24 Jun

Nationalism and prejudice

Nationalism

Speck of Sand

Above our nations’ selfish thoughts
There hangs a ceiling black and bright
A hundred million sparkling spots
Nature’s gifted humbling sight

Lost in blindness goes its grace
Its twinkling beauty left unseen
Through blood and tears we hide our face
And daily make our hands unclean

Only some can hear its voice
To stop the silent howls of hurt
And realise that we have a choice
In drawing lines with sticks in dirt

All this strife for wanted land
From humans’ greed and goodness’ lack
All to claim a speck of sand
Adrift amidst the ocean black

When a person studies history, they do so with a careful attention given to themes. The past teaches us about the present and about ourselves; it can show us to what degree our behaviour exists as a product of our culture and to what degree it exists independent of it. Through a thematic lens there is much to be discovered, but one theme in particular I am interested in is that of nationalism, and prejudice.

Humans are exceptionally good at finding arbitrary justifications to segregate themselves from one another. It happens everywhere and over everything, and given the curious contradiction between its ubiquity and senselessness, one has to wonder why it is we do it. Most people agree that we ought not to, but still almost all of us do. I am keenly aware of many ways in which I am prejudiced, and it takes a certain amount of concentration to notice when I’m doing it. Any person who believes they aren’t prejudiced I suspect just haven’t noticed it yet.

One way I’ve noticed is that I care too much about presentation – I am prejudiced towards favouring the beautiful over the ugly; I find myself actually being nicer to good looking people than I would otherwise expect myself to be, as well as buying nice-looking products over less attractive ones, even when the product itself is homogeneous. I’m aware of some of the ways in which I mistakenly attribute positive attributes to people based on superficial qualities, and the odds are that you do it too.1 I’m also prejudiced against people who use certain kinds of slang (for example slang associated with the poor, drug culture or the working class), and tend to make implicit judgements about people that use it, or have an accent or fashion sense reminiscent of it.2 All these things require a conscious effort on my part to dismiss as erroneous assumptions; the biases themselves are automatic.

As a person who takes these steps to consciously adjust my tolerance of others, it makes me wonder how I compare with others who don’t (and whether my efforts are indeed at all efficacious). Attempting to observe society from a neutral standpoint, I can see how each class universally holds bad opinions of the others. The rich see the poor as lazy, and the poor see the rich as stuck up. Neither wants to spend time with members of the other group, and so both voluntarily maintain a segregationary environment conducive to breeding and reinforcing further prejudice.

Needless to say, segregation of this sort doesn’t help anyone and leads to the unnecessary isolation of groups and the restriction of people’s freedoms. Why, then, do we do it? If it’s not of a rational origin, then it must be a thing for which we are predisposed (whether biologically or environmentally). Because it appears to permeate all societies, I think it may be reasonably concluded to be a part of human nature.

The world humans evolved in was a very different one to the one that existed today. Today, with complex, global society, cooperation is essential. In the evolutionary environment,3 there were at least two factors as far as I can identify that could have been involved in the establishment of prejudice – one concerning tribal hierarchy and the other concerning inter-tribal relations.

The first of these I’ll address is of the establishment of social hierarchy: Under a close-knit tribal system, there is no inherent means of creating social order. Unlike in the professional world, there was no meritocracy, nor were there any criteria for who ‘ought’ to be leader – merely, those who could get power got power and those who could keep it kept it. Acquiring and maintaining influence over others was (and is) a skill ipso facto – it’s not something that naturally derives simply from having other desirable qualities. Prejudice was an instrument here; in the absence of any meaningful criteria to establish order, arbitrary criteria prevailed. More important than what the order actually was, was that there be order at all.

Prejudice involves itself with unsubstantiated associations between certain traits and judgements of undesirability. One of the consequences of this is that through one group establishing prejudice over another, that group is forced into a state of subjection, whilst the other, prejudiced group has artificially created superiority over them. The effect is of pushing another down in order to raise the position of oneself. This phenomenon is widely observable, especially in children, where bullying is prevalent.

Bullying is an observable manifestation of people using arbitrary means to establish social order. In schools, there are no natural means for establishing the hierarchy – popularity falls to those who put more time and effort into becoming popular, not to those who are, for example, better students. One group undermining another (or an individual) serves the purpose of asserting that group’s own superiority, and bonds their members closer together. Bullying is at its core a very natural phenomenon – and can be observed in the wild4 – which goes some way to explaining its prevalence, and to the degree that it can be avoided, its presence in schools is thusly a criticism of the environment we are placing children into, and not of the disposition of the children themselves. Bullying, certainly, is an evolved behaviour, making extensive use of prejudice in its execution.

