Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Tribalism trumps tranquility

Buddhist-Muslim clashes in Myanmar show that no one is immune to the fierce emotion that drives intergroup conflict.

Bald monks in orange robes meditate in a quiet garden in the rugged mountains of East Asia. These thoughtful pacifists live simply, seek enlightenment, and are kind to everyone. This is the classical caricature of Buddhists.

It may be surprising that a mob of about 1,000 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists torched several stores and homes in a Rohingya Muslim-majority section of a Burmese village in August. Sectarian violence is often perpetrated by Buddhist factions against Muslims in Myanmar, which has been going on for over a year now, killing about 250 people and displacing 140,000, Russia Today reports.

One nationalist monk stands accused of inflaming tensions and igniting sectarian conflict across the country. He has reportedly warned that with such a high birth rate, Muslims may become the majority in Myanmar and overtake the existing Buddhist majority.

This conflict is not purely religious. It also contains overt ethnic and nationalist elements and. A report by Human Rights Watch even accused the Myanmar government of complicity in ethnic cleansing campaigns against the Rohingya Muslims. Nevertheless, the idea of a prominent monk preaching violence does not fit popular society’s image of Buddhists. It also highlights one of the mistakes many people make when they think about religion.

We tend to assume Buddhists don’t commit violent acts, and that Muslims are highly aggressive. Of course, most people try not to think like this, but it still happens, if not consciously, then by mistake.

All religious groups have a capacity for violence.

We don’t generally think of Christians as especially violent. In the West, even non-Christians have been exposed to Christianity so much that they don’t typically see its followers as threatening.

But when looking at the historical evidence, maybe that perception isn’t entirely justified.

In “Atrocities,” a reference book that lists the worst episodes of human-caused death in history, Matthew White tallied the 30 deadliest religious killings and found that 18 of them involved Christians, eight included Muslims and five involved Jews. Eastern religions’ adherents and pagans were also responsible for mass deaths, but didn’t cause the same level of destruction perpetuated by followers of the Abrahamic religions.

This is not an indictment of religion or any specific groups. Any belief system has the potential to be a violent flashpoint and any group of people is capable of committing atrocities under the right circumstances. In fact, any difference between groups that becomes socially significant can become a basis for prejudice, discrimination, resentment, and violence.

Behavior is easily influenced due to our social tendencies.

A 1954 sociological study conducted by Muzafer Sherif brought 22 white, middle class, 12-year-old boys to the Robber’s Cave summer camp and split them into two teams: The Eagles and the Rattlers. Each team performed tasks requiring cooperation of fellow members and then competed against the other team in contests. Open hostility between the Eagles and Rattlers escalated quickly, resulting in cursing at the opposite team, burning the other team’s flag, and food fights.

Not only is it easy to create a new identity out of thin air, but the same can be done with status and beliefs about one’s abilities.

In just a few minutes, researchers at the University of Iowa convinced participants in an experiment that their dominant hands indicated they had weak mental abilities. In a high-stress situation, this led to lower scores on an intelligence test compared to subjects who weren’t told anything about their mental faculties.

Through stereotyping, status can help build hierarchies, which gives higher status people power over lower status people, and we’re usually inclined to follow the top dogs.

Think of religious leaders, charismatic politicians, economists, and doctors. How likely are most people to believe and follow what they say?

For better or for worse, the answer is “extremely likely.”

Shortly after World War II, the world was astonished with the Germans’ complicity in the Nazi Party’s systematic persecution and cleansing of ethnic minorities and political dissidents.

This served in part as the inspiration for Stanley Milgram’s famous 1963 experiment about obedience to authority figures. Researchers would put a participant in the role of a teacher and told him to press a button, electrically shocking the learner on the opposite side of a thin, movable wall when he answered incorrectly on a word game. With each incorrect response, the teacher was instructed to increase the voltage.

Unbeknownst to the teacher, these shocks were fake and the learner was an actor. The teacher could hear the learner complaining and asking to be removed from the study, mentioning a serious heart condition. When the teacher addressed concerns to the researcher in the room, the experimenter would calmly tell the participant to please continue. Eventually, the learner would stop audibly responding to shocks.

Of 40 participants, 26 followed the researcher’s instructions for the entire experiment, administering the maximum voltage of 450 volts to the learner.

Milgram’s experiment showed that authority figures can make people enact punishments they thought themselves incapable of doing with nothing more than a calm request to continue.

There was no explicit threat, no gun to the head, no threat of retribution, just a few simple words.

Human nature may have its dark side, but there are positive aspects.

Conflict and antagonism between opposing groups is unavoidable, but the summer camps experiment did find a method to diffuse such situations.

On one especially hot day, researchers shut off the water supply for the camp and asked for volunteers from the Eagles and the Rattlers to solve the problem. Members of both groups agreed to help. Once the task was complete, the boys shared the water with everyone.

When confronted with a common threat, conflicting groups can work together to achieve a common goal.

While groups are often suspicious and hostile toward one another, within the group, there is often substantial solidarity and sympathy for fellow members.

The unity and loyalty of U.S. soldiers belonging to the same squad is legendary. Religious congregations often come together to support members when they’re struggling. When people love one another, they’re pretty swell.

Although authority figures can use their power and status to make people commit the most abominable acts, there are certain circumstances under which followers refuse to follow orders.

Milgram wrote in his 1974 book, “Obedience to Authority” that variations on his original shock experiment found that participants’ compliance decreased when the researcher was more distant (like over the telephone) and/or when the participant was physically closer to the actor. In one case, it involved holding the learner’s arm down on a shock plate. The greatest decline in compliance occurred when two actors assumed the roles of teachers alongside the participant and “refused” to continue with the study.

Obviously, not all authority figures use their power to get people to commit heinous crimes.

They can inspire a nation to invest in science like President Kennedy, lead liberating social and political movements like Nelson Mandela or Mohandas Gandhi, or lead a mass dissident movement against a corrupt and abusive church as Martin Luther did.

Human nature is neither inherently good nor bad, and it’s impossible to escape the social forces that influence our behavior, no matter how hard we try. What matters is that we are mindful of outside factors that affect what we think and do, but recognize that we won’t catch everything before it’s too late. We will make bad decisions because we conformed, judge people for what was beyond their control, or make false over-generalizations about certain groups of people. Sometimes, we’ll never even know we made such mistakes.

Even the Buddhists, as much as we may admire what they strive for and what they represent, are still capable of committing the worst of crimes. They too are human. Just like the rest of us.

Jon Overton is the Media Editor for Iowa Peace Network and an undergraduate at the University of Iowa studying Ethics & Public Policy and Sociology. He also writes for The Daily Iowan.

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