‘We’ vs ‘Others’: Russell Jacoby on why we should fear our neighbors more than strangers
“Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’)” — Edward Said, Orientalism (1978)
“Academics are thrilled with the “other” and the vagaries of how we represent the foreign. By profession, anthropologists are visitors from afar. We are outsiders, writes an anthropologist, “seeking to understand unfamiliar cultures.” Humanists and social theorists also have fallen in love with the “other.” A recent paper by the literary critic Toril Moi is titled “Literature, Philosophy, and the Question of the Other.” In a recent issue of Signs, a philosopher writes about “Occidental Dreams: Orientalism and History in ‘The Second Sex.’”
The romance with the “other,” the Orient, and the stranger, however, diverts attention from something less sexy: the familiar. For those concerned with strife and violence in the world, like Said, the latter may, in fact, be more critical than the strange and the foreign. If the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted 15 years, can highlight something about how the West represents the East, it can also foreground a neglected truth: The most decisive antagonisms and misunderstandings take place within a community. The history of hatred and violence is, to a surprising degree, a history of brother against brother, not brother against stranger. From Cain and Abel to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries and the civil wars of our own age, it is not so often strangers who elicit hatred, but neighbors.
This observation contradicts both common sense and the collective wisdom of teachers and preachers, who declaim that we fear—sometimes for good reason—the unknown and dangerous stranger. Citizens and scholars alike believe that enemies lurk in the street and beyond the street, where we confront a “clash of civilizations” with foreigners who challenge our way of life.
The truth is more unsettling. From assault to genocide, from assassination to massacre, violence usually emerges from inside the fold rather than outside it. (…)
We may obsess about strangers piloting airplanes into our buildings, but in the United States in any year, roughly five times the number of those killed in the World Trade Center are murdered on the streets or inside their own homes and offices. These regular losses remind us that most criminal violence takes place between people who know each other. Cautious citizens may push for better street lighting, but they are much more likely to be assaulted, even killed, in the light of the kitchen by someone familiar than in a parking garage by a stranger. Like, not unlike, prompts violence.
Civil wars are generally more savage, and bear more lasting consequences, than wars between countries. Many more people died in the American Civil War—at a time when the population was a tenth of what it is today—than in any other American conflict, and its long-term effects probably surpass those of the others. Major bloodlettings of the 20th century—hundreds of thousands to millions of deaths—occurred in civil wars such as the Russian Civil War, the Chinese Civil Wars of 1927-37 and 1945-49, and the Spanish Civil War. More Russian lives were lost in the Russian Civil War that followed World War I than in the Great War itself, for instance.
But who cares about the Russian Civil War? A thousand books and courses dwell on World War I, but few on the Russian Civil War that emerged from it. That war, with its fluid battle lines, uncertain alliances, and clouded beginning, seems too murky. The stew of hostilities is typical of civil wars, however. With some notable exceptions, modern civil wars resist the clear categories of interstate wars. The edges are blurred. Revenge often trumps ideology and politics.
Yet civil strife increasingly characterizes the contemporary world. “Most wars are now civil wars,” announces the first sentence of a World Bank publication. Not only are there more civil wars, but they last longer. The conflicts in southern Sudan have been going on for decades. Lengthy battles between states are rare nowadays. And when states do attack, the fighting generally doesn’t last long (for example, Israel’s monthlong incursion into Lebanon in 2006). The recent wars waged by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan are notable exceptions.
We live in an era of ethnic, national, and religious fratricide. A new two-volume reference work on “the most severe civil wars since World War II” has 41 entries, from Afghanistan and Algeria to Yemen and Zimbabwe. Over the last 50 years, the number of casualties of intrastate conflicts is roughly five times that of interstate wars. The number of refugees from these conflicts similarly dwarfs those from traditional state-versus-state wars. “Cases such as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Lebanon testify to the economic devastation that civil wars can produce,” note two political scientists. By the indexes of deaths, numbers of refugees, and extent of destruction, they conclude that “civil war has been a far greater scourge than interstate war” in recent decades. In Iraq today—putting aside blame and cause—more Iraqis are killed by their countrymen than by the American military.
The iconic book by Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military thinker, evokes the spirit of Immanuel Kant, whose writings he studied. Subheadings such as “The Knowledge in War Is Very Simple, but Not, at the Same Time, Very Easy” suggest its philosophical structure. Clausewitz subordinated war to policy, which entailed a rational evaluation of goals and methods. He compared the state to an individual. “Policy” is “the product of its brain,” and war is an option. “No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” If civilized nations at war “do not put their prisoners to death” or “devastate cities,” he writes, it is because “intelligence plays a larger part in their methods of warfare … than the crude expressions of instinct.”
