Facing the future: staring down reality

Dear Editor,

The thing about disasters is that they throw all the cracks in a society, any society, into sharp relief. All the absurdities, the inefficiencies, the pettinesses, the stupidities, the failures: these are all laid bare. I’m not talking about individual flaws; I’m talking about the cracks in the system.

The thing about disasters is that, tragedy aside, they create an opportunity to begin to fix what’s broken.

But in order to fix it, we have to acknowledge it. And that’s the hard part. Because one of the biggest things that’s broken about Bahamians and The Bahamas is that we are some of God’s greatest hypocrites. There’s a gap so wide between who we say we are and what we actually do that most days, these days, I question whether Jesus Christ Himself can bridge it. There’s the ideal Bahamas: God-fearing, Christian, warm, welcoming, peaceful, laid-back, loving. And then there’s the more everyday us:

“Bahamas for Bahamians.”

“Them boats need to be sinked [sic].”

“They roam like roaches.”

“They nasty like that.”

“C-section every female & tie off tubes.”

“Sterilize every male.”

“Please kill them duty [sic] smelly Haitians.”

Every one of the above statements I have lifted from social media or newspaper reports, and they are statements issued by self-proclaimed Bahamians who, shocked by Dorian into confronting the reality that we inhabit a society balanced on the backs of a half-visible underclass, are reeling from the exposure of that underclass, and reacting against them. Some of the speakers are “good Christians”. Some are politicians. Some are pastors. And some are just ordinary Bahamians letting their opinions out through social media.

Don’t be too shocked. The reaction is not new, and it isn’t unique. People who study literature and history — those optional subjects that we don’t believe to be necessary to teach people in school — can recognize the reaction. The whole world is experiencing an existential shift — some people call it a crisis — and the “truths” on which we Bahamians have built our lives are melting.

“Truths” like God is a Bahamian.

“Truths” like people don’t die when hurricanes hit The Bahamas.

“Truths” like Bahamians are God-fearing people.

Like foreign investment can save our economy.

Like privatization can solve all ills.

Like we can turn to our governments in times of trouble, and big brother will reach out a warm black hand and rescue us.

Scapegoats and scapegoating

In other places, there are other melting “truths”, but the reaction is the same: a low-grade panic, a silent confusion and a very public reaction — identify the cause of the troubles, and eradicate it.

And the cause of the troubles? Across human societies, it’s almost inevitably a group of people we can all unite behind blaming, hating and (not infrequently) killing.

In Puritan America, witches.

In the American south, black people.

In contemporary China, the Uyghurs, and the people who follow Falun Gong.

In 1990s Rwanda, the Tutsi.

In 1990s Yugoslavia, the Croats.

In Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, the Jews.

In Trump’s USA, the former land of the free, the symbol of liberty and safe havens, “immigrants”.

It’s a universal human practice. When the world loses its predictability, when society shifts and we can’t rely on the familiar and comforting, societies hunt for the source of the problem and settle on people and groups who can safely be blamed, and whose persecution can serve as a channel to ease the collective distress. The practice doesn’t solve anything, but it does provide distraction. It allows the community to turn away from its own shared pain and provides a measure of relief in the short-term.

Maybe I’m wrong to call it “relief”. It might be more accurate to say this: it’s a way to take action, a way for people who find themselves suddenly powerless to feel powerful again. Having control over other people’s life and death, over other people’s comfort and suffering — this provides a workable substitute for true power, actual control over one’s life. But the one thing that all societies who descend into this mire find out eventually is that in seeking to deflect damage and disaster by damaging and destroying someone else, eventually the society itself is destroyed.

In the social sciences we call this practice “scapegoating”. Anthropologists will argue that it happens all the time, everywhere, in every social group. Some theorists regard it as a normal part of a functional society. Scapegoating achieves several things at once. It defines and delineates boundaries, teaching group members who’s “in” and who’s “out”; it gives groups a chance to explain, understand and ultimately accept terrible happenings which may be otherwise beyond explanation; and it attempts to re-establish social stability in situations which are growing unstable. It happens on a small scale in every social system. It’s a measure by which conformity is established and reinforced. It brings comfort and predictability.

