Recently one Singaporean woman of Indian origin was in news for her bizarre antics defying government orders to wear masks outside the home. What followed this individual act of callousness was a typical brutal backlash from netizens in Singapore. Now, the internet has been home to most savage trolls for some time; we are all too used to this fact. However, one worrying trend that is so visible in such episodes is the outburst of the racism and bigotry of the worst kind. Every single act of individual callousness or mistakes results in brazen attacks on the entire community, religion, nationality, or race. Worst still, this is a universal issue.
This is all the more worrying for the fact that Singapore is one of the best (the best in the author’s opinion) governed state on the earth. The government is very proactive to educate its people against racism of any kind. They, even, have placed a kind of quota system to ensure that all races live together in a housing block to avoid the ghettoization problem that is so visible across the world. The government has a zero-tolerance policy towards racism of any kind and swift actions are taken against any wrong-doer irrespective of his race or religion. The city-state is one of the richest, highly educated, and cosmopolitan in outlook; yet there are visible under-currents as this documentary showed that highlight the limitation of state in dealing with such inherent societal issues.
Singapore is not alone in societal prejudices, it is a universal problem almost akin to our second nature. Ironically the worst victims of racism behave equally or worse prejudiced in different settings or surroundings. Take, for example, we Indians who are usual victims of racism across the world for being brown, the curry smelling or the cheap labor turns into the worst racists back at home depending on the context. Mothers in North India would balk at the suggestion of marrying their kids to a South Indian for being dark-skinned, people from the East face daily harassment in the street of Delhi for being Mongoloids, A south Indian brahmin will not eat in the house of a ‘low caste’ fellow South Indian.
Why are we humans racist? This is a complicated question and in my opinion, the modern, largely the Western ideologues have muddled further with their tendency to paint everything with the same macroscopic brush without any appetite for nuances. We should all be politically correct suitable to the Western palate and there isn’t much scope of debate on this front, details be damned. So if a classmate tells you not to worry about pimples as they will hardly be visible on brown Indian skin, you should feel offended as this is an example of Racism. Where do you draw the line to identify hurtful and malicious intent from flippant and careless but truthful observations?
Where do our tendencies of this racial segregation and boxing come from? Are all these tendencies impediments in our evolution? What is the ideal state when it comes to racism in society? These are the questions, intellectuals must ask and explore for any hope of a permanent change in the society.
So where do we get our inherent tendencies of racism? The answer, like most societal issues, lies in evolution. Our fascinating story of evolution starts with this fundamental ability of humans that separated us from the paths of other animals – co-operation. We, humans learned to co-operate with fellow humans which led to the formation of groups as co-operation can only happen when you identify favorable resources. This automatically taught us to segregate based on the desired qualities depending on the nature of the work. This gave birth to the fundamental human tendency – Us vs Them. Favorable people were allies and rest the others either strangers or downright enemies. As time progressed, some of these boundaries became permanent and so did our prejudices. The ‘Us vs Them’ theme manifested itself in all sorts of divisions of society and the schism deepened.
To err is human and humans have this indispensable urge to assign the responsibility. We like to analyze as our oversized brains conditioned us to do for millions of years of our evolution. If the cause exceeds our mental faculties, responsibilities are assigned to supernatural otherwise there always is “them”. Racism is evolved expressions of human regrouping between ‘us & them’ and quest to find simplistic answers for our ills.
How do we identify if there are menacing and schematic racist under-currents which can evolve into catastrophic events such as the holocaust or mere jealous & ignorant expressions of one group competing for finite resources against another?
This is rather a difficult question to address. No one knows when the seeds of unmitigated hatred germinate in society between different groups however, our modern top driven quest to be politically correct in our expressions is going to be counter-productive. There has to be a healthy dose of inter-group debates to release the steam instead of suffocating masses with high ideals of racial harmony. If one has to always be mindful of ultra-thin modern sensitivities while expressing, one might choke on his thoughts. If we keep defining our sensitivities too narrow in fear of offence, we might shut down the dialogue between masses which is exactly what we want to avoid.
What should we strive to achieve as an end state? For start, if only we could promote the dialogues between different groups, it will produce its own mechanisms of understanding without state intervention. In order to do this, we will have to redefine our idea of political correctness. There are definite and visible pitfalls to this theory as is seen on the social networks. It is difficult to imagine this engagement when one sees the vile and depressing world of savage online trolling. However, my theory is that this is an infinitely small section of any population though unfortunately is the most visible. If you ever want to test this theory, you need to look around your neighborhood where chances are that the vast majority is a good law-abiding citizen. Simplistic, yet powerful ideas such as community centers for Arts, Sports, or skills can be great platforms to bring these invisible masses together to exchange ideas away from harmful & vile online world. The state can turn these community centers into the vehicle of change at multiple levels apart from promoting inter-group engagement.
It is impossible to root out our inherent prejudices which are vestiges of our evolution but efforts can be made towards identification and acknowledgment of these through inter-group engagement and dialogues. Suppressing expressions is not the ideal way, on the name of political correctness, to promote racial harmony. States, often find their top-down approach of spreading racial equality, at best reluctantly followed by citizens or at worst, generates deep-seated animus. The focus should be on increasing engagement within different groups through simulated state actions. An economically & socially integrated society is much more likely to evolve into a tolerant society than a preached but segregated one.