Prejudicial segregation, then, helps to form social hierarchies in circumstances that lack any more robust methods for doing so. Bullying in the workplace is less common – I would attribute this not only to maturity (which consists of the abandonment of impulsivity, and the displacement of instinct with more carefully considered actions), but also to the environment itself. The workplace, unlike school, structures its hierarchy meritocratically: If you’re the best at your job, you will gain status; there is no such mechanism in schools. Bullying, then, would not be expected to be so widespread given that its social function has in this way been undermined.

The second factor I mentioned was inter-tribal relations. As humans, we are social creatures – but we are not universally social. Evolutionarily, we lived in tribes. Our success depended to no small degree on the cohesiveness of the group, which is hinted at by the large emphasis our evolution has placed on the development of our communication and language facility. We’re exceptional communicators because this helped us to survive. But though we worked well together inside our own tribes, we didn’t work well with other tribes. This is, perhaps obviously, because of the conflict of interests presented by tribes being geographically adjacent.

Tribes would have depended on the natural resources available in the area they occupied – sharing the area with another tribe would be likely to have introduced considerable conflict. The resources available would have been scarce and finite, thus triggering competition between proximate tribes for control of them. This competition would have bred instinctive animosity, as each tribe’s success would exist at the exclusion of any other’s, and so would conceivably lead to behaviour to that effect. Because of the threats posed by inter-tribal conflict, it’s reasonable to see how prejudice could have resulted as a heuristic for judging the unfamiliar and assuming the worst. Xenophobia, after all, is a facet of the fear of the unknown.

Prejudice warps the perception so that one is more likely to associate negative phenomena with perceived negative traits – these traits are not actually negative, but are perceived to be, and often only by one criterion. The only criterion for starting a new prejudiced belief is that it not be a part of one’s in-group. Given any in-group and any out-group, if there exists a trait that is shared by the out-group but absent in the in-group, then this qualifies it as a target for prejudiced belief. The in-group, naturally, assumes itself to be superior to the out-group, and associations are made between the qualities that superficially differentiate the two groups. What I find interesting is that this search for what constitutes that difference is apparently so natural to us that not only do we do it not only unconsciously (which would be expected), but consciously too, in full awareness of what it is we’re doing.

The example that comes to mind is racism against black people, where all sorts of appeals and investigations5 were made to identify what it was that ‘truly’ separated whites from blacks. The attribute of colour was not enough to satisfy, but there must have been some root cause to the inferiority/superiority dimorphism. Of course, to some extent profiteering played a role in propagating the idea that there were differences to be searched for, but undoubtedly many truly believed in it, no doubt facilitated by our disposition towards prejudice.

Though racism is still a contemporary issue affecting many people in the world today, another form of prejudice has risen to widespread popularity, particularly in the United States. Nationalism ups the game somewhat – it’s a full-blown political philosophy – but deep parallels can be drawn between it and the inter-tribal relations talked about previously. The only salient difference here between a tribe and a nation is membership. The conflicts that exist between nations and tribes are effectively the same: Disputes over scarce resources and the well-being of one’s own people when it exists in opposition to the well-being of others’.

Nationalism is an unhelpful philosophy born from the ego. It is selfishness ballooned into rhetoric – the assertion that one’s own interests necessarily trump those of others’. Being citizens of the 21st century, we are superficially committed to the notion that all humans are of equal worth, and that geographical distribution is an irrelevant factor in determining what one deserves in life, but nationalism is at odds with this. It would be one thing if nationalists were concerned with issues of practicality (and on the surface they certainly are), but it’s as much about not letting foreigners in out of principle as it is about economics – not that the economic arguments are necessarily compelling.

I tend to identify nationalism as a product of patriotism – a collection of rationalisations to support and embellish from an unsound premise. Bertrand Russell once called patriotism the violent man’s virtue, and this description succinctly speaks to the nature of it. Patriotism is not really a virtue: Where virtues put a consideration of universal principle before one’s own ego, patriotism is the ego masquerading as if it were a principle itself. One’s nation is not worthy purely as a result of your inhabitance of it – the circumstances of your birth may as well have been determined by chance. You were born here while another was born elsewhere. Patriotism is subjective, entirely dependent on where one happens to have acquired his or her nationality, and makes no appeal to objective truths (unlike other virtues such as honesty or courage). Because of its subjective nature, it is inherently conflictory, and leads to disputes. As spoken by Russell, it is the violent man’s virtue.

