Why You Will Die for Your Ethnic Group But Not Your Book Club

Political systems
that tolerate and manage diversity are among the most sophisticated and
evolved. Even if there is a tendency toward maximizing self-interest, and
favoring one’s group, modern theory assumes that such narrow interests can be
“learned away.” In other words, the skills and habits of
multiculturalism and diversity will supersede the harsher consequences of
narrow tribal identity. Such assumptions are the foundation of conflict

On August 14,
2011 the New York Times reported a
story about how the Dutch are confronting the question of their own identity in
the face of rising fear of Muslims and the right wing anti-immigration
political party of Geert Wilders. The Dutch have a long history of tolerance
and political liberalism so the racism and hate speech circulating in their
culture is alien to them. But the Dutch cohesion and social solidarity has been
based on a history of cultural and ethnic homogenization. It is easy to enforce
rules of behavior on large groups of people when everyone is alike. In
relatively small groups composed of people with similar values and attitudes it
is easy to produce social cohesion and consistency.

But now the Dutch
are faced with social and religious groups in their society that are different
from the dominant group. Now it is time for the test of Dutch political
liberalism. Tolerating diversity has been so easy for the Dutch for so long
that they have forgotten the power of group identity. They have forgotten that
humans developed an evolutionary advantage by recognizing and favoring their
own group. The evolution of Dutch social graces and tolerance means that most
members of Dutch culture do not talk about ethnicity and race. But no one
objects to the hateful things that Wilders says, and a number of those
interviewed in the New York Times
article stated that Wilders was only saying what most people think. The Dutch
are struggling with group identity and will have to relearn its power. It is
group identity that justifies extreme and violent behavior.

Ever wonder
why there is such a long line of people waiting to blow themselves up? How
could it be that anyone except the most crazed outlier can strap Centex to his
waist and blow himself up? There are so many terrorists in the form of suicide
bombers that we have to conclude that any “normal” person is capable
of becoming a terrorist. Individuals in groups that have been frustrated or
insulted in some way are capable of expressing the most extreme anger. A frustrated
and threatened group identity (such as the Dutch identity threatened by Islam)
is far more dangerous than a threatened individual identity. It is the
identification with a group or cause that is the most potent explanatory factor

The incendiary
power of group identity is clear. A terrorist will do unspeakable things in the
name of their group or cause that they would not consider doing for personal
reasons. I should add that the benevolent and compassionate person who is
motivated to self-sacrifice (the medal of honor winner who dives on a hand
grenade) is no different than the terrorist when it comes to powerful group
identification. Rick McCauley in The
Psychology of Terrorism
explains these processes and clarifies how
terrorists are typically not poor, miserable, and uneducated. They know what
they are doing and do it willingly.

Group identity
(either ethnic, religious, or political) has the evolutionary advantage of
providing safety as well as obvious reproductive opportunities. But ethnic
identity is particularly potent. It represents a long history of the
convergence of interests. Numerous classical studies of group formation have
demonstrated how easy it is to form a group identity. That’s why people
identify so strongly and so easily with sports teams, organizations, clubs, or
any number of social and economic groups. But ethnic groups are a principal
source of values and individual identity. The fact that states and political
systems have so much trouble incorporating ethnic groups into the state is one
example of the strength of this identification. People will tolerate unjust
economic conditions, but will react violently if their ethnic group is
humiliated or dishonored in some way.

I will close
by pointing out that ethnicity is discussed in academic circles these days as subject
to the vagaries of interaction and a social construction. It is true enough
that people are not “born” with group identities. One does not emerge
from the womb as an “Irish nationalist,” or a “Norwegian,”
or a “Red Sox fan.” But one does emerge from the womb determined to
develop group identities. And the most basic group identities are based on what
we see immediately in front of us – gender and physiology. That’s why gender
and ethnic group identities are so powerful. And that’s why people will die for
their ethnic group, but not their book club.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on August 21, 2011, in Communication and Conflict Resolution, Democracy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Nice to see your thoughts, though I’m not sure that the word ‘evolution’ is more appropriate than the word ‘learned’ when describing why certain identities stick more than others. I’ve got a piece in the ISA compendium which compares all of these different approaches and argues for a medium between learned and evolved identities. If you’re interested you can check it out online (hopefully your school will have a subscription).



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