldn’t see worrying political movements like the Alternativ für Deutschland or parties like Fidesz or Law and Justice implement such hateful and intolerant policies and objectives. If we communicate with each other to understand and tolerate each other’s values and beliefs, we contribute to the wider positive development and spread of universal values and beliefs, thus creating a better global society. After all – you are in the out-group of someone else, too.

Thank you friends!

Mike/”Eli”

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