In anthropology, we once used the term “witch” to describe the scapegoat. The process of identifying a “witch” is a process by which solidarity is created. People get together and cooperate in defining, discovering and calling out the “witch”. By inflicting suffering of one sort or another on those individuals identified as “witches”, the society finds satisfaction. It is a practice that happens again and again and again; and by studying who is identified as a “witch”, social scientists learn plenty about societies. They learn what the norms are, how the social group is defined, who gets to belong and so on and on. Across the world, the same kinds of people fall into this category: women, the poor, the differently-abled, the mentally ill, people of different ethnicities, people of different religions, outcasts, the elderly, the weak. In some societies it’s all of the above; in others, compassion may exist for some of these groups while others are attacked. By studying the particulars, we better understand the society as a whole.

But here’s what we have concluded across the globe: when societies are stressed or threatened with a fundamental change in their way of life, their economy, their culture, this practice escalates. Scapegoating, which normally affects individuals, is applied to whole groups. And the belief grows: if we can only get rid of this group, if we can only eradicate the people in it, we can get rid of the trouble.

Scapegoating allows us to fall into the trap of believing that all our problems will be solved if we can only destroy the scapegoats.

Hardened hearts

But we would be wrong.

For as we seek to destroy the scapegoats, we little by little destroy ourselves. This happens for a number of reasons. The first one is well-expressed in the Martin Niemoller poem, “First they came for the Socialists…” We take comfort in the assumption that the problem will be dealt with if only the troubling element is removed. But when the element has been attacked and the problem still remains, the focus shifts. Another scapegoat is discovered. Individuals and groups are one by one identified, controlled, eradicated; but the problem itself is never fixed. And the society devours itself.

“… it’s impossible to brutalize another person without first turning them, in our minds, into brutes who deserve their suffering.”

But the second one is more insidious. It comes from the fact that in order to attack the “other” (whomever that may be), we have to kill something in them. We have to turn off that part of our minds that recognizes them as people like ourselves; we have to strip them of the things that help us see them and feel their pain. We participate in their dehumanization. We have to; it’s impossible to brutalize another person without first turning them, in our minds, into brutes who deserve their suffering.

And the third one is the worst of all. In order to attack the “other”, we have to kill something in ourselves. We have to silence that part of us that recognizes and acknowledges other people’s suffering, that part of us that urges us to reach out and help to heal it, not to make it worse. We have turn off that part of our humanity that expresses shock and grief and sorrow at the terrible things that happen to other people, because if we allow it to live, we cannot do the unthinkable. We cannot really sink those boats; we cannot really cut babies out of women’s wombs and sterilize the parents. We cannot really string those men from trees or “chap up” those children or burn those people alive in that church. We cannot pray for our brothers and neighbors and cousins to be killed simply for wanting to travel from one place to another, unless we deaden our own compassion, our own empathy. Unless we — to use the Biblical phrase which expresses it so perfectly — harden our hearts. Unless we allow our love — to use another apt Biblical phrase — to grow cold.

This is the reality we must honestly face: in order to destroy the other, we must destroy ourselves.

Step carefully

But, you may ask. Wait, you may say. If we’re enacting a role that many others have acted before us, if we’re responding the way that social scientists can with some certainty predict, aren’t we just behaving naturally? Aren’t we just doing the inevitable?

Yes; and no.

Yes, because the inevitable occurs every day. We place boundaries around “us” and “our kind”. We set up categories and slot things and people into them, and in this way we create social and cultural meaning. Many of these categories are positive and provide confidence and value for their groups.

But the process is not static and it is not always benign. Because as we practice it, the process results in stereotypes (glib expectations about ability and behavior that we impose on groups who are different from us), prejudice (the idea that the way others live their lives is inferior, evil or wrong), discrimination (taking action on our prejudice and treating different groups differently), racism and ethnic hatred (deciding that our prejudice and differential treatment are justified because of the inferiority or unworthiness of the other) and structural inequality (creating structures that widen and enforce the differences, thus ensuring that the people we define as inferior remain inferior forever).

And so — no. Because there’s a difference between delineating groups, identifying “self” and “other” and using that practice to define different collectives within a society — and setting out actively to destroy, remove or eradicate the “other”. The first process is the normal one, found in every society. The second, however, will ultimately destroy society itself.

So here we are. We’re faced with the cracks and flaws that have always been there, but which we’ve ignored until now. We can’t ignore them any more, so we seek to fix them in the predictable, scapegoating way. We’re blaming our ills on “illegals”, the name we have created for the Haitians among us; and we’re believing that we’ll fix those cracks by removing the Haitians. Predictably, then, we see the rise of hate speech, hate action, collective justification of that hatred.

It’s a dangerous road, and a slippery one.

We would do well to step carefully as we go.

Nicolette Bethel

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