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20 February 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 2:29am

Constrained perspectives

In the last of a series this week, David Hillstrom examines the role of ethnicity, culture and histo

By David Hillstrom

In my first posting this week I analysed how religious faith may result in a narrow world view. But, what about secular beliefs in society? Does our penchant for myth extend into other aspects of our social identity as well? I think it does. The vast majority of people believe that they belong to some ethnic group. How does this concept stand up to analysis?

Many nation states promote some sort of exclusivity based upon a shared ethnic heritage. In fact it is rarely the case that the entire population of a given country share the heritage in question; most countries have ‘ethnic minorities.’ And the attempt to define a shared ethnicity across the nation invariably leads to conflict. But let’s set aside this obvious objection for a moment and think about what it is that defines an ethnic group. An obvious way to think of an ethnic group is as a people who share a cultural heritage and history. That seems fine as definitions go, but what are the elements of cultural heritage and how deep are shared histories?

The key elements of any culture are shared beliefs and customs (often based upon religion) and a shared language. Some people even believe that this cultural exclusivity extends to some degree of separate genetic identity. Distinct genetic or racial identities are easy to debunk. Nonetheless, we have seen examples of such bias in quite recent history. So ethnic identity can only be defined by cultural affinity. Oddly enough, it’s not difficult to find even atheists who are ready and willing to accept the call to die for their country. Yet, if they have abandoned religion, what is the basis of allegiance to their country? Is it rooted solely in a shared language? Linguistic bonds cannot be very deep. Any child adopted into a foreign culture soon after birth will grow up to learn her adoptive language with no special effort. Learning a second or more languages does require effort, especially after the age of twelve, but it is perfectly possible for anyone inquisitive enough to sacrifice the necessary time.

It would seem that the elements of shared culture are not really as substantive as we tend to believe. But let’s take one final look at the concept of a shared history. Perhaps people identify with their country on the basis of historical struggles for freedom and survival. The history of the human species goes back hundreds of thousands of years according to anthropologists. Humans have had a modern culture as evidenced by works of art, such as cave paintings, for fifty thousand years. So the true depth of human heritage goes back at least that long. Yet no nation has existed for more than a few thousand years and most for only a few hundred. Nation states are political constructs; there is nothing inherently significant about them. Our true cultural heritage as humans is much deeper than we imagine and we constrain our perspective terribly by identifying with a single ethnic group.

The challenge before us is to shed ourselves of constraining perspectives, be they religious or secular, and to embark upon a mission to build a broad and compassionate consensus, as noted in my previous post. Failure to do so will mean that we are condemned to spawn human tragedy now and forever.

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