Humans are social animals. In our prehistoric past, we formed groups of about 150 individuals, hunting and gathering, creating culture and religion to bind us together and to regulate our relationships. We delineated our territory and patrolled it against the incursion of others. We competed against other groups for scarce resources. We were vigilant to the constant threats against us and our troop.
These instincts are deep within us. We are born with them whether we want them or not. We are only 5.4 million years from the joint ancestor we share with the chimpanzee.
The development of our humanity is therefore relatively recent. We can all talk, plan, calculate, reflect, be reasonable and logical and civilised, and this sometimes obscures the deeper primeval instincts we still (all of us) carry around with us.
The tensions in England between some Moslems and a section of the white English population increase with every provocation. A provocation is a stimulus to which our powerful and speedy Ape reacts first. Unless he or she has been nurtured and managed to react to such stimuli in a way which creates a different response to how a chimpanzee would react to a threat.
Elements in both communities (usually young men who, in evolutionary terms, are the warriors who would patrol and fight to protect their troop) are now hyper-vigilant to perceived or real threats from the other. Any communication will be filtered through this context of threat and suspicion to confirm each side’s view of the other as an enemy.
Vulnerability and neuroses spread like a stain through communities and infect others who may have previously made a better job of managing their primal responses to provocation.
On the English side, the increasing status of the armed forces is one response to our insecurity. Hardly a day goes by without my local news channel covering a regimental home-coming, thanksgiving, or march through a town – 20 years ago such events would have been largely ignored. There is also some evidence that the fall in attendances at Church of England services has stablised with some holy services, such as Christmas, seeing an increase. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22426144. If tensions between Moslem and English communities continue to increase I would expect to see church attendance increase.
The English – or large numbers of them – sees themselves as under threat, if not actually under attack. The primal fear of having a different group sharing their physical space and competing for resources, suppressed because authority punishes rather than rewards a physical response, continues to lurk within and is fed with a narrative which confirms the fear rather than confronts it. It is significant that one of the most active groups involved in this stand-off has the word ‘Defence’ in its name. They are claiming the territory (England) as theirs and they are defending it against others. The symbolism of Lee Rigby’s Help for Heroes tee-shirt could not have been more provocative for either side.
Young male Moslems, for their part, were mainly born in Britain yet feel alienated from it. English society, to many, is decadent, ungodly, and counter to the laws of Islam. British troops have been present in Islamic countries fighting Moslems in order to protect the home territory. Authority figures on both sides unwittingly widen the divide through their impoverished rhetoric which reduces the ‘other’ to a caricature, stripped of humanity and all the easier to attack and destroy.
What to do? How can we stop this spiral of provocation and counter-provocation? How can we break the stimulus-response mentality which will see tensions rise until the next event release that energy in violence? How can we live in peace and harmony?
We can start by acknowledging our Ape-like tendencies and admitting that everyone on earth shares them. This appeal to our universal commonality – what makes us similar rather than what makes us different – may of itself create a common language and understanding.
Civilisation is in part about how we resolve difference and dispute without violence. We create institutions to channel our Ape-like instincts into rational human form. I’m not sure our institutions are fully fit to handle the challenge of reconciling two communities growing increasingly suspicious of each other. Do we need to create a new institutional space where communities can come together to air frustrations and resolve issues?
My own solution to addressing the instincts of my inner Ape was to seek contact. I had had no previous meaningful contact with Moslems or others outside of my Troop. I am proud to be a Trustee of a small charity which serves a largely black and minority ethnic community. My fellow Trustees are all Moslem, as are some of the staff. I now have other patterns in my brain to counter the narratives that seek to divide us.
I have never had a strong Troop instinct – I’m not what politicians would call ‘clubbable’ – so I accept I may be unusual in this regard.
However, unless both communities have the will to come together to find common purpose while respecting our differences then we are in for troubled times ahead.