Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Other

I was listening to the radio earlier today, and there was an interview with a man who talked about "the other" and "anger". He made some very interesting points, which I wanted to comment on here.

To begin, he spoke about the idea of natural selection and how some traits are bred into us through their usefulness. Pretty obvious, if you think about it. We all agree that there are physical traits that carry through because they are conducive to our survival. Opposable thumbs are just a single example. (Then again, being all-thumbs is not.)

Many would also agree, when faced with the idea, that there are cognitive or emotional traits that may carry through, because they, too, helped us survive. I often think about the idea of a good business sense being passed on from parent to child, and how this can help us survive in the world today. I'm not saying whether or not this is a good thing, but just that I can see it happening.

This interviewee went on to point out that part of carrying on the healthy traits, or those that help us survive, are done so by us finding someone with them attractive. Ok, I guess I can buy that. (I'm just glad that my wife found a sense of humour to be one of those.)

One of these traits, he postulated, was the fear of those who are different. He put forth the idea that this was a natural trait that allowed the development of individual cultures, for people were more likely to marry into the same culture and therefore carry it on.

Again, he was not saying, nor am I endorsing, that this accurate, acceptable or preferable, but just that this might make some sort of sense.

The problem he pointed out, and which I completely agree with, is when this preference leads to anger or hatred of one who appears different. There are so many cases throughout history of people disliking, hating or even killing those who are different. They generally begin by making fun of them, labeling them, and move on to more forms of abuse and eventually rising up against them. Not a good scenario.

To be fair, though, at some distant point in the past, it may have appeared to be a good thing, with, as I just mentioned, propagating the culture. But now, when we look at the big picture, it is leading to the destruction of the individual and of the culture. The devastating results of prolonged inbreeding within a community are all too obvious, and not at all desirable.

The benefits of a wide gene-pool are, also, all too obvious for those who look. A striking example was a Time Magazine cover back in the early 90s, still one of my favorite faces to look at.

This was generated by a computer program that composited people of different racial backgrounds based on the population percentages of the US at the time.

To me, this was a striking example of the reality that Baha'u'llah spoke of when He talked of the oneness of humanity, and how diversity lends itself to strength.

It is also a striking example of how some of the traits that may have had some usefulness in the distant, or even recent, past are no longer useful for moving us into the future. If we are serious about developing a new civilization based upon spiritual teachings, then it means that we may need to question some basic assumptions we have been given by our society. This is only one of them.

I remember when I was a teenager, and just beginning to get involved with "women of the opposite sex", as one friend put it, there was a woman I was seriously thinking of marrying. My Mother, and how I love her, pulled me aside one evening and said, "You know, I really hoped you would marry someone Jewish." Now she may deny this, but I will maintain that she said it to my dying day. Her look of disappointment was just classic.

Not one to be daunted, I replied, "Mom, I would hope that you would want me to marry someone I love."

Her look went from one of disappointment to one of pride. I had, evidently, just passed some sort of test. She said something wonderful to me at that moment, but I don't recall what it was (or choose not to share it, I'll let you guess).

So even though there may be something "genetic" within us that makes us uneasy in the presence of those who appear different, we also need to remember that every single person on the planet is different from us. If we casually push away those who do things in another way than we do, then how much are we truly acting upon those divine attributes that are latent inside us?

We are living in a time where we can no longer fall back on "tradition" as a valid reason for doing something. We must re-examine every assumption and only continue those that are either conducive to a healthier civilization, or at least not impeding its development.

Aside - I remember being in one community where someone argued with a seeker during a fireside and told him that his beliefs were wrong. This poor man left in a state of anger, and his wife left crying. It was not a good scene. When I asked if this was the desired result, the Baha'i indignantly said that this was just the way things were done in her community. That was a bit too much for me and I replied with, "Drinking too much rum and beating your wife is also part of this community, so why aren't you doing that?"

On a nicer note, wearing green on St Patrick's Day is harmless, so why not continue it, if someone wants?

This radio interview this morning really made me stop and think about what I take for granted, and how I react to "the other". While I may not have necessarily agreed with his assumptions, or some of his conclusions, I am very grateful that he got me to stop and think.

1 comment:

  1. i, too, listened to this program and found it sparked many thoughts that have been carrying me through my workday (instead of work thoughts...). i was particularly struck by the comments the guests made about choosing our response in a situation that could have induced anger and was reminded of the many times in the Baha'i Writings when we are urged to be ever vigilant, to always be striving to fulfil our noble station. in that condition, we don't see "otherness", we just see God in each of us. nobody ever said it would be easy to achieve our destiny, but we sure can try. :)