The ‘us vs them’ rhetoric has spun out of control and jeopardised both rule of law and empathy in large parts of the world. Perhaps, it is time to reexamine our priorities
By Ranjona Banerji
Whenever you travel, it is mandatory to speak to taxi drivers. Some travel writers predicate their entire knowledge of a place on three or four conversations with various cabbies and occasionally waiters. And some even win Nobel and other literary prizes based on how well they extrapolate three conversations into a whole book. But for now, I offer a conversation with one cabbie in London. Pakistani obviously because as another cabbie from Somalia informed us, most London cabbies are Pakistani.
He was a young man who had lived in England his whole life. Inevitably, if you are from India, the conversation shifts to relations between the two of us. This cabbie offered us another perspective: Look at the United Kingdom, he said, they have made a workable multicultural society, why can’t we?
How simplistic, you might say to yourself as you reel off a number of historical, social, religious, cultural reasons why India and Pakistan can’t do that or how the British system of multiculturalism is a failure on so many levels. And you would be right. But you might also be so very wrong, so narrow-minded and so blinded by your own prejudices.
We can see the whole world around us falling into these traps of us and them, of The Other. Migrants, Immigrants, Refugees, Job-Stealers, Terrorists—it’s a progression of hatred, where if you are one, you will most likely be one of the others. The current “phobia” is of Muslims but a quick look through history and you can replace “Muslim” with any number of “Others” who have been vilified, segregated and ghettoised. Not all were radicalised but that has happened too.
The current White House press secretary we realise is apparently unaware that millions of Jews were gassed to death in Nazi torture chambers in the middle of the last century. Even though the Second World War has dominated and determined so much of history after that. Many in India admire Adolf Hitler and the Nazis not because they hate Jews so much as they gloss over the genocide and celebrate the tyranny of the majority.
And in the past few months, the horrors (or glories, if you look at it from their perspective) of “majority rules” have manifested themselves in parts of India through murder and violence. The poor gentle cow has been used as an excuse to attack the “Other”. But more insidiously, it is also a way to demonstrate that if your chosen political party wins elections, the rule of law no longer applies.
Perhaps though the conversation must not be limited or constrained to “liberal” values versus narrow-mindedness and bigotry. Instead, what we see now—as we have countless miserable times before—is a collapse of human empathy. Politicians make it easy to believe that “The Other” is not quite human, not quite alive, not quite deserving of sympathy. And sadly, all too often, they succeed. It is not that one should not be sympathetic to a cow but to murder a human for transporting a cow, well, where but in a dangerous mindset, does that happen?
The most popular historian at the moment is Yuval Noah Harari (and with good reason!). In his Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, he encapsulates human religious history into a couple of pages crammed with information and insight. His conclusion though is that syncretic religion might provide an answer.
I can however see no current dominant world religion agreeing to that! Even if, in practice and in reality, no religion is as “pure” as it set out to be or as true to its origins or indeed capable of providing all or any answers.
Harari also reminds us, by the way, that the laws of justice are also human constructs. But since we still have the right to choose, I would choose justice for all over dominance for some.