Generalizations about races or nations, however prejudiced, usually have some basis in fact. - Peter Mansfield, The Arabs.
That a scholar sympathetic to Arab culture should write the above reflects, not a lingering prejudice in one presumably enlightened, but a valid insight into the complexity of human relations. While recognizing the chronic inclination of our species toward xenophobia, one can credibly argue that, at the heart of many interracial, intercultural, international hostilities and fears, a morally neutral reality may lie. That is to say that aggressions, deceits, retaliations, purgings and atrocitiesand the fears and biases these engendercan often be traced to something inherently innocuous. This innocent source, I would argue, may ultimately be the simple reality of differenceor apparent differencethat distinguishes one people from another.
This divisive "difference" emerges out of circumstances both geographical and historical. What is more important, the distinctions these circumstances engender are the basis of both the virtues and shortcomings of a given culture. They are, consequently, the basis of those generalizations of which Mansfield speaks.
If polycultural America, for example, has any distinction that is constant and widely recognized, it is probably one that has grown out of the frontier which, as both symbol and economic fact, has come historically to represent an unprecedented vastness of opportunity, material largesse and historical second chance and, in this setting, the emergence and exercise of attitudes alien to "old world" dispositions. This marriage of geography and history has led to perceptions of Americans that demonstrate those polaritiesthose "virtues and shortcomings" mentioned above. We are admirably individualistic / we are insensitive to the common good. We are generous with our resources / we are wasteful. We are not burdened by traditions / we are cultural barbarians. We are marvelous organizers of material forces / we are brazen materialists. We are refreshingly optimistic / we are dangerously ignorant of history. The list goes on.
But are not such perceptionsfavorable and otherwiseprejudices? Do they not tend to distort ordinary reality even if they have a basis in fact? If Americans are plagued by consumerism, are we not also remarkably given to religious movements and the exploration of matters spiritual? If we are impatient of traditions, do we not also continue to produce, in abundance, the art and literature that sustain tradition? Or consider a culture arising within a very limited geographya people or society lacking in natural resources or military strength but located, perhaps, at the hub of immemorial trade routes. Are they not likely to develop considerable skills in commerce and financeand not skills only, but a sense of prudence and responsibility in the management of money? When times are prosperous and harmonious, such people are likely to function as a stabilizing force, their expertise an invaluable resource. It is, of course, this very expertise that would likely be exploited by any criminal element among them. In contrast, when times are bad, this society, rendered less vulnerable because of its fiscal prudence, is likely to become an object of envy and suspicion. If its culture in any way sets it apart from the larger society, its members may become at such times convenient scapegoats and victims of persecution.
Geography and circumstance, then, even more than religious difference, may well lie at the heart of those prejudices and hostilities Jewish society has long experienced throughout Western history. Such prejudices ignore the reality of Jewish poverty (so sensitively captured in the writings of Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer); the reality of Jewish representation in fields other than finance, ranging from labor to civil service, from education and the arts to science and medicine; and especially the fact that Jewish philanthropy, out of all proportion to population, sustains countless cultural and humanitarian enterprises throughout the worldmuch of this support the fruit of fiscal wisdom and responsibility.
A further irony: In American culture, where the diffusion of family (and, with it, of cultural memory) seems a natural outgrowth of the frontier ethos, those societies that have experienced discrimination often manifest practices that enhance the communal solidarity we so fear losing. My African-American neighbors recently, upon the death of their great-grandfather, demonstrated a degree of familial and community support not at all common in a society where age has become synonymous with irrelevance.
What Peter Mansfield says of the Arab world, then, reflects a universal dilemma: How can we both recognize and value cultural distinctions without turning them into breeding grounds for fear and prejudice? Is this a matter of education, a call for a more engaged ecumenism? Is it a matter of making explicit, in international and intercultural exchanges, our awareness of distinctionsbut in a context of mutual appreciation, and, where appropriate, of imitation and integration? Are we to be forever cursed by our xenophobic impulses, by our rejection of what is strange, by our fear of what we do not understand, by our tribal impulses that assume that we are "the people" and all others a falling-off from some initial excellence still alive in our own forms?
