Hatred, Faith and Cultural Identity

October 9, 2007

You’ve got to be taught
Before it’s too late
Before you are six
Or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught

Recently and English friend of mine was relating his experiences while stationed in Wales.  He said that his wife, also English, could never hope to find a job in the town where they lived.  When I pressed for a reason – economics perhaps? – I was surprised to find that the answer was her English extraction.  Apparently it isn’t any different in Scotland.  Ireland I knew about, but Wales?  Scotland?  Those grievances truly fall into the category of ancient history, yet they are alive today.  What’s more, my friend related that when one asks a Welshman why he would support Germany over England in a sporting match, he would reply something along the lines of “the world war happened a long time ago.  Let bygones be bygones.”  But the statute of limitations hasn’t run out yet for England.

This paradox bothered me more than I let on at the time, because I did know that this sort of long-term enmity isn’t restricted to the United Kingdom.  It’s found all around the world; Kurds versus Turks, Basques versus Spanish, Arab versus Jew, Greek versus Turk, Serb versus Croat.  In these cases, the ancient hatreds are responsible for new bloodshed almost every day.  I couldn’t understand why these old local grudges seem to transcend more modern political and economic situations

Possibly the answer is that they are not in the same category.  It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison to put the Basque separatist movement next to one of the World Wars. One has its roots in political and economic issues; the other is woven into the culture of the groups.  Cultures around the world carefully nurture their sense of outrage for offenses committed long ago, and this outrage becomes a major part of what gives these groups their identity.  More subtle differences in ancestry, dialect or heritage take a back seat to a good old fashioned feud.  Without this unifying anger, or even hatred, these cultures lose a large part of their sense of identity and become just another group of people.

This nurtured resentment isn’t restricted to nations or races.  Vietnam veterans on motorcycles gather in Washington DC every Memorial Day weekend to remind everyone listening that they didn’t get their World War II-style welcome home when they came back from Vietnam.  They didn’t, it’s true, and no one will question that.  But the country has basically disowned or at least disavowed the anti-military sentiment that these veterans faced when they came home over thirty years ago.  You can’t find one person who will admit to hanging around airports in the late sixties or early seventies to harass returning servicemen.  The one recognizable anti-war figure from that time, Jane Fonda, has apologized for her actions, which were much less significant than Ezra Pound’s or Iva Toguri D’Aquino’s.  Yet the vets figuratively pick the scab every year, because this grudge is what gives them their identity as a unique culture.

What’s the significance of this cultural animosity, and especially the difference between it and political or economic conflicts?  The significance is in our failure to recognize the futility of trying to settle a long-term cultural score with a simple political or economic agreement.  These agreements are logically based on tangible grounds.  But cultural conflicts aren’t about politics or economics.  They are more like articles of faith.  Faith is the acceptance of a system of beliefs in the absence of scientific proof.  Faith is taught, ingrained by one’s culture. It becomes part of the individual and collective identity.  To turn your back on your culture is tantamount to disowning yourself.  Political agreements that address near term or recent issues such as trade, borders and access don’t address deep-seated cultural animosities.  They may cover them over for a short time, but they don’t “solve” them.  Cultural issues are largely beyond political solving.

So give it up, Jane.  Don’t try to apologize anymore.  It doesn’t matter that your actions were insignificant in the greater scheme of things in the war.  The vets are no sooner going to accept your apology than they are going to give up their leather jackets and Harleys.  Brits, don’t expect the Welsh or Scots to welcome you with open arms when you come to their country.  You yourself didn’t do anything wrong, it’s nothing personal.  President Bush, don’t think that the continued presence of US troops in Iraq will prevent further civil violence.  Shiites and Sunnis hated each other long before there was even a nation named the United States.  The only thing that kept a lid on that hatred was a brutal dictatorship.  It was the same in Yugoslavia before the death of Tito.  It’s naïve of us to think we can solve the world’s cultural differences by simple negotiations and a few peacekeeping troops.  This is not to say that we should stop trying, but it is to say that we shouldn’t be surprised when cultures we think we are helping resist us and go on with their hatred.  They are just doing what they were taught.


2 Responses to “Hatred, Faith and Cultural Identity”

  1. John Jay Says:

    Regarding Vietnam – in fact, episodes of ‘baby killer’ name calling and so on are not documented with any reasonable frequency. The overwhelming view of letters to the editor, TV opinion, and magazine articles show no systemic hostility to the Vets.

    I think the MIA mania is along the same lines. There is zero evidence that MIA remains or live victims are being held, but it is impolitic to suggest this because it violates the Rambo view of the world and makes the suggester look like they don’t care about vets.

  2. Julia Roberts Says:

    Hey John,

    I first read this posting a long time ago, but was just re-reading it and wanted to tell you how thoughtful and insightful it is. It’s the kind of thing I try to get my students to understand – with how much success is questionable, but they are young!

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