Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Monday, August 22, 2011

Fear of Small Numbers: Majorities and Minorities

Yesterday, we looked at Arjun Appadurai's description of a potent cocktail that blends ethno-nationalism and social uncertainty and is shaken (not stirred) by globalization.

"Globalization," he says, "exacerbates these uncertainties and produces new incentives for cultural purification as more nations lose the illusion of economjc sovereignty or well-being."

While this "orgy of exclusion" does lead to a number of disagreeable and unseemly rhetorics and acts against non-citizens and citizens alike, it does not necessarily lead to an "orgy of violence."

Appadurai argues that the path to large-scale violence has to do with the creation of majorities and minorities (be they cultural, linguistic, religious and so on), a very modern phenomenen that relies on those "tools of legibility" that are the glory of the modern nation-state. The ability to count and categorize people reveals (creates?) differences that can be used to assign people to one group or another. There is nothing particularly natural or self-evident about this - minorities and majorities are made, not born.

Having assigned people to a category, the majority will sometimes turn on their minorities and not only deprive them of their dignity, liberty and property, but their lives as well. When you think about it, this is unbelievably strange and illogical. What is so threatening about a group that is numerically inferior and is, by definition, weak? This is the "fear of small numbers" Appadurai uses for the title of his essay. But there is a certain logic behind it if one's dream is a vision of the nation as a pure whole - ethno-nationalism taken to its bitter, and extreme, end. In this context, an identified minority is a provocation that "reminds the majority of the small gap between their condition as majorities and the horizon of an unsullied national whole, a pure and untainted national ethos." This creates what Appafurai calls, "the anxiety of incompleteness." When this is tied to a "predatory identity" that goes so far as to claim that the very existence of the majority is threatened by, and incompatible with, a minority, you have all the elements necessary for large-scale violence. The debate is framed as a fight for survival.

This is, in my view, exactly what the Far Right parties are trying to create. Here are a few examples of minorities under attack: dual nationals in France, Spanish speakers in America, Moslems in India and migrants just about everywhere. Right-wing parties and movements are claiming that these people, however small their numbers, are a real threat to their respective nations. Though the criteria for minority status differs by national context, the answer to difference is the same - elimination by various means with harsh measures and methods being proposed when the right-wing parties achieve some power through the electoral process or they see that polls and public sentiment demonstrate that the majority is amenable to moving in that direction.

The most extreme method of elimination, of course, is genocide.  Can you drew a straight line from social uncertainty exacerbated by globalization, ethno-nationalism, the "anxiety of incompleteness" and "predatory identities?"  I am convinced that, yes, you can. Here are the elements Appadurai cites as ingredients for genocide;

  1. "The capture of the state by parties or groups that have placed their political bets on some sort of racialized nationalist ideology
  2. The availability of census tools and techniques that encourage enumerated communities to become norms for the idea of community itself
  3. A felt lack of fit between political borders and community migrations and populations, yielding a new alertness to politically abandoned kin or ethnic strangers claiming to be one's kinsmen
  4. A successful campaign of fear, directed at numerical majorities, which convinces them that they are at risk of destruction by minorities who know how to use the law (and the entire apparatus of liberal-democratic politics) to advance their special ends."

A rather sobering list, elements of which can be read in every newspaper on and off-line, heard on every radio and viewed on every television in nations all around the world.  Fear of Small Numbers is a fascinating and frightening read.  I've gained two things from this book:   a language and framework that I can use to describe some of what I see and experience as a migrant among many other migrants in this increasingly global and interconnected world.

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