Wednesday, March 21, 2007
It isn't often that one reads something that makes one happy. The Economist carries an article on the subject of "allophilia" - liking for other groups. It gave voice to the peculiar malady I suffer from. Its fulfilling to know I am not alone. In 1994, after touring adivasi (i.e. indigenous peoples') villages in interior Orissa in eastern India on a planning study, I felt one was fortunate and blessed to be able to learn from our adivasi communities what civilisation and refinement means. I had also subsequently been fortunate to be nourished by the sensibility of the poor Muslim slumdwellers in Howrah. And yesterday I came upon my friend Rahul's blog, which is dedicated to the naturalist vision of living of the Bhil.
Positive prejudice: Really loving your neighbour
Why holding off from hatred may not be good enough
“I feel comfortable when I hang out with them.” “I'm truly interested in understanding their point of view.” “I feel I can be myself when I am around them.” “To enrich my life, I would try to make more friends (from that group).”
Such warm, exuberant feelings towards other categories of human being—national, religious, racial or social—are the sort of thing that Todd L. Pittinsky, a social psychologist at Harvard University, spends his time probing and testing. This is not just because he too likes to hang around people who accentuate the positive. Mr Pittinsky's hope is to turn the conventional wisdom of “conflict studies” and “race relations” upside down.
There is a huge body of knowledge, he says, on prejudice against races or other categories. What he wants to promote, both as a scholarly tool and policy goal, is “allophilia”—liking for other groups—and the behaviour it inspires. “So much research aims to understand racist and xenophobic attitudes, so much policy aims to counter such attitudes—but people neglect to look at positive attitudes to other groups,” says Mr Pittinsky, a professor at Harvard's Centre for Public Leadership.
He believes that “allophilia” is a measurable state of mind with hard consequences. For example, the attitude of an American voter towards immigration is determined less accurately by party affiliation or social and economic status than by the degree to which he or she simply likes Latinos. And people's choices in charitable giving, study, voluntary work and travel are guided, not surprisingly, by the sort of groups that make them feel good.
More controversially, allophilia theory holds that efforts to fight racism often err in trying to abolish or minimise the difference between groups—telling people that “we and they are really the same” or “we all belong to a bigger group, and that matters more than any slight difference.”
The experience of Bosnia and Rwanda, where murderous hatreds resurfaced after decades of apparent symbiosis, shows that categories are resilient. That is one reason why Mr Pittinsky thinks that “mere tolerance is inherently unstable.”
He is not the only scholar to stress the limits of tolerance alone as an ideal. Robert Hayden, a social anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh, has coined the term “antagonistic tolerance” to describe the way sacred sites were shared by Christians and Muslims in the Ottoman world, and by Hindus and Muslims in British India. His point? The fact that groups accept a regime or “truce” imposed by an imperial power does not mean they will refrain from competing once they get a chance.
To ex-subjects of the Soviet imperium, talk of officially encouraged admiration for “fraternal” nations, laced with displays of embroidery, cuisine and folk-dancing, sounds cloying. Soviet allophilia finally failed because people saw it was dishonest; it hid the travails of ethnic groups who had suffered deportation and persecution under Stalin. By the end nobody believed in brotherly love.
So by all means, let allophilia be studied, measured and encouraged. Just remember: state-sponsored cultural events may not be the best way to go about it.
Pittinsky, T. L., Rosenthal, S. A., & Montoya, R. M. “Moving Beyond Tolerance: Allophilia Theory and Measurement”. Presented to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, January 2007.
Image: Muria Elder, Chhattisgarh, by Marcus Leatherdale.