Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Link Between Family Values and National Prejudice

Historically, there is a definite link between family and country. A large family might become a tribe; a large tribe that stayed in one place would form a nation. It makes sense, then, that the same human tendencies and drives could be behind the protective impulses of family members and the national prejudice that makes it easier to blame foreigners for problems.

I first made this connection when I saw the fiercely protective behavior of fathers of newborn babies. There are stories of men flattening intruders without a second thought, who on any other occasion would have merely called the police. The impulsiveness of this kind of response, it seemed to me, is the same as that of people who are ready to go to war.

And to an extent, it is. The biological link is oxytocin, mistakenly described as a feel-good hormone. Oxytocin is indeed associated with feelings of affection and belonging, but it is also associated with blame, territorial aggression, and risk-taking. If a mother bear is ready to kill you, putting her own life at risk, because you’ve walked within ten meters of the cubs, that is oxytocin at work. And now, scientists in a study described in the Scientific American story “A Love-Hate Relationship?: ‘Feel-Good’ Oxytocin May Have a Dark Side” have established a link between oxytocin and national prejudice. In word selection exercises, people who were given oxytocin were quicker to draw distinctions along national lines.

In shamanic terms, the risk involved in identifying yourself primarily as a member of your family, or of any group, is the narrowing of perspective that results. You can stop seeing most of what is there in the world around you, and this includes overlooking most of the people who can help you. It also may lead you to unfairly blame problems you experience on people outside your family, or outside your country, instead of taking responsibility for your own situation and looking for what you can do to improve things.

A great deal of trouble can be avoided by changing your view of your social context to fit the circumstances. Don’t get stuck in any specific us-versus-them line-drawing point of view.

If your reaction to the news of this month’s floods on three continents is, in essence, “I’m so glad no one from my family is there,” that’s what I mean by being stuck in a particular point of view. A family-oriented view is not an effective way to put this kind of news in perspective. It robs you of your compassion for the people who are having to scramble for higher ground. When disaster strikes, whether where you are or somewhere else, the constructive line of thinking comes from wishing for everyone to reach safety, rather than drawing lines between one kind of person and another.

There are times when you have to see yourself as part of the company you work for, the city or country where you live, or perhaps the profession you work in. At other times, especially if you are wishing for health or personal success, it is necessary to see yourself as an individual. And sometimes, you make yourself more powerful by seeing yourself as a citizen of the world. If you can switch back and forth among various points of view over the course of the day, you won’t get stuck in any one point of view. And then, your chances of getting caught up in simmering hostilities or violence are much less.