So I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked by Aung San Suu Kyi turning on a minority group within Burma and not just staying silent about ethnic cleansing but actively justifying it. She has a proud track record of years in prison and house arrest defending the rights of the people of Myanmar. She now has a shameful track record of months of justifying state oppression of an entire group of those very same citizens.
It is of course possible that she sincerely believes one section of her people are setting fire to their own homes en masse. It is also possible that she thinks they are running away from helicopter gunships unnecessarily. Or that half a million people are crossing a border into Bangladesh because they feel like a bit of tourism in a refugee camp.
I don’t, however, think that she is a naïve or a foolish person. I think she has taken a conscious decision that these aren’t really her people. She is quite prepared to attack her fellow countrywomen and men – provided that they don’t share her religious beliefs. Those generals may be nasty people but they are her nasty people now.
You can hear the same double standards from people who fiercely and rightly defend the rights of the state of Israel to exist in peace and freedom but who will strongly deny the same rights for the people of Palestine. Instead they happily cheer on “their” army whilst it inflicts punishment on an entire people regardless of individual guilt. Then again I’ve heard people strongly defending the rights of religious minorities – provided they are Muslims. The same person will sometimes happily ignore it if someone stones to death a Christian or a Jew.
The source of this kind of double standards is very deep rooted. Go back far enough in time and it is clear that humanity lived in small tribes struggling to survive in a hostile environment. We know from early archaeology that early humans cared for those who had been injured because they have found bones that have healed and know that this means the community must have looked after them for months without getting much back. So there must have been quite a number of kind and nurturing people around from the first.
Unfortunately there is equally strong evidence that early humans engaged in warfare and that cannibalism was quite common. Which more than likely means that there is a very long track record of humans being kind to those inside their own group and pretty unpleasant to those outside.
We are, as a species, capable of both kindness and cruelty. Quite often it comes from the same individual. Which is why we need to take real care not to outgroup people and define them as less than human. It is also why it is important to move beyond our genetic inheritance of tribalism and campaign for the rights of all - not just those who look or sound like us.
I am no passivist because I have met out and out racists who would kill without conscience. There are occasions when the only way to stop one tribal leader from imposing their will on the rest of us is to stand up and fight. There are also occasions when we need a bit of understanding of the level of risk we take in a nuclear world if we remain tribal. Humanity is capable of great narrow mindedness and tunnel vision. It is not capable of surviving nuclear war. Which is why we need to take extreme care before we do decide that nothing can be done to reconcile differences and it is necessary to go to war.
I would sleep a lot easier in my bed if I thought Donald Trump and Kim Il Sung understood that and the British government hadn’t decided to cheer on Trump! The time has come to take both these untrustworthy individuals at their word and face up to the level of risk they represent. Then we need the US, Russia and China talking seriously about how each of the leaders of their tribes can get enough of what they want without putting the rest of us at risk via a nuclear standoff.