Know Your Neighbors
I have two local friends who hail from London: Rupert in Rancho Mirage, and Gillian in Palm Desert. They often laugh at how Americans react to their British accent.
“Well,” I tell them, “Americans can’t really differentiate between British, Australian, South African or New Zealand accents, let alone between North and West London. We just assume that if you have that accent, you must be smart and educated.”
Many of us have similar trouble differentiating between Vietnamese and Filipino, Japanese and Chinese, Saudi and Syrian, Egyptian and Liberian. They’re all either Southeast Asian or Middle Eastern or African—if we know enough to make those distinctions.
With what just happened on Nov. 13 (more than 125 dead in Paris), as well as what happened only a day before in Beirut (43 killed) and a couple weeks before that on a Russian plane (224 dead), it’s also difficult for us to differentiate between who is “us” and who is “them.”
I’ve written before about this tribal hangover in our evolutionary journey, whether about “mean girls” or political correctness or motorcycle gangs or the local “us” versus “them” in Coachella after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris earlier this year. It feels urgent to me that we consider how important it is for Americans to not only preserve our sense of security, but also act based on our values. If we can be pushed into knee-jerk policies based on fear—not unlike the internment of law-abiding and loyal Japanese Americans during World War II—“they” will have already won. There should be no fear worth abandoning our basic concepts of freedom, equality and respect for human rights.
After the most recent Paris attack—amid reactions that include concerns about accepting Syrian refugees, even if they’re fleeing death and destruction; rushing to commit troops to harm’s way; voicing political rhetoric without acknowledging the need for allies whose philosophies or way of life may be vastly different from ours; and a call to shut down American houses of worship (First Amendment be damned)—I had the great pleasure of interviewing Deepa Iyer, author of a new book, We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future. A South Asian American, born in India, Iyer immigrated to Kentucky at age 12. She has served as executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together and is a senior fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion, as well as an activist in residence at the University of Maryland.
Iyer’s book chronicles some of the shameful incidents that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, including Islamophobia in the Bible Belt, the massacre at a Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin, the violent opposition to an Islamic Center in Tennessee, and the demonstrations against building a mosque in Lower Manhattan. She also looks at public policies adopted after Sept. 11, like rampant profiling (as if we could suddenly distinguish between a Muslim and a Hindu—can you?).
Not coincidentally, we’re witnessing campus protests by young people who decry stereotyping, exclusion and hate crimes. The Black Lives Matter movement seeks to highlight institutionalized racism.
Iyer has a particular take on hate crimes: “Hate violence affects everyone in America. A hate crime affects not only the person being targeted, but the entire community to which that person belongs. Acts of hate violence can disrupt and affect even those who do not belong (to) the community being directly targeted.” She cites, as an example, the massacre in Wisconsin, where afterward, non-Sikhs also experienced fear and anxiety and felt forced to change some of their behaviors.
Are home-grown hate crimes different from what ISIS is doing? Local bullies want a sense of power. ISIS terrorism is designed to frighten anyone who might be inclined to oppose their desire for power—including other Muslims. As a nation, if we react based on that fear by abandoning our principles and beliefs, including our historical willingness to integrate people from other cultural and religious traditions, then ISIS will have been successful in pushing their notion of “us” and “them.” ISIS wants to be seen as a legitimate state. Granting that status to ISIS is antithetical to defeating what we should recognize as nothing more than a worldwide hate crime being perpetrated by armed bullies.
In addition to our revulsion at indiscriminate killings, there is at least a smidgen of a desire to distance ourselves from the possibility that in each of us, there still lurks that tribal impulse toward violence against “the other.” Being “civilized” means we have mostly found ways to transcend those impulses; the choice of how to go forward must be informed by realizing that some members of our species are apparently still “uncivilized.”
We all have Uncle Joe or Cousin Amelia, whom we dread seeing because their behavior becomes obnoxious after the second glass of wine. Still, they are family—no matter how we might like to distance ourselves from the idea that we are in any way like them. It may not be all that different to fear seeing ourselves as capable of being at all like ISIS extremists. Yet abusive bullies live among us.
Despite political finger-pointing (Bush got us into Iraq; Obama pulled us out too quickly), we are where we are, and there are serious questions to be asked: Do we want to rush into combat for the sake of looking tough? Are we willing to once again increase American casualties? What about “collateral damage”—the killing of innocent women and children? Should we implement policies, created out of fear, that restrict the freedom of others, based on nothing more than what they look like, or which religious affiliation they claim, or where they come from? What are the consequences of both intervention and a lack of intervention? How much is already being done that hasn’t been made public? These are public conversations worth having, and we need coherent and nuanced responses.
We must resist the temptation to see even ourselves as “us” and “them.” If we can’t even distinguish one accent or one nationality from another, maybe it’s time to realize there is no “us” and “them.” We are all Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Unitarian, Jewish, Scientologist, Mormon—and none of the above. We are Italian, Laotian, Moroccan, Polish, Jordanian, Irish, Iranian, Belgian, Ukrainian, Swedish. These are ways of distinguishing and identifying ourselves, but in the end, it’s all “us.”
The challenge is to educate ourselves about each other enough to not let fear turn us against our better natures. We can only hope that our more civilized selves represent the direction of our evolution away from mere tribalism.
We are all Parisian, Lebanese, Russian. Like him or not, Uncle Joe is also “us.” Alas, ISIS is also “us.” For better or worse, we’re all in this together. In the end, there is no “them.”