December is movie month for our Democracy Group. On December 3 we watched Queen Margot, a 1994 film from France.
The setting is a 1572 wedding between Princess Margaret of France and Henri of Navarre, who became perhaps the most popular French king as Henri IV. Many hoped that the wedding would forge a truce between Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots) during the European wars of religion that followed Martin Luther’s rebellion against the Church. Instead, thousands of Huguenots who were in Paris for the wedding were slaughtered in an attempt to wipe out what Catholics considered heresy. The genocide then spread throughout France with the murder of 10–20,000. But this was not the largest genocide perpetrated against those whose beliefs threatened the Church. In the 1200s, 100–200,000 Cathars, Christians who believed that the material world — and thus the Church — represented the forces of darkness, were rooted out and slaughtered in Southern France. Countless thousands also were killed by the Crusades and Inquisition.
Genocide is a part of human history. It has been committed by every major religion and ethnicity, at times within the same group. According to ancient sources, the Jews were both perpetuators and victims of genocide. The ancient Greeks often destroyed cities that they defeated with everyone in them. Enslavement and extermination of native Africans and Americans started with colonialism and continued into the 19th Century. We still are coming to grips with the numerous European genocides of the 20th century, while slaughters based on ethnicity and political oppression continue in our own day in places like Myanmar and Syria.
What we discussed briefly in our group, and will continue to consider, is why people commit atrocities toward each other. What is it in the minds of human beings (maybe even me and some of you?) that creates a division between us and the “other” to the extent that we begin to believe that “they” — people who are different in ethnicity or view — are not quite human? Why do some people (including some of us?) see others as threats and sources of such discomfort that they want them altogether extinguished? Are we all capable of being inspired to work ourselves into a frenzy of hatred and bigotry?
Hannah Arendt, in her book describing the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann, commented on “his inability to think...from the standpoint of someone else.” Her subtitle implies that evil is more common than we realize; perhaps everyone is capable of it. But why do human beings (including me and you?) often focus only on our differences rather than what we have in common, resulting in an inability or unwillingness to experience the humanity of others? Why do people (you and me at times?) judge others as evil because they have different views, or different backgrounds, or different ethnic characteristics? Is there a slippery slope from condemning the views or ethnicity of others to considering them and their lives invalid? Are we more likely to hold such views if they are believed by those around us?
We might think that in our modern democratic political settings we never would threaten the lives of those who represent views different from our own, yet that is happening in many nations that recently were considered democracies, such as Russia, Turkey and the Philippines. Do we think that the people of those nations are unlike us? In the US we label ethnic groups which seek asylum an invasion, even though most of our ancestors were at one time asylum seekers. Murder often has been committed in the US based on hatred toward those who some consider less than human: the slaughter of native tribes, lynchings in the South, and the recent murder in Charlottesville, Virginia.
People (including us?) seek to simplify their understanding of others in a complex world. This leads to dividing others into good and evil, and once evil they and their lives don’t really matter. When people (anyone?) consider others to be not quite human the next step is wanting to be rid of them. Our tribal nature can cause us to no longer see others as people like ourselves but only as obstacles in our paths.
How can we move past this inveterate tribalism? Can we extend our concept of our tribe to include those we once excluded, as has been done when nations were forged out of smaller states? Can we create larger alliances by acknowledging the validity of others, identifying common priorities, and agreeing on how best to move forward?
Moving past tribalism to identify a common path will be the basis of our discussions in the New Year. We will focus on areas where we have struggled to progress, such as immigration, education, economics, the environment, prison reform, and health care. We will determine our goals in these areas based on the democratic principle of universal respect, and how implementing them would look in the real world. Democracy only has succeeded — and will succeed — when we focus on what unites us rather than on that which divides us.
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Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelors Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.