Bozo Sapiens

Exploring how our cognitive, logical, and romantic failures are a fair price for our extraordinary success as a species.

Facing Up to the Other

Why you are right to hate the Pirese.

On this day in 1943, Heinrich Himmler declared that Europe's Gypsies were "to be put on the same level as Jews and placed in concentration camps." The order simply recognized a fait accompli: Nazis had been treating Romani people just as badly as they had the Jews since the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. As the Holocaust closed in, both communities shared the same fate at the same times. The chronicler of the destruction of Warsaw's Jewry, Emmanuel Ringelblum, saw in this a visceral rejection of the Other, "to toss into the Ghetto everything that is characteristically dirty, shabby, bizarre, of which one ought to be frightened, and which anyway has to be destroyed." There was certainly no logic to it - particularly since, as even Nazi ethnologists had to admit, Romani are thoroughly Aryan: lineal descendants of Rajasthani mercenaries and entertainers, far closer to the well-spring of assumed genetic excellence than are mere Teutonic tribesmen. Such contradictions naturally confirm the idiocy of general theories of racial superiority, but they also underscore our natural propensity to loathe and fear the Other.

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The most precious commodity for a social animal is trust, because it allows for division of labor. A primate band whose members can trust each other can also share food, or at least the knowledge of where food is abundant. The band does better than any individual or mother-child unit could do - and while it may not be immediately obvious why this helps any particular gene make it to the next generation, it buys time for all the group's genes to achieve their full potential. If we believe that our neighbor is "one of us," she and we all have better survival chances - assuming she reciprocates our trust.

There's the rub: trust by its nature opens the door to cheating. If our most significant adaptive advantage depends on a behavior that itself makes us vulnerable, we will be preternaturally aware of any threat from that direction - especially in a world with, as we always believe, too few good things to go around. Indeed, the economist Samuel Bowles has suggested that our altruistic behavior to those we consider in-group is a direct result of lethal competition for resources between groups or early humans - that Us first appeared as the response to a threat from Them. Even in the most comfortable modern life, there is that tickle of potential conflict for resources: if, before the sale opens, you save places in the line for your family or friends, you're being a good person, freeing them from the boredom of waiting - but the lady in front of you doing the same thing is cheating, holding you back in favor of her deadbeat companions who can't even be bothered to show up. We bond against as much as with.

So how do we know who They are? It's not always easy; ancient Israelites asked refugees to pronounce the word shibboleth; the Danish resistance in World War II preferred rødgrød med fløde (red berries with cream); Croat and Serb terror gangs checked the manner in which children crossed themselves - Orthodox right to left, Catholic left to right. At its most basic level our feeling of otherness is taken in with our first nourishment and is deeply intermingled with our sense of disgust. They eat revolting things: grubs, sheep's eyes, raw fish, tripe, pork, beef. They smell different. They inspire disgust, then rejection, then fear.

For instance: I don't know how you feel about the Pirese. I'm pretty tolerant. I enjoy a mixed neighborhood, I believe religion is a private matter, and as for immigration - well, like it or not, we need the skills. But these Pirese... I kind of draw the line there. I've got kids. Any Pirese can just keep moving on, as far as I'm concerned.

And I'm not alone: a 2006 Tárki Social Institute poll in Hungary revealed that Pirese refugees were hated even more than Romanians, Russians, Chinese or Arabs. It wasn't so much the things they had done - they don't leave much of a record - but what they were: dark, ugly, possessed of the evil eye, known to mix blood into their beer. And the worst of it is, they don't exist - they were just included in the questionnaire as a statistical control.

Not even existing: typical sneaky Pirese behavior.

 

If you enjoy these stories of human fallibility, you will find a new one every day at Bozo Sapiens. See you there.

 

Michael Kaplan writes about chance, fate, probability and error. He is the author of Bozo Sapiens: Why to Err is Human.

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