Identity and Perspective

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Our identity is tied up with the tribes we belong to, the tribes we feel a part of.  Of course, 'tribe' in this context is something of a technical term: it refers to the significant social groupings we belong to.  Our tribe affects some obvious things, such as the social pressures we face and the expectations placed upon us; it affects who we see as enemies, and what we perceive as threats.  We are social creatures, so the opinion of other people matters to us - and the opinion of the people who are important to us, the other members of our tribe, matters deeply.

But our tribe also affects our position in the world, which affects what we perceive and how we understand it; it affects the world we inhabit.  In the UK, we had 'debutante balls', where young women 'came out' of their family circle and were presented to 'society' - the practice began in 1780 and continued until 1976, well into my lifetime.  But the society these debutants were introduced to had little in common with the world I grew up in.  And my world of working-class Londoners had little to do with the world inhabited by those who arrived on the Empire Windrush in 1948 and those who followed them.

Some Tribes

Over the years, I have belonged to a good many reform groups, campaigning for justice and equality for disadvantaged and marginalised people.  They were all tribes, with the deeply committed members at the centre, surrounded by less-committed members and supporters of various kinds.  They all had their own language and beliefs which could not be challenged.  It was never acceptable, for example, to suggest that some other disadvantaged group had the right to receive as much support and sympathy as our group did: the injustice being done to us was obviously greater than anything which may be happening to other people; and nobody else can understand the challenges we face, "because they don't have to live it."

At one point, it was particularly difficult because I was part of two different disability groups.  In neither of them could I use the term 'disability', because the word was - obviously - offensive.  If I recall correctly, in one we talked about 'disabled people' and in the other it was 'people who are differently abled' - and each considered the term used by the other group as offensive, for perfectly understandable reasons.

For several years, I was part of a group seeking to support all the equality groups in Bristol - that is, all the major organizations working to address the problems of the people protected in UK law by the Equality Act 2010.  I had already been involved with several of them - I was a founding member of the Bristol Multi-Faith Forum, for a long time I represented the entire Christian community in Bristol at meetings of the LGBT Forum, and had contacts with several other groups.  For the most part, the members of this group worked well together (possibly because the group was largely self-selecting), but in the end it all fell apart because one equality group insisted that their problems were worse than everyone else's, and therefore they deserved more money than the rest of us.

In the umbrella group, we were mostly very polite about each other.  But, when I visited the various equality organizations, groups set up explicitly to combat bigotry and prejudice, I often found bigoted and discriminatory attitudes towards members of other equality groups - opinions which were far more extreme than I would hear from members of the general public.  This was not always the case, but it was worryingly frequent.  When challenged, the response was inevitably the obvious one: the injustice being done to us is obviously greater than anything which may be happening to these other people; this other group demands sympathy, but they don't suffer from half the problems we do.

Living in a Tribe

These were good people, remember - most of them selflessly devoting their time and energy for free, seeking to help those struggling against injustice and prejudice.  But they were good people living in a tribe, where most of the injustice they experienced was due to their membership of that tribe, and most of the stories of injustice they heard were stories of the injustice their group had suffered.

And we all have limited bandwidth: we can't listen to every voice, we can't take in the details of every story in the media.  Of course, we listen to the stories which interest us - which are often the stories which affect us and our tribe.  The world we live in, the world as we perceive it, is the world as it expresses itself to the members of my tribe.

I grew up in an ordinary working class neighbourhood.  My father drove an ambulance; other fathers were dockers or factory workers.  We had nothing to do with the criminal justice system, but it was clear as I grew up that the Police were our friends - they could be trusted, and we would help them if we could.

Later in my life, I spent a lot of time with with people who lived on the other side of the law.  There is a lot I could say about the experience, but one of the first things I noticed was that, in this tribe, the Police are the enemy - you never help them, unless you are forced to (and maybe not even then).  This one detail radically reshapes the world you live in.

The Tribal Perspective

Each tribe we belong to affects how we see the world, our perspective on the world.  We know that our perception of the world is true and accurate - I know what I see and experience; I know what the people I trust tell me about their experience.  People who say the world is different are obviously wrong - either mistaken, or careless (they can't be bothered to find out what the world is really like), or malicious, spreading lies and half-truths for their own selfish ends.

If we can't understand how other people see the world - if our tribe insists that their view is mistaken or deliberately distorted for their own ends - then we will never be able to communicate honestly and openly, and mutual understanding will be nearly impossible.  Almost every reform group has a conflict narrative at its core, which encourages its members to see the world this way and reject any other perspective, so while they may be fighting for good and progressive aims, the practical consequence is often to deny the full humanity of the opponents.