In civil wars, by contrast, prisoners are put to death and cities destroyed as a matter of course. The ancient Greeks had already characterized civil strife as more violent than traditional war. Plato distinguishes war against outsiders from what he calls factionalized struggles, that is, civil wars. He posits that Greeks practice war against foreigners (“barbarians”), a conflict marked by “enmity and hatred,” but not against one another. When Greeks fight Greeks, he believes, they should temper their violence in anticipation of reconciliation. “They will not, being Greeks, ravage Greek territory nor burn habitations,” nor “lay waste the soil,” nor treat all “men, women, and children” as their enemies. Such, at least, was his hope in the Republic, but the real world often contradicted it, as he knew. His proposition that Greeks should not ravage Greeks challenged the reality in which Greeks did exactly that.
Plato did not have to look further than Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War to find confirmation of the brutality of Greek-on-Greek strife. In a passage often commented on, Thucydides wrote of the seesaw battle in Corcyra (Corfu) in 433 BC, which prefigured the larger war. When the Athenians approached the island in force, the faction they supported seized the occasion to settle accounts with its adversaries. In Thucydides’ telling, this was a “savage” civil war of Corcyrean against Corcyrean. For the seven days the Athenians stayed in the harbor, Corcyreans “continued to massacre those of their own citizens” they considered enemies. “There was death in every shape and form,” writes Thucydides. “People went to every extreme and beyond it. There were fathers who killed their sons; men were dragged from the temples or butchered on the very altars.” Families turned on families. “Blood ties became more foreign than factional ones.” Loyalty to the faction overrode loyalty to family members, who became the enemy.
Nearly 2,500 years after Thucydides, the presiding judge at a United Nations trial invoked the Greek historian. The judge reflected on what had occurred in the former Yugoslavia. One Duško Tadić stood accused of the torture and murder of Muslims in his hometown in Bosnia-Herzegovina. His actions exemplified a war of ethnic cleansing fueled by resentment and hatred. “Some time ago, yet not far from where the events in this case happened,” something similar occurred, stated a judge in his 1999 opinion. He cited Thucydides’ description of the Corcyrean civil war as one of “savage and pitiless actions.” Then as today, the judge reminded us, men “were swept away into an internecine struggle” in which vengeance supplanted justice.
Today’s principal global conflicts are fratricidal struggles—regional, ethnic, and religious: Iraqi Sunni vs. Iraqi Shiite, Rwandan Tutsi vs. Rwandan Hutu, Bosnian Muslim vs. Balkan Christians, Sudanese southerners vs. Sudanese northerners, perhaps Libyan vs. Libyan. As a Rwandan minister declared about the genocide in which Hutus slaughtered Tutsis: “Your neighbors killed you.” A reporter in northeastern Congo wrote that in seven months of fighting there, several thousand people were killed and more than 100,000 driven from their homes. He commented, “Like ethnic conflicts around the globe, this is fundamentally a fight between brothers: The two tribes—the Hema and the Lendu—speak the same language, marry each other, and compete for the same remote and thickly populated land.”
Somalia is perhaps the signal example of this ubiquitous fratricidal strife. As a Somalian-American professor observed, Somalia can claim a “homogeneity rarely known elsewhere in Africa.” The Somalian people “share a common language (Somali), a religion (Islam), physical characteristics, and pastoral and agropastoral customs and traditions.” This has not tempered violence. On the contrary.
The proposition that violence derives from kith and kin overturns a core liberal belief that we assault and are assaulted by those who are strangers to us. If that were so, the solution would be at hand: Get to know the stranger. Talk with the stranger. Reach out. The cure for violence is better communication, perhaps better education. Study foreign cultures and peoples. Unfortunately, however, our brother, our neighbor, enrages us precisely because we understand him. Cain knew his brother—he “talked with Abel his brother”—and slew him afterward.
We don’t like this truth. We prefer to fear strangers. We like to believe that fundamental differences pit people against one another, that world hostilities are driven by antagonistic principles about how society should be constituted. To think that scale—economic deprivation, for instance—rather than substance divides the world seems to trivialize the stakes. We opt instead for a scenario of clashing civilizations, such as the hostility between Western and Islamic cultures. The notion of colliding worlds is more appealing than the opposite: conflicts hinging on small differences. A “clash” implies that fundamental principles about human rights and life are at risk.