I recall a longtime army chaplain commenting that soldiers who might never loot, deceive or rape at home, feel far less restraintand guiltwhen so behaving in alien territory. Does prejudice not express these same demeaning discriminations even at home?
This is very much a religious issueone of those recurrent manifestations of a radical evil that seems to challenge our sense of hegemony and progress on earth; that inclines us either toward some transcendent affirmation despite the darkness, or toward nihilism and cynical gloom. In the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, the somber dread that haunts the poem attests to its pre-Christian origins. For Beowulf expresses a culture admittedly heroic but doomed by its code of unending vengeance to what was essentially racial extinction. Current events in Serbia, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere show plainly that modern civilization has not extinguished this ancient dragon. It haunts the relationships of modern nations and institutions as much as it haunted the mead halls of the ancient Danes.
This recurring evil leads us to important reflections about human brotherhood and sisterhood. Catholics, for example, have come in this half century gradually to accept a sense of "Catholic" that does not envision a uniquely Western European culture expressing a common faith, but rather one faith expressing itself out of a multitude of cultural traditions. Together with this, the coincidence of ecumenical aspirations with the astounding technological diminishment of the globe suggests the arrival of a critical moment in the evolution of human societies. In a world where we can hardly escape the larger human family, we likewise cannot escape the implications of human brotherhood and sisterhood. Indeed, our suddenly expanded confrontation with otherness, our engagement with the strange and the new, may well be one of the primary charges of our emergent ecumenisma preamble to any significant worldwide religious unity.
It is also, I believe, an issue especially to be addressed by the artsby aesthetics. If, by definition, aesthetics deals with the physical forms of meaning that, when well executed, result in beauty; if we believe beauty to be the material correspondent to the good and the true; and if we believe its forms to be universal in human experiencethat is, to transcend all our distinctionsthen can we not assume that the first steps toward achieving intercultural amity be taken in this pre-verbal, pre-legal, pre-political arena?
Plato argued that the first education should be in dance. On the basis of his total canon, we might reasonably assume that for him this pre-verbal activity and formation would dispose children ontologically toward radical forms of order and harmony in all aspects of lifeprivate, political, aesthetic, moral. If, indeed, the arts tend so to dispose their adherents, might we not consider the music, poetry, painting, drama and architecture of a culture to be a worthy starting point for our understanding of it?
It is worth noting that early breakthroughs in American-Soviet relations took place in the arts, and later in sports. Louis Armstrong has been described, with some justification, as our first effective ambassador behind the Iron Curtain. The pre-verbal quality of his art could hardly be equated with espionage or commercial maneuvering. In sport likewise, though governments and their media may have politicized them, many individual athletes found their prejudices disappearing in a recognition of common sentiments, values and aspirations. Even in an area as ordinary as cuisine, one can notice today an opening-up spiritually to something more than food. For the receptive and well disposed, how a people regard the growing, preparation and serving of food may well represent one’s first introduction to another culture.
All of which suggests that the origins of amity must find their epiphanies in the concrete, in the sensible world of custom and expression, before they can take form in policy and formal practice. No amount of generic sensitivity training, of information or lecturing on principles, can supplant the mother’s milk of substantial experience. Such an entry into other cultures allows us to perceive distinctions as just thatways of being that in themselves may be morally neutral, but that help to "explain" a people or a culture, and which, on the larger human canvas, provide that richness and variety which leads the poet to marvel and the psalmist to praise.
Mansfield writes about a culture few of us know or understand. In our current international atmosphere, this non-understanding may pose a major block to the accord we all desire. When we come to realize that our virtues grow out of the same distinct but morally neutral circumstances as our shortcomings, we might just possibly come to see that the grounds for our fear and disapproval are likewise the grounds for all we might admire and emulate. We might come to see that the diversity that tends to divide us is the very source and model, for each society, of its enrichment, balance and completion.
John Savant is a professor emeritus of English at Dominican College in San Rafael, Calif.