The obvious question and challenge for us, for Just Human?, is how do we avoid this pitfall?  We are a reform group, we are seeking to build a community, a tribe, with certain values and strategies.  How do we hold to our perspective, without doing injustice to the perspective of others?

My personal answer - the only answer I have found after years of searching - is the answer given by Jesus of Nazareth.  Do your best to love everyone, but even when you do this, some people will choose to treat you as their enemy; love your enemy, and do good to those who seek you harm.  Stand up and fight for good causes, but remember that no cause is so good that the struggle to achieve it justifies harming people.

Perhaps there are other answers?


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  • Sorry that I will not be around for tonight's discussion. I don't have time to do proper justice to Paul's excellent article, and Mark's excellent response.

    I found Paul's description of attitiudes of various equality groups to each other very interesting though sobering. Hats off to Paul for sticking with several such groups.

    As a fellow Christian with Paul, I agree that loving your enemy must be the way forward. I do agree with Mark that tribes who have proposed such a notion have fallen far short in their actual practice. I was grateful to Mark for pointing out quotes from other religions and philosophies down the ages, which suggest Christianity is not unique in this insight. It is actually quite encouraging to hear such consensus, at least in theory!

    I was not surprised that social media rarely brings much consensus or ability to see others' viewpoint. I've occasionally tried and quickly retreated. I do think people meeting face to face is much more likely to succeed (if only people could swallow pride sufficiently even to agree to do that). I wonder, Paul, did you ever witness people from different equality groups meet face to face to discuss their differing world views?

    I look forward to hearing how tonight's discussion pans out 

    • Richard: sadly, no.  I think there was some initial desire to engage with each other at the worldview level, but it never got very far, and it rapidly turned into a pragmatic exercise: we had to work together in order to bid for a council grant, because the council changed the rules for funding such groups.  We didn't have any time for the sort of discussion.  I suspect one or two of the others would have been interested, but the opportunity never arose.

      I do think that Christianity (when it actually tries to follow Jesus) is fairly unique in its commitment to loving enemies and peace making.  I still remember my shock on first reading the Bhagavad Gita: the whole book is an extended argument (by the Lord Krishna) explaining why it is right and necessary to fight and kill the people in the army facing you, even when that army includes your family.  It's okay to kill your enemy, and your family, because existence is an illusion.  Powerful stuff!

  • I should have elaborated about the 'hard to kick' comment - wider society and our own tribes excert a very strong influence on us - it is extremely difficult to rebel against that pressure and try and steer a lone furrow, as those campaigning for change often have to do.  I'm thinking of people like Peter Tatchell, someone I've had the pleasure of meeting. He has suffered enormous personal harm fighting for change (and I would say justice).  It is right we acknowledge brave people like him who have been the spearhead of societal change, recognising they have far more personal courage than most of us.

    • Mark, I think your example of Peter Tatchell is a good one. He has actively supported an astonishing range of progressive causes, at significant personal cost. But I think it's difficult to argue for a principle on the basis of one astonishing person: if we had to appoint a dictator to run the UK, I suspect he would do an excellent job -there are probably few people who could do better - but that doesn't mean appointing a dictator would be a good thing to do.

      All reform groups are fighting against the status quo, and generally against what seems right or sensible to most people. From the outside, to most people they seem to be bad or mad - or both. We like Peter because we like (perhaps most of) his causes, but we need to recognise that many people are deeply opposed to much of what he supports.

      The difficulty is that we want to applaud brave people like him, but from the outside many people struggle to see much difference between the seemingly insane ideas he supports (remember, most of the mass media are happy to keep telling us his ideas are insane) and the views of the anti-vaxxers.

      So, while I applaud the sentiment, I fear that any attempt to 'acknowledge brave people like him' will only result in more public outrage and a more divided society. We need to change the way disagreements are handled - not instead of campaigning for greater justice, but as a necessary strategy if we want to achieve greater justice.

  • Tribalism is so core to human nature - a result of thousands of years of evolution, competing for food, competing for mates, competing for places to live, competing for the attention of those we admire.  We have become very good at tribalism because of natural selection.

    I have been dabbling with dialogue on Facebook for years with people that I disagree with, and it seems to me that there are some 'tribes' that are almost impossible to create meaningful conversation between.  Perhaps this is because some tribes see no reason why they should dialogue with those they disagree with, for all sorts of reasons. Perhaps they have developed an 'enemy' mindset, perhaps they feel they can win by force (of violence of more likely popular opinion), or perhaps they don't have an end in mind, just enjoy fighting under a banner (and it could perhaps be any banner, not necessarily one they have thought about or even ascribe too if they were to be cross examined on what it means).