Samuel Huntington took the phrase “clash of civilizations” from the Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis, who was referring to a threat from the Islamic world. “We are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies,” Lewis wrote in 1990. “This is no less than a clash of civilizations” and a challenge to “our Judeo-Christian heritage.” For Huntington, “the underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization.” (…)
Or consider the words of a Hindu nationalist who addressed the conflict with Indian Muslims. How is unity to come about, she asks? “The Hindu faces this way, the Muslim the other. The Hindu writes from left to right, the Muslim from right to left. The Hindu prays to the rising sun, the Muslim faces the setting sun when praying. If the Hindu eats with the right hand, the Muslim with the left. … The Hindu worships the cow, the Muslim attains paradise by eating beef. The Hindu keeps a mustache, the Muslim always shaves the upper lip.”
Yet the preachers, porte-paroles, and proselytizers may mislead; it is in their interest to do so. What divided the Protestants and Catholics in 16th-century France, the Germans and Jews in 20th-century Europe, and the Shia and Sunni today may be small, not large. But minor differences rankle more than large differences. Indeed, in today’s world, it may be not so much differences but their diminution that provokes antagonism. Here it can be useful to attend the literary critic René Girard, who also bucks conventional wisdom by signaling the danger in similitude, not difference: “In human relationships, words like ‘sameness’ and ‘similarity’ evoke an image of harmony. If we have the same tastes and like the same things, surely we are bound to get along. But what will happen when we share the same desires?” However, for Girard, “a single principle” pervades religion and literature. “Order, peace, and fecundity depend on cultural distinctions; it is not these distinctions but the loss of them that gives birth to fierce rivalries and sets members of the same family or social group at one another’s throats.”
Likeness does not necessarily lead to harmony. It may elicit jealousy and anger. Inasmuch as identity rests on what makes an individual unique, similitude threatens the self. The mechanism also operates on social terrain. As cultural groups get absorbed into larger or stronger collectives, they become more anxious—and more prone to defend their dwindling identity. French Canadians—living as they do amid an ocean of English speakers—are more testy about their language than the French in France. Language, however, is just one feature of cultural identification.
Assimilation becomes a threat, not a promise. It spells homogenization, not diversity. The assimilated express bitterness as they register the loss of an identity they wish to retain. Their ambivalence transforms their anger into resentment. They desire what they reject and are consequently unhappy with themselves as well as their interlocutor. Resentment feeds protest and sometimes violence. Insofar as the extreme Islamists sense their world imitating the West, they respond with increased enmity. It is not so much the “other” as it is the absence of otherness that spurs anger. They fear losing themselves by mimicking the West. A Miss World beauty pageant in Nigeria spurred widespread riots by Muslims that left hundreds dead. This could be considered a violent rejection of imitation.
We hate the neighbor we are enjoined to love. Why? Why do small disparities between people provoke greater hatred than the large ones? Perhaps the work of Freud helps chart the underground sources of fratricidal violence. Freud introduced the phrase the “narcissism of minor differences” to describe this phenomenon. He noted that “it is precisely the little dissimilarities in persons who are otherwise alike that arouse feelings of strangeness and enmity between them.”
Freud first broached the narcissism of minor differences in “The Taboo of Virginity,” an essay in which he also took up the “dread of woman.” Is it possible that these two notions are linked? That the narcissism of minor differences, the instigator of enmity, arises from differences between the sexes and, more exactly, man’s fear of woman? What do men fear? “Perhaps,” Freud hazards, the dread is “founded on the difference of woman from man.” More precisely, “man fears that his strength will be taken from him by woman, dreads becoming infected with her femininity” and that he will show himself to be a “weakling.” Might this be a root of violence, man’s fear of being unmanned?
The sources of hatred and violence are many, not singular. There is room for the findings of biologists, sociobiologists, and other scientists. For too long, however, social and literary scholars have dwelled on the “other” and its representation. It is interesting, even uplifting, to talk about how we see and don’t see the stranger. It is less pleasant, however, to tackle the divisiveness and rancor of countrymen and kin. We still have not caught up to Montaigne, with his famous remarks about Brazilian cannibals. He reminded his 16th-century readers not only that the mutual slaughter of Huguenots and Catholics eclipsed the violence of New World denizens—it was enacted on the living, and not on the dead—but that its agents were “our fellow citizens and neighbors.”
— Russell Jacoby, professor of history at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). This essay is adapted from his book Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence From Cain and Abel to the Present, Bloodlust. Why we should fear our neighbors more than strangers, The Chronicle Review, March 27, 2011.
☞ Roger Dale Petersen, Understanding Ethnic Violence: fear, hatred, and resentment in twentieth-century Eastern Europe, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
☞ Stephen M. Walt on What Does Social Science Tell Us about Intervention in Libya
☞ Scott Atran on Why War Is Never Really Rational
☞ Steven Pinker on the History and decline of Violence
☞ Violence tag on Lapidarium notes