Partha Chakraborty –
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single step in hateful haste can bring ruins to millions.
Robert Sapolsky is a wild man. At 21, wanting adventure “like a late-adolescent male primate”, he traveled repeatedly to distant lands as vicious wars were being fought. A MacArthur Genius grant winner, currently a Professor of Biology and Neurology at Stanford, Sapolsky has theories that explain events across the globe in the last few weeks.
Pride and prejudice may be biologically engendered by “us versus them” wired into the insular cortex of primates, posits Sapolsky after a lifetime studying baboons. And, there may be good news.
Pulwama, Ilhan Omar, Christopher Paul Hasson, Brexit drama, Wall on the US Border – disparate events, separated by thousands of miles of open seas at times. But they are all connected by our sense of who belongs to us – and hence deserve all the empathy you shower on humanity, and them – who are cockroaches that deserve to be aggravated, denied basic rights, and at worse, trampled upon with force.
Primates’ vitriolic feelings against ‘them’ can be engendered by the overwhelming influence of a group who are clearly ‘us’; it takes only a few bad apples in a tribe to whip up passion against “them’ for mostly individual gains or hierarchy in the tribe; identity between ‘us’ and ‘them’ can change too when rabble-rousers suddenly create new boundaries, residents beyond which are identified as ‘them’. If this sounds like a repeat of the storyline, that’s because it indeed is – human history is burdened with so many that once again vindicates that we are nothing but animals, if with a few more grey cells where it counts.
But there is good news in Sapolsky’s study. The more evolved a primate is, the more they juggle multiple ‘us’ and ‘them’ identities. Even if ‘us’ by one count is fueling passion, many of ‘them’ are clearly ‘us’ by another count – thus clouding the montage; even aggressive primates choose to stay back from that particular fight. Fights become more individual – less identity-driven and hence less deadly for the entire tribe – as more diverse a tribe becomes.
Founders and Framers did not read Sapolsky’s study – these lessons have been in our DNA through our own journey through evolution. Sapolsky is simply stating what we (should) have known all along – viz., diversity matters; fine-tuning our neurons who try and find common ground through exposure – even if forced – to humans who clearly do not look/feel/speak/worship/.. like us has clear benefits to both sides.
Even this well-meaning tale of salvation has a cautionary side. A good-natured tussle can get seriously awry sometimes if a sudden – even if unintentional – aggravation breaks down a truce. Actions have consequences – lest it is forgotten, we cannot have a twitching finger on a button or a shrill voice on a mega pulpit.
And that brings me back to today. I worry if saber-rattling between two nuclear powers in the subcontinent – not any of them is really ready, willing and able to really sacrifice the blood, guts, and moolah needed for a war – is getting too noisy, and without any obvious Plan B. Peace through strength is a very admirable goal, but even a warrior in a garden must not trample and fall on his own sword.
I clearly sympathize with the sense of unease around ill-conceived comments in the public domain for I know there are bubbles underneath the surface. When a combat trained man amasses an armory, I have nightmares of bullets raining from above and across the doorways. When ‘us versus them’ becomes a political rallying cry, be it on two sides of a pond or in rallies across continents, I fear bullets from Gavrilo Princip starting WWI, and possibly WW II too, are not too far behind.
Pride and prejudice go hand-in-hand to bring happiness only in a story of no consequence or connection
to reality. Ours is a cautionary tale, not a feel-good-with-cherry-on-top slub-job. We have an obligation to our children to leave a world that we were given and a single action in hateful haste can bring ruins to millions. When the call comes at 3 AM, let it not be to wake a mom/dad/wife/husband/child with dreadful news.
Let us restrain ourselves one and all, for, the buzzer may ring our bedside next time.
[Partha Chakraborty is CEO of Switchboard Systems. All opinions are of the Author alone and do not necessarily represent that of Switchboard Systems. The author alone is responsible for any error or omission.]