We Are What We Are

We are what we are. The only question is what we choose to do about it.

When I worked on Capitol Hill, I knew a political writer who was a nasty, hateful person.

Then he became a Christian.

And — unlike other Christians I know — he was a nasty, hateful Christian.

His conversion made no difference at all in his attitude. He changed his religion, but he didn’t change himself.

In other words, he expressed his hostility in terms of whatever worldview he held at the moment: first secular, then religious.

His professed religion or ideology didn’t cause his hatred. It only provided a framework for him to talk about it and justify it.

That example came to mind as I was reading Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony’s book The Virtue of Nationalism:

“The argument most commonly made against a nationalist politics is that it encourages hatred and bigotry. And there is certainly some truth in this …

[But] universal political ideals—of the kind that are so prominent, for example, in the European Union—seem invariably to generate hatred and bigotry to at least the same degree as nationalist movements … the hatred that proponents of imperialist or universalist ideologies feel toward national or tribal groups that refuse to accept their claim to be bringing salvation and peace to the world.”

Two facts are relevant:

All political and social arrangements are imperfect

That’s because people are imperfect. In any large group, some people will be haters. To justify their hatred, they will latch onto whatever ideology is handy. Other people in the same large group will be saints. They will love and help people, citing many of the same ideological reasons as the haters. And most people will be in the middle, neither very good nor very bad. They’ll tend to go whichever way they’re pushed.

In addition, any large group will include people who disagree with each other about moral and social issues. No matter what the group does, some of its members will regard the decision as unsound, unfair, or unjust.

People instinctively divide into groups

Because of their biological evolution, animals including humans tend to trust, help, and cooperate with others they perceive as their genetic “kin.” Distinct nations arise from  people with some genetic relatedness, even if outsiders can join. For example, Moment Magazine checked the genetic profiles of 15 prominent Jewish Americans (not including yours truly, of course) and reported that all except Linda Chavez were directly related.

Unlike lower animals, humans unconsciously use belief, dress, language, and religion as proxies for genetic relatedness. If people disagree with us about the basic issues of life, we tend to perceive them as competitors instead of kin. That primes us to feel hostility and to fight them.

Nationalist or globalist, the people in each group who are prone to hatred will hate people in the other group. Those inclined toward peace and friendship will try to build bridges to the other group. But since it’s easier to destroy a bridge than to build it, the peacemakers are usually at a disadvantage.

The bottom line is twofold. First, opponents of nationalism are pursuing an unattainable ideal. Social and political perfection are impossible. Hatred, strife, and war can only be minimized, not eliminated. The cure usually ends up being worse than the disease.

Second, group behavior is baked into human DNA. Even if globalists eliminated nations, they couldn’t eliminate human groups: all they could do is impose their own group’s hegemony on other, conquered and subjugated groups. And eventually, their own group would divide into new subgroups, while subjugated groups would throw off the yoke and regain their independence.

It would save all of us a lot of time, grief, and bloodshed if we could stop trying to impose our ideas and ways of life on people who don’t want them. As Hillel said:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary.”

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Human Relations, Judaism, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.