I wanted to speak to you today about the power of groups. It is great to belong to for example, a community or a team and to feel part of something bigger.
It is fantastic to feel connected to other people, sharing things with them, working together for a common goal and enjoying each other’s company. Just take a moment to consider what groups you feel part of. You might feel a strong attachment to the Canford community, a sports team, music group or to your village, county or country.
It seems to be a key characteristic of human existence to form these types of associations, to band together and to feel part of something. Most of you have been at Canford for some time and you probably feel quite comfortable with your circle of friends and the affiliations you feel.
But there is a darker side to groups. When a population is defined not by the things that bind it together, but by the exclusion of others, then it can become very unpleasant indeed. History provides us with a catalogue of examples of where different groups have been dragged into conflict as leaders have managed to successfully portray some other people as being in some way different, less human and therefore less deserving of rights as those in their own group. I am sure some immediately obvious examples come to mind but it is worth thinking about others of which you might not be so aware.
In Rwanda there are two main ethnic groups: the Hutu and the Tutsi. They had lived together relatively peaceably since the country gained independence in 1962. However a civil war between these groups started in 1990 and then between April and July 1994 between half a million and a million citizens were killed: almost entirely these were either Tutsi or moderate Hutus. Local officials and government-sponsored radio incited ordinary citizens to kill their neighbours, and those who refused to kill were often murdered on the spot: as witnesses reported
"Either you took part in the massacres or you were massacred yourself." After the genocide, over one million people were potentially culpable for a role in what had happened, nearly one-fifth of the population remaining after the summer of 1994. How was it possible for people to have lived together for so long to end up murdering each other?
Throughout the 90s a campaign run by the government told lies and half truths about the Tutsi using radio, newspapers and simple word of mouth. This was designed to increase resentment, to blame the Tutsis for the failings of the country and to degrade them to a lower status. This constant drip feed of negative comments and remarks gradually changes people’s attitudes and reinforces underlying stereotypes and prejudices. It resulted in people who were willing to rise up and massacre their next door neighbours having convinced themselves that it was the right thing to do.
It is the responsibility of all to stand up to this, to call lies out when we hear them and, critically to offer a more positive vision.
A more recent example is Myanmar (which used to be known as Burma) where the government has been persecuting the Muslim Rohynigya people, who have lived in the country since the 9th century. The genocide began in August 2017 when the Myanmar army and local Buddhist extremists started attacking the Rohingya people killing at least 10,000, destroying 392 Rohingya and committing widespread sexual violence.
As of September 2018, over 700,000 Rohingya people had fled or had been driven out of Rakhine state as a direct result: these refugees then took shelter in neighboring Bangladesh, although many of them have now been dispersed further.
We went to Malaysia last year as a Biology expedition. As part of this we visited to a Rohyniya refugee school: these people have ended up all over south East Asia, as grudgingly many countries have allowed them in. Even there they are still not given work permits or allowed to live a normal life. It was great to see the children enjoying themselves and learning in a fantastic school but even these young children wanted to go back to home, something that seems increasingly unlikely to happen as their villages are burnt and, in some cases, built over.
The Rohingya people have officially been denied Burmese citizenship since 1982 when the nationality law was enacted. This act effectively formalised the legal discrimination, including removal of all essential services and support. Yet they are humans just like you or me, or any other member of the Burmese society. Their plight has not received the attention it deserves, leading to the situation being described as the “forgotten genocide”.
But what does all this mean from a Biological perspective? When racial groups are analysed it is obvious that the concept of race has no meaning whatsoever when thinking biologically. This is a bold statement and seem to run counter to common sense, so needs more explanation.
Since the advent of DNA sequencing it has been possible to see how genetically similar individuals are and thus to indirectly look at their ancestry: individuals that share a great many genetic characteristics are closely related. What this analysis shows us is both startling and important.
The first point is that in fact all humans are very closely related: we have far more in common with each other than the are differences we can observe. Humans spread rapidly over the world from their origins in Africa and have been mixing ever since, we are remarkably homogenous.
Secondly while it might seem that there are obvious groups or types of people based on physical appearances these differences are literally superficial: when you look at the genetic differences there is always far more variation within any one of these so called races than what is found between them. This means that these “groups” have no real meaning: we are all part of just one species, we are all the same and we are all of equal value. Race is purely a social construct: something entirely artificial.
What does this mean for you?
You need to rethink both your conscious and unconscious biases i.e. what you think about people of different groups to your own. It is vital that we remember that whatever slight differences there may be between you and someone else this is always massively outweighed by what you have in common.
You need to be very wary of politicians or anyone else trying to convince you that immigrants, foreigners or anyone else are somehow less deserving of your respect or sympathy. Don’t take these statements at face value: investigate, try to put yourself in the shoes of these people, imagine what it would like to be one of them and how you would like to be treated.
More locally think really carefully about the power of groups. It is fantastic to feel part of something, and group activities such as singing together in chapel or in a sports stadium can give you an amazing feeling of togetherness. But, please, make sure that you are not defining your groups by exclusion: if the way that you feel part of something is by denying access to it to others then that is not helping our community at all.
Remember that we all equal, actually very alike, and equally deserving of respect.
One of the things I have enjoyed the most about being a part of the Canford community is how welcoming, friendly and all-encompassing it is. But is up to all of us to maintain that. It only takes a crude joke, a thoughtless comment or a nonverbal signal to give the impression you are excluding someone: please do your best to avoid this happening and don’t be afraid to call out those who are.
Later on this term we will be having the festival of ideas: this year it is about identity and diversity. Some of the speakers will probably challenge your current thinking and certainly many will have a very different background to your own: again listen to them carefully, remember that they are human too and make sure you show them real respect.
I’d like to finish with an extract from one of the most important books of the twentieth century: “If this is a man”
This autobiography of an Italian Jew, Primo Levi, who survived the Nazi death camps around Auschwitz is both enormously sad and, at the same time, very inspiring. It offers many insights into the potential of humans for both good and evil. I would recommend it to anyone. He writes the following about how he felt as he finally arrived at the work camp in a cattle truck with more than 400 other people crushed together:
Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a person. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so. Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find in ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.”
We cannot afford to let this happen again.