Saturday, September 5, 2009

What Sustains Cultural and Ethnic Aggression?

I've been thinking about what I said in my last article about cultural and ethnic aggression. I claimed it was not a "root cause" for social turbulence. In some way I hate the term "root cause". It's a very deterministic notion. It seems to presume that everything can be neatly explained with great mathematical certainty. I don't dismiss that there are events that are clearly initiated by other events (i.e. that cause exists as a phenomenon). I'd be silly if I didn't believe that! Some aspects of our world are phenomenally predictable. But I'm convinced the universe is at its lowest level inherently random, including the "laws" by which events link into a chain. Root cause is about tracing a chain of events to a point where potentials approach a maximal uncertainty of 50/50. But most events don't have one single cause but many causes. You can't neatly lay everything out into a linear series of unfortunate events, as Lemony Snicket might put it. A tragedy is more like Kuala Lumpur, a muddy confluence of rivers. Cultural and ethnic aggression is sustained by prejudice. It's irrelevant what "caused" the prejudice. What is relevant is what sustains it. And I think the mechanisms that sustains prejudice can all be explained in terms of cultural membranes.

Think of society as an living organism. At the lowest level we have the family unit, a cell surrounded by protective membranes. The membranes regulate what comes into and out of the family. Above the family we have a complex overlapping structure of organizations that have their own protective membranes: religious groups, social clubs, corporations, national governments, etc. Every social unit has two types of cultural membranes: material and informational. The material membranes regulate what physical resources flow between units. The informational membranes regulate the information that flows.

The world, from the micro- to the macro-scopic, is filled with resources and consumers. In a perfectly balanced eco-system there are enough resources for every consumer. And if there's an overabundance of resources, consumers will eventually evolve. An imbalanced system is where the right resources cannot flow to the right consumers. The consumers start to starve (metaphorically speaking) and the resources begin to decay (though such decay may at the macro-level sometimes be measured in billions of years). Eventually, with a sufficient amount of death and decay, an equilibrium is established again (their are sufficient consumers for the given resources).

It's important to note that everything is a potential resource, including all consumers. It's simple food-cycle structures: the grass consumes the minerals, the rabbit the grass, the hawk the rabbit, the hawk's corpse the bacteria, and so on. A healthy balance is not about maintaining stasis. It's about maintaining a healthy flow. And these flows are regulated by simple physics, chemistry and organic membranes. At the societal level, the organic membranes become more and more abstract. They are, unlike our skin, no longer tangible entities. But they are just as real. They are the laws of our governments, the protocols of our corporations, the morals of our society.

Thinking about it, I realize that there's distinction between informational and material aspects of a membrane even in the microscopic world. A cell membrane contains protein transport channels (which exchange materials) as well as receptors (to which signaling molecules such as hormones attach). When a signaling molecule attaches to a receptor, it "informs" the cell about a condition in the surrounding world and triggers a response from the cell. The response may be to begin a "material exchange" through its protein co-transport channels. How a cell behaves is obviously determined by what types of receptors and transport channels it has. The same is true for our society. How we respond will depend on what "antennas" we have and what our overall infrastructures are like. If I don't understand what is signalled to me, how can I react to it? But even if I can understand the signals, it doesn't mean that I have the means to react appropriately.

People talk about breaking down cultural barriers. But I think it's unhelpful to use the term barrier, since it implies a blocking. What separates us are not barriers, but complex, sometimes useful membranes. In my view, cultural and ethnic aggression is caused by diseased membranes that cannot appropriately control the flow of information and materials to maintain a peaceful balance. In fact, perfect impenetrable barriers would be preferable. If nothing can pass between two entities, it's as if they did not exist to each other! The problem is that there are no perfect barriers. However high we build our walls, some information will always slip through the cracks. And if the information tells us that there's an imbalance in material resources on the two sides of the wall, we will want to tear down those walls (because of one of the fundamental aspects of nature regarding resources and consumers).

The most fundamental informational membrane is, of course, human language itself. I spent quite a bit of my child hood in countries where I didn't first speak the language. It was difficult to understand the cultural quirks of these foreign places without knowing the locution of the people around me. My exchange with my environment was limited to the bare surface of human exchange. Misunderstandings were frequent. And it took learning the language of the region to not only overcome pre-conceived and often incorrect notions about the locals, but also to make my emotional and physical needs known so that they could be fulfilled through mutually beneficial interchange.