Having recognised that nationalism is an extension of the ego, and that virtue lies in the deferment of one’s ego in favour of superior principle, then nationalism may be dismissed outright. By its very nature it promotes conflict and disharmony, and the unexamined preference for the welfare of one’s own citizens over those of other nations is disruptive to the well-being of civilisation. It lends itself more to vice than virtue.

I anticipate objections over the practicality of treating others’ citizens as if they were our own, but this is not a position I’m advocating as I would agree with some of those objections. The point I’d like to make is that it’s only impractical because no nation can do it alone, and the part I take issue with is that no successful nation would want to. So long as the welfare of one nation exists at the expense of another’s, they will never merge. The EU has made significant progress in bringing together European nations to their significant mutual benefit (with the possible exception of the Euro), but the EU only exists because of the relatively equal footing of the European nations, and still even the liberals in these nations I expect would oppose Europe to become a single nation with shared governance.

Without a global shared governance, however, we will not be able to tackle the problems that face us. War, global warming, uncoordinated scientific efforts, the costs of militaries and arms manufacturing – these are problems of nationalism. If there were only one country, we would recognise our requirement to reduce global warming and police it appropriately, but because there is more than one country and other actors are involved, and because each actor’s contribution to global warming cannot be quickly and reliably measured, a prisoner’s dilemma emerges where each actor is incentivised to pollute. Without a centralised decisionary body, we have no chance of winning against global warming as it stands. It already may be too late.6

The problem with World Government, of course, is how to get there. A World Government is such a lofty ambition that I am in doubt as to whether we will ever get there without external influence. For example, if aliens ushered us into an intergalactic society, I expect we would be kickstarted into cooperating more sincerely due to the challenges such a scenario would place on us. But assuming that we can expect no such fortunate occurrence, there are two methods as I see it. The first is by force: a global war where each nation is successively conquered until only one is left standing. Suffice to say that there won’t be much of an Earth left to live on if we choose this way (and that mass-murder in the name of humanity’s welfare is just about the most hypocritical thing I’ve ever heard). The second is by cooperation and the gradual merging of nations over time. This would be the preferred method, but is impeded by our selfishness and nations’ continued desire for superiority and control.

As in racism, inter-tribal relations, bullying, patriotism, and all forms of prejudice, prejudice is employed to justify segregation, superiority and the establishment of hierarchies. From this lens, we’re able to see why it has become so widespread: it served a function in helping the genes that promoted it to survive, and thusly became an innate part of all of us. Though there’s likely no silver-bullet to it, I suspect that education is our best bet. Education gives us understanding, and understanding gives us empathy. With enough empathy, one day we will hopefully be able to cooperate. Until such a time, we’ll continue to be fighting over this – our speck of sand – and we will continue to pay the price for it.


  1. The halo effect is one such cognitive bias affecting our judgements of people, representing our tendency to let a positive or negative impression of a person influence us into believing additional unrelated positive or negative things about them. 

  2. I’m aware of a book recently published asserting that the word ‘chav’ is a label used to demonise the working class – though I’m not personally convinced of it (but haven’t read the book). Now, clearly I have nothing against the working class (and my politics are markedly in favour of their rights and welfare), but as a group they have become associated with certain characteristics (aggression, social apathy, vulgarity, etc.) that I naturally distance myself from. These, I believe, are the result of endemic problems with a system that deterministically decides what ‘class’ people will belong to (and a recognition of this manifests itself as an argument for social mobility). These problems, which unfortunately lead to the emergence of undesirable qualities, are by their nature more conducive to appearing in poorer communities, who are usually working class. 

  3. I don’t particularly like the term ‘evolutionary environment’ used in the past tense because it carries with it the implication that, supposedly, we’re not in this environment anymore, and therefore that we’ve stopped evolving – we haven’t, of course – but it’s nevertheless useful to distinguish between the world now and the world when the majority of our evolution took place. 

  4. The most notable example being that of wolves, where the omega male is interminably bullied by the rest of the pack, serving the purpose of bonding the pack at the expense of the omega. 

  5. For example, the failed science of phrenology (which attributed mental characteristics to skull shape) was much appealed to at the time as a justification for racism. For more information on scientific racism, see its article on Wikipedia

  6. I’m not holding my breath for any effective climate-management policies to arrive any time soon. If we’re to have hope to save our climate, I expect it will come mostly from technological advancements and improved education policy leading to greener politics. 

One thought on “Nationalism and prejudice

  1. Pingback: [http://journalofinterest.com/tag/prejudice/9537 L] My Reflection on the Critical Incident | My Learning Portfolio

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