Two Races of Men

We worry about our differences when we should really concentrate on the ways we are similar.

We all laugh, cry, argue, worry, grieve, love, play – we are more alike than we are different.

We have plenty of common ground on which to build, if we are interested in finding it.

As Viktor Frankl said,

There are two races of men in this world, but only these two – the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man.  Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society.  No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.  In this sense, no group is of ‘pure race’… (1)


Photograph – UNICEF – Daily life: Play #9
Pakistan, 2010: And play is especially important in times of crisis, helping restore a sense of normalcy. In Sukkur City, a boy somersaults into muddy water in a camp for people displaced by flooding. Play is essential to children’s physical, mental and emotional development. It teaches friendship, trust, and problem solving – and it’s fun! In all situations, UNICEF supports children’s right to play.
(1) Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 94

Girl Power

Camfed – Campaign for Female Education – has discovered that poverty is the main obstacle to the education of girls.

Research shows that the consequences of not educating girls are not only felt by the individual girls but by the entire society.

If you educate a girl she’ll:

  • Earn up to 25 percent more and reinvest 90 percent in her family.
  • Be three times less likely to become HIV-positive.
  • Have fewer, healthier children who are 40 percent more likely to live past the age of five.

So it appears that if you educate girls then you not improve the quality of their lives but, it seems, you also improve the quality of everybody’s life.

Investing in girls and women is likely to prevent inter-generational cycles of poverty and yield high economic and societal returns – Ban K-Moon, United Nations Secretary General.

If we want a functional, happy, healthy world we need to find ways to unleash more girl power it seems…


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How We Can Live Together…

More than 30 years ago, an Egyptian-born Dominican monk, Bruno Hussar, wanted to create a place where people could learn how to live together – so he founded a new village between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel.

This new community was named Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam – Oasis of Peace, and here people of all religions were welcome to come and live and work together. Thirty years later, this is a thriving village with a waiting list of applicants wishing to join the community.

Abdessalam Najjar, an Arab Muslim from the Galilee region of Israel, was one of the first people to move into Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam.  Najjar says of Bruno Hussar’s intentions.

“His interest was to deal with the conflict. Why do we have a conflict? How can we influence the dynamics of the conflict and how can we change it for dynamics for peace building?”

Rabbi Ron Kronish of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, works alongside people of all religious backgrounds in trying to establish peace and unity.  Together they work at building relationships between people because this is what they believe will lay the groundwork for real and sustainable peace.  Rabbi Kronish says,

“We don’t invite people to our dialogues to solve the problem. We invite them to get to know one another, to be in place, to do what you can, to mitigate violence and hatred.”

The people of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam know how hard it is to achieve this deceptively simple goal but many of them believe they can succeed if they approach the work in a specific way.  As Abdessalam Najjar explains,

“I believe, and there are some others believe, that peace education and the peace actions in the absence of the spiritual factor will be not complete, and if we will use the spiritual factor, we will be more able, more courage to do a peaceful action.”

This video – Interfaith Village in Israel – gives a very interesting account of life in Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam.


*Photograph – Waverly Place by James Jowers – 1968.  George Eastman House Collection –
Accession Number: 2007:0275:0038

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An Answer to Evil

Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty.  To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom. Bertrand Russell

Dear Anders Behring Breivik,

A lot of the friends I met at Utoya are dead and you are the perpetrator. You are the man who, by coincidence, didn’t kill me. I was lucky.

You might think that you have won. You might think that you have ruined something for the Labour Party and for people around the world who stand for a multicultural society by killing my friends and fellow party members.

Know that you have failed.

You haven’t only made the world stand together, you have set our souls on fire and should know we’ve never stood together as we do now. You talk about yourself as a hero, a knight. You are no hero. But you have created heroes. On Utoya that warm day in July, you created some of the greatest heroes the world has seen, you unified people from all over the world. Black and white, man and woman, red and blue, Christians and Muslims.

You made your victims martyrs, immortals, and you have shown the world that when one person can show as much hatred as you have done, imagine how much love we can show when we stand together? People who I thought hated me have given me hugs on the street, people I haven’t been in contact with for years have written 300 to 400 words about how much it means to them that I survived. What can you say about that? Have you broken anything? You have united us.

You have killed my friends, but you haven’t killed our cause, our opinions, our right to express ourselves. Muslim women got hugs of sympathy from random Norwegian women on the street and your goal was to protect Europe from Islam? Your actions worked against its purpose.

You deserve no thanks; your plan failed. A lot of people are angry, you are the most hated person in Norway. I am not angry. I do not fear you. You can’t touch us, we are greater than you. We do not answer evil with evil, as you wanted it. We fight evil with good. And we win.

