Thursday, January 25, 2007

"Cultural pseudosubspeciation" in action

Anthropologists have a way with words, as demonstrated in a catchy phrase that describes what's been happening in Iraq: cultural pseudosubspeciation. This term can roughly be defined as a tendency to perceive another ethnic or religious group as a different, and ultimately quite subhuman, species. That tendency is often incited or reinforced by the political, religious or cultural elites that stand to gain from isolating the target group.

The pseudo- suffix means, of course, that any such efforts are false because they're based on arbitrary social categories—distinctions that have no meaningful biological basis (1). Familiar modern examples include such distinctions as: Sunni/Shi'ite, Tutsi/Hutu and Aryan/non-Aryan.

The obvious purpose of pseudosubspeciation is to redefine a society so that some disfavored group becomes isolated, ostracized and hated. A subhuman social group loses its claim to civil equality, respect, and, eventually, even life itself.

Before Iraq's civil war began with the American invasion, Baghdad's Sunnis and Shi'ites often lived comfortably together as neighbors, had social relations and intermarried (2). They were frequently unaware of, or at least indifferent to, their neighbor's affiliation. The same was true of Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs until the civil war of the 1990's. The Tutsi-Hutu distinction already existed, but it was strongly reinforced and exploited by the Belgian colonizers who, beginning in 1933, made Rwandans carry passcards that identified their tribal affiliation.

In a healthy, pluralistic society, racial, ethnic and religious distinctions have little or no political significance. In fact, the concept of "race" is so arbitrary (3) and loathsome, and carries so much historical baggage, that it should be abandoned altogether. But once such distinctions are reinforced, in the popular culture and the political apparatus, it can set in motion a process that leads to systematic persecution of disfavored minorities and, finally, civil war.

This dynamic led to an early escalation of the Iraq civil war. On last night's Charley Rose show (January 24th), John Burns of the New York Times was asked about the rather shaggy afro that has become something of a trademark for him. Burns said that barbers in Baghdad became an early target for fundamentalist insurgents who believed that men's hair and beards must be cut in a very specific way to conform to Muslim law. Armed men stormed into numerous barbershops and slaughtered offending barbers and their customers on the spot. Anyone who failed to conform to the strictest grooming standard was redefined by this insurgent culture as inhuman and unworthy of any consideration whatsoever. So Burns chose not to get haircuts, a practice that he continued even though barbers were available inside Baghdad's Green Zone.

Once this process begins, it creates a feedback loop that carries it ever further into barbarism. If the relatives of the Baghdad barbers and their customers retaliate with atrocities of their own, it only serves to reinforce the initial assumption that they're subhuman monsters.

Civil war may be the inevitable result of pseudosubspeciation, as occurred in the U.S. itself. The NYT's David Brooks, one of the few conservative columnists who occasionally gets something right, describes (4) the process well:
Amid the turmoil, the complexity of life falls away, and things are reduced to stark polarities: Sunni-Shiite or Shiite-Sunni, human-subhuman. Once this mental descent has begun, it is possible to kill without compunction. (5)
In his interview on the Rose show, Burns said: "Friends of mine who are Iraqis — Shiite, Sunni, Kurd — all foresee a civil war on a scale with bloodshed that would absolutely dwarf what we’re seeing now.”

The process of pseudosubspeciation artificially defines the Other in monolithic terms, creating a dynamic that could feed the dreaded—but possibly irresistable—"war of civilizations."


(1) The DNA of African Americans can barely be distinguished from the DNA of European Americans, and that minute difference only affects skin color and a few other minor (but quite visible) characteristics. I suspect it would be impossible to find any substantial biological differences between Sunnis and Shi'ites, or Palestinians and Israelis.

(2) This is not to suggest that Iraqi society was harmonious, or that deep Sunni-Shi'ite tensions didn't exist, but at least Iraqis weren't slaughtering each other with the regularity that we see every day in Baghdad and elsewhere.

(3) For example: "Recent work in anthropological genetics suggests that the traditional, historic and socially-constructed ‘racial’ aggregates that have permeated the Western biomedical literature since the 18th century are largely genetic illusions. Important human biological variation exists, but classical races, as the term is used systematically and taxonomically in the natural sciences, appears inapplicable to modern humans....." Wikipedia article on Genetic views on race.

(4) To get access to the whole article ("Breaking the Clinch"), you need to subscribe to something called "TimesSelect." Fortunately, the practice of charging for access to online opinion columns doesn't seem to be spreading.

(5) Brooks goes on to suggest a "soft partition," a proposal based on the growing acknowledgement that Iraq has been partitioning itself for some time already (as described on these pages on January 13th).

Finally, there's an interesting paper by Jim Fussell on the devious uses of identity cards: "Group Classification on National ID Cards as a Factor in Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing," Yale University Genocide Studies Program, November 15, 2001. Fussell writes: "Ethnic classification on ID Cards in Rwanda instituted by the Belgian colonial government and retained after independence, was central in shaping, defining and perpetuating ethnic identity. Once the 1994 genocide in Rwanda began, an ID card with the designation 'Tutsi' spelled a death sentence at any roadblock. No other factor was more significant in facilitating the speed and magnitude of the 100 days of mass killing in Rwanda."

GRAPHIC A Rwandan identity card with the bearer's "Tutsi" affiliation established immediately under the photograph.

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