When Self-Segregation Oppresses Others

Photo by Lindsey Turner (Flickr)

We Seem To Naturally Segregate Ourselves

Last week I was on a plane headed back to Bangkok from Singapore. Seated behind me were two gentlemen who were very unhappy with the flight. I only caught (not that I was trying to listen in, but they were rather loud) their exchanges in English with the stewardess (for whom I developed a great admiration and no little amount of sympathy), as they otherwise spoke in a language I do not understand. They had a special ordered meal which they didn’t like. They didn’t like the newspapers and magazines on offer in the airplane. They objected to the movie, television and radio selections on the personal entertainment console. But the final one came near the end of the flight, when they “recommended” to the stewardess that the airline (Thai Airways) have a section especially segregated for people of their religion so they would not have to sit near people of other religions.

Segregation has probably existed as long as there have been human tribes. The earliest records of human achievement detail the separation of humans into the Sumerian city states. Humans sort themselves by culture. The concept of human “races” is a relatively recent phenomena, and of course is totally at odds with reality. There is only one species of human, and thanks to the science of genetics, we now know that the differences between any two people is far less than the difference between different breeds of dogs, for example. Basically, we are all poodles; some big, some small, some brown fur, some white, but poodles all the same.

But we segregate ourselves. In the ancient world there may not have been as much of this as there is now, or perhaps there was and we just don’t have records of it. Common things often fail to make it into travel journals or written descriptions. If something was considered as “normal” it rarely gets mentioned in ancient, or even modern, literature (when was the last time you read a book that had someone driving a car – that actually explained how they did this?)

But in modern history, we have constantly been at pains to segregate ourselves; by ethnicity, by religion, by social class, by sex, by language, and now we have the sub-cultural designations as well. The Orthodox Byzantines had a special area in Constantinople for the Catholic Genoese traders, the Japanese had a trade port for the Dutch, and the Chinese had trade ports for the British (as well as others). America has had and continues to have its China Towns, Greek Towns, Little Italy, urban black ghettos, and gated upper income suburban communities. There are no laws mandating these areas, any more than there are laws mandating the area for Orthodox Jews in New York, Greeks in Detroit, or Poles in old Chicago. People tend to congregate with other people they feel comfortable with.

When I moved to Korea in 1988, I intentionally lived in an area where there were many other expatriates. Is this because I didn’t like Koreans? Not at all. But I didn’t speak the language and I felt it would be easier to function if I was in an area that catered to people like me; with shop keeps who spoke some English or who were used to dealing with foreigners, where I could get goods that I was familiar with, where I could meet people who were encountering the same challenges that I was.

So “Birds Of A Feather Flock Together”, So What?

So, why am I stating the bleeding obvious, you might ask? And with good cause. It’s because segregation is probably a natural state of the human condition. Even atheists are prey to it, when they have their own “atheist only” web sites, chat rooms, and conventions.

But there are two types of segregation; that of voluntary inclusion, and involuntary exclusion. Voluntary inclusion is like when I was in Korea, you chose for various reasons to live among others that have some commonality of interest with you. This is also true for such extreme groups as conservative religious communities such as the Amish and religious orders (monks and nun, predominantly). To be a part of these groups, you have to accept their terms and conditions, as joining is voluntary and there is no right to membership. This is also true of nationalities, as becoming a citizen of a different country is not usually a right without some qualifications and conditionality.

But what is growing is the involuntary exclusion type of segregation. The sort that says, we don’t want you here, and if you are here you have to live by our rules. This has become a sickening reality in some parts of the United Kingdom where gangs of young men patrol the streets as self-styled vigilantes to enforce their own particular codes of conduct based on Islam against any who wander into their arbitrarily designated territory. Legal authorities seem more afraid of offending religious extremists than they are concerned with protecting innocent victims of this sort of often physical abuse. A friend of mine in London who lives near such an area was supposedly told by the police to try “not aggravate them.” So drinking a beer or a woman wearing a short skirt are no longer a protected right in a country which considers itself a liberal democracy. When this happens, the religious extremists win.

It’s not just Muslims, either. Christians frequently try to prevent atheists from participating in events that are supposed to be open to all, or even charity events.

Orthodox Jews sometimes police their neighborhoods and harass others whom they deem offensive to their beliefs. And even in Buddhist Myanmar and Sri Lanka, we have seen actions against Muslims (although those were also separate cultural/ethnic groups as well as religious). What makes a local religious majority so fearful of a non-practicing minority? Why are they offended at non-compliance? Won’t the unbelievers be punished with eternal hell fire? Isn’t that punishment enough?

Prejudice Is Prejudice, Whether Ethnic Or Religious

Humans appear to fear or mistrust those who are different. I would love to know why this is so. There have been some very interesting books and articles on ideas about the origin of prejudice (usually classified as racism), but most I have come across are limited to racism in the modern or exclusively Western context. If you know of one with a broader scope, please let me know.

But in many Western societies, where prejudice against another because of their ethnic background can be regarded as criminal, prejudice based on religious affiliation is often lionized. It would be abhorred in the press if a local vigilante group were preventing black Africans or Asians from entering its territory, but if it’s targeting people who are offending a religious affiliation it may not be “ok” but it’s not treated with the same repugnance. For some reason, we need to be “sensitive” to the feelings of the local religious group, whatever fundamentalist denomination they are.

We should not complain when atheist signs or billboards are defaced, or if atheists are prevented from participating in community events open to people of different faiths, or if we are not allowed to offend arbitrary dress codes or dietary restrictions of the religious. Why is it the duty of the non-believer not to offend the religious, by not doing what they are legally entitled to do?

Segregation by voluntary action is sad, but a free society has to allow it to an extent (personally, I object to allowing religious affiliated primary schools, but I will blog on that later). But it should not allow, and what it should bring its full resources of public condemnation and legal intolerance of, is involuntary segregation. I am not talking about freedom of speech here; I think you should be able to say anything you like – and I do not agree with prohibitions on “hate speech” however odious. Freedom of speech should be of paramount importance in any free society. But religious groups are being allowed to act in prejudicial ways that would be abhorred in another context (for example, based on skin color, sex, or ethnic origin).

Politicians are so afraid of offending the religious, that we are losing sight of what it means to live in a free and equal society. We risk becoming Balkanized along religious lines, with each religion allowed to discriminate and dictate laws as it sees fit in its own area – without the intervention or consent of the society at large. Voluntary segregation appears to be the natural state of humans, but involuntary segregation has been legally prohibited in many contexts as human society has matured. Religion does not deserve special treatment in this regard. Prejudice is evil in all its forms, and involuntary segregation practiced through cleansing a neighborhood, community event, or any social gathering of “non-desirables” should be anathema to any civilized society.

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