Benjamin Ostebo, aged 16.

Fair and Square – Rare?

Fair-mindedness is the ability to make judgements without prejudice or bias.  It is hard for us not to have bias – whatever about prejudice – as we see the world through the lens of our own experience and beliefs.

However, we can strive for fair-mindedness if instead of being swayed by our feelings – positive or negative – we fix our eyes on principles and make our judgements and decisions accordingly.

In this way, even if we don’t get on with somebody we won’t treat them unfairly as we will be able to look at the principle of justice instead of our own thoughts and feelings – and act accordingly.

Because as the writer, Michael Pollan puts it –

think perfect objectivity is an unrealistic goalfairnesshowever, is not.

Snide and Prejudiced.

The Sneetches and Other Stories

Probably the best story ever written about the danger of prejudice is The Sneetches, by Dr. Seuss.  In this story the star belly Sneetches look down on the plain belly Sneetches and the message is clear – if you have a star on your belly you are a superior Sneetch.

And then…along comes Sylvester McMonkey McBean – The Fix-it-Up Chappie.  This entrepreneur has a machine that will put stars on bellies – and so the plain belly Sneetches – overjoyed to be able to elevate themselves socially – pay him to put stars on their bellies.

Now everyone has stars on their bellies.  But the original Star-Belly Sneetches are having none of it. So, McMonkey McBean offers them a solution – he also has a Star-Off machine – “I’ll make you again the best Sneetches on beaches and all it will cost is ten dollars eaches.“.

So they have their stars removed and then so do the others and on and on it goes as they vie with one another to be the best.  A terrible confusion ensues while stars are put on bellies and taken off bellies –

They kept paying money,

They kept running through,

Until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew,

Whether this one was that one or that one was this one

Or which one was what one…or what one was who. (1)

Eventually the Sneetches spend all their money and Sylvester McMonkey McBean leaves – rich and laughing at the foolish Sneetches.

But expensive as it was, the Sneetches learn their lesson and finally realise the truth,

Sneetches are Sneetches and no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.  

Proving that not only do our prejudices make us mean and ridiculous they also make us vulnerable as we invest in proving the fantasy to ourselves and everyone else.


I think therefore I act…


Image by Sem Vandekerckhove via FlickI think, therefore I am...

If our social reality and education are the factors outside of us that shape our view of reality, what factors inside us contribute to the decisions we make? Education definitely influences our decisions and ignorance can contribute to prejudice. However, if information and exposure were enough to correct prejudice, then men would never have been prejudiced against women and all colonizers would soon see that the natives were just like them.

In order to benefit from information about, and exposure to, other cultures and traditions, we need conceptual frameworks in which diversity is seen as a good thing and everybody is seen as equal and valuable. Otherwise the differences can simply be seen as proof of inequality or inferiority or well, proof of pretty much anything we want to prove.   Because one of the first ‘facts’ that we really do need to carry with us as we learn to think for ourselves is that as human beings, we don’t believe what we see but on the contrary we actually see what we already believe.

TomorrowTalking to your Hat

How real is reality?

Antonio Gramsci's writings on the hegemony of ...

Image via Wikipedia

The first step in changing our world is an examination of what actually constitutes reality. We are all products of our environment and as a result we inevitably take many things for granted, believing them to be the natural order of things. As a result of this tendency, slavery, child labour, the subjugation of women and certain classes and the assumed superiority of specific races were all at one time – and unfortunately in some quarters still are – considered to be ‘the natural order of things.’ As Sir Ken Robinson, the British campaigner for educational reform says,

we don’t see the world directly. We perceive it through frameworks of ideas and beliefs, which act as filters on what we see and how we see it. Some of these ideas enter our consciousness so deeply that we’re not even aware of them. They strike us as simple common sense. They often show up, though, in the metaphors and images we use to think about ourselves and the world around us. (1)

So what if many of the things we take as unshakeable realities aren’t fixed in some unalterable way but rather exist because we allow them to exist? 

Cultural transformation involves deliberate changes in individual choices and in institutional structures and norms. (2)

Reality Check…

Social reality is an expression of human agreement, someone is the president of a country and has the powers of that office because a system of government is created and acknowledged by the inhabitants of that country. When the fundamental agreements which frame belief and behaviour change, social reality will change.(3)

The idea of Cultural Hegemony was developed by the Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci in the early twentieth century.(4)  Gramsci, who spent much of his life in one of Mussolini’s prisons, raises some interesting questions about the nature of what we consider reality.

