The anniversary of the mass shooting in the Charleston South Carolina occurred just over a week ago on the 17th of June. Nine church members of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church were killed during a Bible study in that city on that day. A week ago, as I write this, 49 people at a Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender (LGBT) night club in Orlando, Florida were shot and killed with several more injured. On Thursday, June 16, less than a week ago, Labour MP Jo Cox was shot and killed near Leeds, in Yorkshire, England. As the details of these murders unfold, it seems apparent that political, religious, racial or sexual identities played a significant role in these killings.
Identity has been a source often of extreme conflict at different times. In the last 25 years, we have seen ethnic cleansing in the Balkans after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the genocide in Rwanda, the ethnic related confrontations of different kinds in a very complicated Middle East, not to mention, 9/11 attacks in the U.S. and in the last year, the attacks in Paris and Brussels. In western democracies, but not limited to those alone, there have been what some have called the clash of civilizations, a clash between different identities and different values. Some have even suggested that our western culture especially in North America has no clear identity or if there is any, it is a sort of melting pot, a term beloved of sociologists in the 60s and 70s or even earlier. One of the hallmarks of the resurgence of the extreme right wing in Europe and in the U.S. primaries has been a desire to emphasize a traditional ethnic heritage and the desire to exclude newcomers and immigrants.
Identity is not a simple matter of acculturation and learning. Often it is a process that takes understanding and awareness, not only about our identity, but the way others express and hold onto their identity. In the process, it often elicits powerful feelings.
Our perceptions of others, who they are and what they represent are often gleaned from others or from what we read. Yet information gathered like that, without concrete experience of other people and their points of views is purely a mental activity – a head trip as the hippies used to say, and not a lived part of experience. Unless you’ve met and engaged someone in the flesh and not for a mere 20 minutes at a time, but much more personally and at some depth, you cannot say you know that person. Walking in someone’s moccasins is not just a quaint saying which might have originated from aboriginal people. It’s likely a long journey that involves time and significant learning.
I have no doubt that the gunmen in the murders I alluded to had no significant personal knowledge of any of their victims. They were motivated by an uninformed prejudice and a violent acting out that did not come close to recognizing the humanity of their victims or their own humanity for that matter.