    I recall an interview talking to people, probably Conservative voters, on Guildford High Street - listing all sorts of political policies, which people ethusiastically endorsed. Until the interviewer revealed who had proposed the policies, Jeremy Corbyn.  So it isn't the substance that people often align with it's the identity.  So identity is much broader than tribalism - although the two are closely intwined. 

    Identity is all about how we see ourselves, and how we want to be perceived by others.  Those Conservative voters, even though they agreed with the substance of the policies found anything that linked them to their 'enemy' anathema. I suspect people nearly always choose image before any objectivity about what would be best for everyone.  Religions, political parties, action groups, clubs.  Anywhere there is a group of people joined by an idea, image, activity or purpose develop these characterists.  As the Bible says, it is hard to kick against the pricks.

    As to your answer, which I think addresses the core response, as you say the only one that seems to have any possible traction, I don't think this is an answer unique to Jesus, it is something that philosphers have come to over the centuries.  Sadly of course it is also the response which has been lacking even among the followers of those who proposed it and is certainly not fashionable in our rather blame/punishment/unforgiving society, where justice isn't even a term people really think about, understand or bring into play in their day to day activities.

    A quick Google gives these:

    "Do not return evil to your adversary; Requite with kindness the one who does evil to you, Maintain justice for your enemy."
    (the Akkadian "Counsels of Wisdom", circa 2000 BC)

    "In this world hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible."
    (the Buddhist scripture "Dhammapada")

    "Return love for hatred. Otherwise, when a great hatred is reconciled, some of it will surely remain. How can this end in goodness? "
    (the Taoist "T'ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien", circa 200 BC.)

    How people respond to one another is, I suspect, largely driven by how people feel about themselves, if they have experienced a lot of love in their upbringing and circle of family and friends, they are likely to be more receptive to a more generous and inclusive approach to other ideas and backgrounds. They are likley to be more relaxed in their bodies, with less to feel defensive about. The converse is also true of course.

    No cause is so good that the struggle to achieve it justifies harming people. Of course this is generally true.  But some will claim hurt when none has been done, and some changes do hurt. e.g. the hunting ban, long fought for, harmed the livelihoods of kennel masters and others, harmed the enjoyment of those enjoying the hunt etc.  There will always be those who could claim harm when changes happen.

    I suppose in a democracy we have to subsribe to the idea that the majority wish has to prevail.  However many better people than I have observed that this can only work when the wishes of the minority are taken heed of and not trampled on unnecesarily. This is a hard balance to fulfil, especially in a 'democracy' where winner takes all and there is no attempt, even in the voting system, to achieve proper representation or any sense of dialogue and consensus.  People resist having things imposed on them.


    • "No cause is so good that the struggle to achieve it justifies harming people." Okay, this is a first approximation, rather than a complete policy. But I think it is a good first approximation: we should seek to avoid harming people, but this is not the same as avoiding anything which people can claim hurts them in some way.

      And harm goes both ways: I think it is reasonable to suggest that allowing people to engage in foxhunting or cock-fights or bear-baiting harms people by densitising them to suffering, and there is a real public benefit gained from living in a society where it is not socially acceptable to gain pleasure from killing and causing suffering.

      And pretty much any reform will disadvantage some people in some way - votes for women effectively halves the value of the vote for all men. Seeking justice means balancing such things.

      I never suggested that 'love your enemy' is unique to Jesus. However, I do think that He made this a central plank to His message, in a way which no other leader before Him had done, and He worked out what this means in a fuller and more coherent way than almost anyone else, before or after. Also, He lived it, according to the record. I suspect this point needs to be unpacked a lot further - will try to do this fairly soon. Right now, I can only manage a few quick and fairly obvious points.

      'Love your enemy' is not the same as 'do not hate your enemy'. I did a study on this idea in different traditions a few years ago, and will try to find it.

      The first two quotes you provide are, as far as I can tell, modern paraphrases of the original texts. The Counsels of Wisdom are a collection of proverbs which are ideas to think about, not commands to be followed - rather like "a stitch in time saves nine".

      The Dhammapada dates from some seven centuries after the Buddha, well into the Christian era, and it also says we should not love, which is what you would expect from a Buddhist text. The version I found actually says, "Let us live happily then, not hating those who hate us! among men who hate us let us dwell free from hatred!" (Chapter XV, line 197) It's closely followed by line 211: "Let, therefore, no man love anything; loss of the beloved is evil. Those who love nothing and hate nothing, have no fetters."

      The Taoist quote sounds more plausible, but then you need to understand what 'love' means in the Taoist tradition...

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