Ethnification and violence

Cass Sunstein points out that ethnic hatreds are rarely primordial.

Part of what we have been witnessing is a kind of rapid “ethnification,” in the form of a social cascade…[S]ome societies show slow or rapid ethnification, as people devote more of their efforts to showcasing their ethnic identity…As Hitler obtained power, many German Jews became more closely self-identified as Jewish, in part for reasons of self-protection. A key factor here is whether the relevant social norms impose pressure to identify in ethnic terms, or not to do so. It may be “politically correct” to broadcast one’s ethnicity, or it may be politically correct to hide it. Sometimes the governing norms shift abruptly. When this is so, there can be intense pressure to self-identify in ethnic terms, sometimes to retain friends, sometimes to obtain material advantages, sometimes to save one’s life.

Or sometimes just to be or feel right-on. To feel a self-righteous glow, to have the thrill of talking about ‘my brothers and sisters,’ to feel special and proud and bigged up. Ethnification is a wonder for that.

A major conclusion is that even the most intense forms of ethnic hatred and fear can be a product of a process of ethnification, rather than a cause of that process…[E]thnic hatred is not in anyone’s blood. Whether people focus on ethnic identity, or on something else, is partly a product of (current and recent) social pressures, not of anything that happened in the distant past.

As Amartya Sen pointed out in Identity and Violence. Some critics said that he failed to explain why identity and ethnification are so attractive, if they are so shallow and contingent. I’m not so sure he did fail – but maybe that’s because I take the reasons to be more or less self-evident. Feeling self-righteous and bigged up and part of a special group is fun! It’s fun, it’s attractive, it’s rewarding, it’s something to do, it’s something to think about. I take all that to be so obvious that it hardly needs explaining – but maybe that’s obtuse of me.

Some good news is that ethnic hatred can decline fairly rapidly as well, especially when it is a product of social norms to which people have unenthusiastically yielded. Some bad news is that when violence is rampant along ethnic lines, any such decline is extremely difficult to engineer.

As we keep seeing.

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