Review: The Spider & The Automobile

Membership in hate groups has long been linked to economic failure; few millionaires joined the Aryan Nations. More contentious is a theory that all human beings are prone to irrational impulses that pit Catholic versus Protestant, English versus French, white versus Black. “We are hardwired to be ethnocentric,” writes Kenneth Stern, director of New York’s Bard Centre for the Study of Hate.

Stern argues we are programmed through millennia to instincts that long ago meant survival but today make no sense whatsoever. Consider the story of the spider and the sedan. He quotes social psychologist James Waller: “Automobiles kill far more people today than do spiders or snakes. But people are far more averse to spiders and snakes than they are to automobiles. Why? Because for most of our ancestral history, spiders and snakes were a serious threat to our survival and reproduction, whereas automobiles did not exist.”

The Conflict Over The Conflict is a calm, controversial analysis of “the tendency of people who defined themselves as part of a group to depersonalize others”. Stern pulls no punches. His work is thoughtful and provocative.

Take language, for instance. Stern recounts a University of New Hampshire guide to appropriate nouns and adjectives. Don’t say “poor” but “persons who lack advantages that others have”, says UNH. Don’t say “rich” but “persons of material wealth”. Don’t say “foreigners” but “international people”.

This is beyond pointless, writes Stern: “You don’t want people calling each other offensive names, but you have to wonder whether an official scorecard or how to self-monitor speech also sends students a destructive message: If there are preferred words, are there preferred thought, preferred ideas, preferred opinions? Are we now too sensitive?”

This is a serious field of research. They call it evolutionary psychology. “Our brains were not developed in an age of jet travel, Skype and Twitter,” Stern explains. “They were formed over millennia, starting when people lived in small groups and survived by hunting and gathering. Sometimes our primitive ancestors confronted strangers, others. Frequently these ‘others’ were dangerous. They competed for resources.”

Thus, the bitter disagreement over street protests, removal of statues, kneeling in public, race-tinged team mascots or bias in media. “When we care about something deeply, especially an issue connected to how we define ourselves, our families, our morality, our values, our group, our children’s future, it’s difficult to acknowledge we might be dead wrong,” he writes.

Stern is a gifted communicator and his argument is rational. The Conflict Over The Conflict frames the analysis within Middle East conflict, but remains useful in deciphering why street protestors make removal of a certain statue a flashpoint in Indigenous relations, or why a certain TV newscast gets on your nerves. People “are not thinking on a blank slate defined by disconnected and philosophical logic,” Stern explains. “They are bringing themselves as human beings for whom identity, and the symbols of identity, are of oversized importance.”

By Holly Doan

The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate, by Kenneth S. Stern; University of Toronto Press; 296 pages; ISBN 9781-4875-07367; $19.47

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