Thursday, September 17, 2009

Racism and Globalization: Or, Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

For some reason, it still shocks people that human beings can be violent, racist, greedy, and dishonest.

In a way, that's good. We've been raised well and society is doing a pretty good job of hitting us on the head over and over with the idea that we need to be constantly trying to better ourselves and society. As early as kindergarten most of us learned the Golden Rule: "Do Unto Others as They Would Do Unto You," and that is the ideal that we strive for, or rather, would like to think that we strive for.

My buddy Janet Abu-Lughod smacked us right in the middle of the Crusades and the Black Plague and the expanding world systems and the beginnings of Globalization. And we learn about people from different areas of the world with different religions and different cultures starting to fight with each other, and we're shocked, shocked! to hear how violent and racist everyone is. But sometimes it helps to first go back, back as far as we can go, to see precisely WHY large groups of people act the way they do, and believe the things they believe.

I'm reading a book right now called "The Evolution of God" by Robert Wright, which was featured on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart about a month ago. Of course, the title is an exaggeration: he's writing about the evolution of religion, not God. But he mentions a few things that certainly help me understand any discussion of the Crusades, or Muslims vs. Christians, or any sort of religious-based conflict.

Before Islam and Christianity, religion wasn't about One God, but it was about Many Gods. Tons and tons of gods. Most of them were ridiculous, and hardly any of them offered any sort of moral judgment. A long time ago, humans were kind of stupid. Well, that's unfair. It took us a long time to figure out Science.

So our hunter-gatherer ancestors started evolving bigger brains, and more complex thoughts, and they started noticing all the things in Nature around them, like the sun and the moon and rain, and wondering how they hell all this was even happening. And that was basically how religion was invented. The sun was a god, the rain was a god, the wind was controlled by a god, that sort of thing.

All these gods had crazy personalities and crazy backstories. The most hilarious thing is that humans back then honestly didn't even know how babies were made. Men had sex with women and women gave birth but they didn't quite make the connection between these events yet, so in order to explain the whole babies-being-born thing, Woman was also a god. Oh, those were the days.

Anyway, eventually humans started getting smarter and figuring out agriculture and the birds and the bees, and lo and behold, civilization was born. The problem with agriculture is, you need land. Good land that you can grow crops on. Otherwise, you die. And lo and behold, war was born. If one tribe's land wasn't giving them good crops, they went over and stole land from a neighboring tribe.

Religion changed to accommodate these changes in society. Small hunter-gatherer tribes became cheifdoms and city-states, and all these little random Gods joined together to look after the members of these societies who were working together.
Over the course of a bunch of little neighboring societies banding together, this was a pretty nice gradual process, because neighboring societies actually believed in really similar gods (this is called 'the evolution of cultural memes') and were willing to agree that their God of the Sun was the same as your God of the Sun.

Also, to really work together you do kind of need to Do Unto Others As They Would Do Unto You. A little agricultural city-state wouldn't get a lot of work done if all its inhabitants were constantly stealing from and killing each other. So the Gods eventually started offering Moral Judgments on people who stole things or killed people.

Eventually the whole bunch-of-Gods-working-together thing evolved into the much more compact and helpful One-God-who-watches-over-All-His-People. This was good for a little city-state because it really promoted unity and cooperation amongst this God's people, because they were all serving a common ruler, this One God. It was also good for men because remember when I mentioned that Women were gods once? Well now there's only one God, and he's male, so that kind of puts the whole men-are-in-charge, women-are-inferior thing into motion.

But the problem with the belief that there is only One God is that, well, there can't be any other gods. The One God of a certain people will watch over his people if they serve him well, but if you come across another group of people who believe in an entirely different One-God, well, there's kind of a problem. In order to have all your beliefs surrounding the supremacy of Your One God who looks out for Your People not topple down and leave you without faith, without an afterlife, and without any purpose whatsoever, you can only conclude that these other people with a different god are wrong. Not only are they wrong, they're DEAD WRONG. (you kill them.)

It all goes back to the birth of agriculture. If your crops are failing, you have two choices: die of starvation, or go steal someone else's crops. And, honestly, that's racism right there. Racism is evolved. We have a natural inclination not to trust people who don't look like us, because back when humans lived in small, intimate tribes, if you suddenly saw a bunch of people you've never seen before who look different than everyone you know, then they probably are from another tribe that has run out of food and are here to steal your food and probably rape and kill you.

Good times, good times.

-Katie Dempsey

Morals and society and laws serve their purpose, but Genghis Khan certainly did pretty well for himself by disregarding them. Genghis Khan sought to replicate what the Roman Empire did before him. An economy/society based on conquering other people and taking their stuff is actually fantastic for itself and its people. And I guess you could say the Roman Empire was capitalist. Which certainly says something for capitalism, that it works best during wars. The thing about the Roman Empire, and also the Mongols, is that the motto to Join Us or Be Killed is significantly more forgiving than the motto Your God And Therefore Everything You Believe And Your Whole Way Of Life Is A Lie And If You Say Otherwise We'll Kill You. In other words, for Genghis, it was less personal: merely "give us your stuff!"; while for Christians and Muslims, it was VERY personal: "your beliefs threaten the foundations of my beliefs and therefore I hate you so much that I will devote all my resources to destroying you in all ways", or, to a lesser extent, "I know that my God is the only God and since you believe otherwise I can only conclude you and all your people are complete morons, barbarians, not even human beings really, and I do not feel guilty in the slightest for discriminating against you."


  1. I really enjoyed your post. The video made me laugh because it is so true. There are so many disputes - and wars - in our society today that are the direct result religion. Abu-Lughod illuminated the conflicts between civilizations that existed in the 13th-15th centuries because of religion. The Europeans were Christian, and many of the Mongols were Buddhist, but dispite this, they tried to join forces against the Muslims. Even though the Europeans and Mongols were not of the same religion, they used this as a common ground to work together and combat the Muslims. Today, religion is still used as the fuel to many feuds. The SNL video skit highlighted this when Steve Carrel - worshiper of Ali - and Stephen - worshiper of the Christian God, Jesus Christ - argued over whose God was the almighty. The two could not come to an agreement, and it wasn't until the Jewish commenter stepped in that they started to find a middle ground. This middle ground was the understanding that the two of them could not settle the question of whose God was the almighty (Ali or Jesus Christ), but that they were both better Gods than the one the Jew worshipped. This is funny to me because it illustrates the fact that when it comes to religion there are no facts, but only beliefs and opinions. Religion always was a source of conflict among peoples of different faith, and until there is one religion that everyone follows, there will always be disputes over whose religion is the best.

  2. Interesting points, and nice job embedding the video in your post. Digital literacy is important to us all.