In a cultural hegemony everybody comes to believe that the way things are is the natural order of things. The ideas and values of the ‘ruling class’ are seen as the norm and their ideologies are believed to benefit everybody – whilst of course, really only being of benefit to the ruling class. Gramsci suggested that cultural norms (which vary from society to society and time to time) must not be perceived as either “natural” or “inevitable”, but rather that these cultural norms – institutions, practices, beliefs – should be investigated and reassessed to assist in establish greater social and economic equality.

According to Gramsci, people concentrate on living their lives in a way that is meaningful to them within their personal circumstances and as a result the rest of society seems to have little or nothing to do with her or him. But Gramsci would contend that each person’s life also contributes to making the social reality in which they live. (5) He maintained that this is how many systems are upheld because we come to think of them as the natural order of things – literally, as ‘common sense.’ We see the society around us as being the only way things can be and any attempt to change it is seen as is a ridiculous proposition which flies in the face of common sense.

Take slavery. There was a time in the Western world when slavery was considered ‘the natural order’ of things. Certain people were seen as a slave class and were owned by other people. The social practices of the time were built around this idea and nobody – even the slaves in all likelihood – thought there was anything that could be done to change this ‘reality.’ Slavery was so much part of social reality that wishing to escape from it was seen as an illness.

In 1851, American physician, Samuel A. Cartwright delivered a widely reprinted paper to the Medical Association of Louisiana, this paper was on the subject of a mental illness called drapetomania – an illness he believed afflicted slaves who were inclined to run away. Cartwright said this illness was a result of masters who, “made themselves too familiar with [slaves], treating them as equals.“(7)

He went on to say that,

“If any one or more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good requires that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which was intended for them to occupy. They have only to be kept in that state, and treated like children to prevent and cure them from running away.“(8)

This example appears shocking to the 21st century Westerner as it is clear to us now that slavery is not the natural order of things but rather a social reality based on economic motives and mistaken ideas. But more useful than being shocked at the behaviour and beliefs of our ancestors, would be the realisation that we are just like them. People – like us – made that reality and people – like us – changed that reality. This is just as true of the many dysfunctional social realities we live with today as it was true of slavery. Dishonesty in governments and finance, poverty, abuse of women and children, lack of education and opportunity for the majority of the people on the planet – these are examples of social realities constructed and supported by us and therefore within our control. Just like slavery. 

So how do we distinguish between immutable reality and changeable reality? If we want our societies to improve we must be willing to contribute to improving them. And if we want to do this we must begin by investigating social reality for ourselves. We have a responsibility – as well as a right – to look at everything rather than just accepting what we see around us as unchangeable.

 Mount Everest and the Atlantic Ocean belong to a type of reality that the philosopher John Searle(9) calls ‘brute’ reality. We obviously don’t create brute reality – though we do seem able to destroy it. Social reality is something different. We don’t make mountains and trees but we do make social reality – or at least we all help to make it and so we can all help to change it.

Assessing everything does not mean that we should necessarily reject all we find – it just means that we should actively choose for ourselves. If we simply reject everything this is just the flip side and therefore equally limited and limiting. Truly examining reality is only possible if we try to see with our own eyes. If we put aside not only our prejudices against everything but also our attachment to everything and try to make all of our decisions independently and with justice. We won’t be protected from making mistakes in this process but if we are more interested in discovering truth and justice and reality than we are in supporting any systems or persons, that in itself will protect us, as it will allow us to see our mistakes, rectify them and move on towards solutions.

Recognising that there may be things distorting or blocking our view of reality won’t make the obstacles disappear any more than just knowing you are short-sighted will fix your vision. However, diagnosing the problem not only allows you to take it into account, it may also allow you to find ways to improve your vision.  In order to do this, the first – and possibly the only truly vital step – is to begin to see ourselves as co-creators of the social reality rather than just its victims or beneficiaries.

1 Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism – Bahá’í International Community’s Contribution to the 18th Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development – 3 May 2010, New York, New York

2 Ken Robinson, The Element, p.251

3 Paul Lample op. cit. p.9

4 Gramsci, Antonio (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers. (ISBN 071780397X.)

5Ibid pp. 233-38

6 S. L. Chorover. From Genesis to Genocide (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press 1974). p. 150.

Cartwright, Samuel A. (1851). “Report on the Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race”. DeBow’s ReviewXI. Retrieved 2007-10-04.

8 Arthur L. Caplan, James J. McCartney, and Dominic A. Sisti (2004). Health, Disease, and Illness: Concepts in Medicine. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. p. 35 ISBN 1589010140.

9 John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality.