A student's comment from Friday and a film I viewed on DVD today bring me to reflect on the great joy that comes from opening the heart to appreciate others in the world quite different from ourselves, bringing us to discover hidden kinship with them, and the great tragedy that can result from clinging to preconceptions and prejudices that wall us off from others and leave us isolated, bitter and fearful towards the world and its many unknown others.
In a class discussion about the growing numbers of Americans being locked away year by year in our ever-expanding prison system, a student opined that it was easier for other countries to cope with crime and social problems of the sort that result in mass incarceration in the USA because they did not have the ethnic diversity that was, in his view, a great problem in the USA. I was taken aback because this student, a young white fellow transplanted from Brooklyn to the Lower Upstate area, was one who I had previously judged as one of the most intelligent,animated and inquisitive of the new semester's group. Now I feared that he might also be one of the most racist. He helpfully clarified, "I am not a racist," (Whew! great relief! glad that has been taken care of!) "but I just think it's natural that every group prefers to be with its own kind." I was really knocked off-balance by these sentiments, because I might have expected them from others in the class, Lower Upstate having its share of small-town conservative white folks who have been known to support groups like the KKK, but now this fellow, my would-be (in my imagination) Golden Child!I fumbled for a response and then the discussion moved on.
One reason I had some trouble coming up with a snappy and illuminating reply is that I am aware that some very peaceful, progressive, semi-socialist places like the countries of Scandinavia are indeed fairly (though not completely, and less so as time goes on) homogeneous places, ethnically speaking, and it may well be that the absence of ethnic division does make it easier for people to arrive at and maintain a sense of common welfare and human community. However, ethnic homogeneity is much more the exception than the rule in human history, and tends to be a temporary state that inevitably gives way to mixing, moving and intermarrying of people from different ethnic, cultural and religious origins. Think of ancient Rome's barbarian and African emperors; Byzantine rulers marrying daughters of Khazaria, the medieval Jewish state north of the Caucasus; think of Celtic + Roman + Moorish + Jewish Spain; think of the Ottoman Empire, the Russian and now the American. All mixed and mixing, and as a result, better or worse off?
Therein lies the rub. In many places in our present world and also in many times and places in the past, we can certainly find evidence of social conflict related to or even centered on ethnic divisions. Score one for the racist call for ethnic purity, it would seem. But it must also be noted that it is not self-evident that ethnic variety was the original cause of such conflicts; it might rather be argued that ethnic variety provided convenient scapegoats and political targets for those looking for a way to sow fear, division and hatred in their societies, as opposed to those many who did find it quite possible to interact peaceably and happily with their new, slightly or greatly different neighbors. People of different ethnic looks and origins may at times separate into warring groups, but this is no automatic thing; they may just as well come together and enjoy one another's company and see great advantages in joining forces. Or they may war at first and then mix together later.
Put a bunch of three year olds of different ethnic or cultural origins into the same room, and they are not likely to form into opposing military units and start making speeches about ethnic purity and the joys of dying for the fatherland ("Better than ice cream!" cried one hopeful young ethno-patriot, waving his diaper-banner proudly). However, put a group of fifteen or fifty year olds into a room, and they may well divide along racial and ethnic lines and regard each other with suspicion. Somewhere along the way, happy-go-lucky kids become suspicious and even hostile adults. How do you get that way? It seems to me that they are taught to be so by the previous generation: much more nurture than nature.
What I now wish I had had the presence of mind to answer my student with is something along the lines of, "Ethnic diversity is the reality of the human condition. The great tragedy of our world is that this diversity often becomes the convenient target of political opportunists and a mythological monster for those fearful of cultural and physical difference, often due to lack of experience with any such difference. The great hope of the human future is learning to enjoy and share our differences."
Too pollyanna-ish? Maybe so, but for my part, I truly believe there can be no doubt that the future belongs to diversity. I can see this among my students. For every one of my young scholars who might spout the occasional semi-racist sentiment, and then feel the need to apologize for it, I see many others socializing with members of other ethnic and racial groups and forming friendships and love relationships, with much more ease and much less self-consciousness than among those of my generation two or three decades ago when we were of comparable age and interracial dating was still somewhat taboo. I saw the same on the streets of Stockholm and Oslo when I visited those supposed hotbeds of total homogeneity in recent years: lots of mixed couples, with dusky-skinned, mixed-ethnic babies in baby carriages, and lots of Turkish kebab sandwiches the fast food of choice.
This brings me to my film review. What I watched that I found so moving and delightful was "Nobody Knows About Persian Cats" (2010) from the brilliant Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi. The film seemed boring at first, following two twenty-something rock-pop musicians, a man and a woman, driving around Tehran as they attempt to assemble a band and obtain illegal visas and passports to get out of Iran to perform their music in London and possibly elsewhere in Europe. As the story progressed I became hooked by the plight of these young Iranians, possessed of the same urges and instincts as young people in the USA or anywhere else, being stifled by a socially repressive regime for the horrible crime of wanting to sing and play modern pop music. There are increasingly troubling run-ins with the Iranian police, who do not seem to be big music fans, to say the least, and the story does not have a very happy ending. Lots of interesting music along the way,though, which tugs at the heart strings for the glimpses it gives into the longings and sorrows of Iranian youth today.
I was struck by the different picture of Iran and Iranians that one gets from a film like this compared to the one that we get from fear-mongers like Dick Cheney and his minions in the American news media who have been programming Americans to believe that Iran is Enemy #1 almost nonstop for the last four or five years, giving the impression that the only thing worth knowing about Iran is that it is a nation of Islamic fanatics who might be developing nuclear weapons that might be a threat someday, somehow to the USA, and that we might have to go to war against them to crush their maybe conditional someday threat. After seeing this film, I am sickened to think that this is the image Americans have in their minds about Iran. We may have disagreements with the government, but we should think more of the people. The others of Iran may be much more like us than we have been led to believe. It felt good to open my heart to feel a simple but profound human bond with people of Iran.
Though the politics of our times can be so very discouraging, I am willing to bet on human diversity and our capacity to develop empathy with the others of the world to guide us to a better place. The fear-mongers and war-mongers will always be with us, but we can change the station and listen to other tunes if we want to.
The film is very strongly recommended!