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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 30, 2001

Lessons for an intolerant human race

By Tom Plate

If 2001 will be remembered for anything, it'll probably be as the "Year of Hate."

Counter-demonstrators, rallied against a scheduled August 1999 neo-Nazi march

Advertiser library photo • 1999

Just consider how widespread hatred is today: of men for women, Muslims for Hindus, Jews for Muslims, Christians for Muslims, Islamic terrorists for fat-cat Westerners, mainland Chinese for standoffish Taiwanese, unforgetting Koreans for unrepentant Japanese, surly Indians for prickly Pakistanis, Palestinians for Israelis, and so on and on.

Lay out all the hatreds of the world and you have the longest — and ugliest — list on Earth. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center — expiring to ground zero with thousands of people inside, of all nationalities, races and creeds — provides the Year of Hate with an all-too-perfect icon. What kind of people do such to each other? We are an intolerant humanity.

And the only way to fight intolerance is with intolerance of intolerance. As one of the world's leading liberal intellectuals, the late Oxford don Isaiah Berlin, once put it: "Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals or groups (or tribes or states or nations or churches) that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth; especially about how to live, what to be and do — that those who differ with them are not merely mistaken, but wicked or mad; and need restraining or suppressing."

Sir Isaiah offered an enduring legacy of a road map to intellectual and political humility. "It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance," he wrote in notes to a friend, just published in the New York Review of Books, "to believe that you alone are right; have a magical eye which sees the truth; and that others can not be right if they disagree."

When arrogance propels a self-appointed collection of the self-righteous, armed and committed, into action, the effect can be terrifying. As Berlin tells his friend: "That makes one certain that there is one goal and one only for one's nation or church or the whole of humanity, and that it is worth any amount of suffering (particularly on the part of other people) if only the goal is attained."

Usually, the chosen enemy is advertised as lacking humanity in a way that shrinks them to a convenient, contemptible cartoon. "Another source of avoidable conflict," Berlin continued, "is stereotypes. Tribes hate neighboring tribes by whom they feel threatened, and then rationalize their fears by representing them as wicked or inferior, or absurd or despicable."

Ku Klux Klansmen, use a flag to help conceal their identities during a 1999 rally in New York City.

Advertiser library photo • 1999

The delivery vehicle for hate is ignorance, willful or not. "All stereotypes," Berlin insisted, "are substitutes for real knowledge — which is never of anything so simple or permanent as a particular generalized image of foreigners — and are stimuli to national self-satisfaction and disdain of other nations. It is a prop to nationalism."

The world is witnessing the rise of aggressive nationalism in many places, even in the United States. For instance, as much as one admires the skillful and dangerous work of American soldiers inside Afghanistan, it is hardly necessary to attach, as many here have, an American flag to one's car. Patriotism does not need to be flaunted to be heartfelt.

Observed Berlin: "Nationalism — which everyone in the 19th century thought was ebbing — is the strongest and most dangerous force at large today, the product of a wound inflicted by one nation on the pride or territory of another."

The world's New Year's Resolution for 2002 ought to be to start replacing blind hatred with eye-opening understanding and respect. Again, Berlin, the great teacher, guides us wisely: "Knowledge opens the windows of the mind (and soul) and makes people wiser, nicer and more civilized; absence of it breeds irrational prejudice, hatreds, ghastly extermination of heretics and of those who are different; if the two great wars plus Hitler's genocide haven't taught us that, we are incurable."

May whatever God you worship or respect bless the world by helping spread the gospel of tolerance: "The only cure is understanding how other societies — in space or time — live," Berlin wrote. "And that it is possible to lead lives different from one's own, and yet to be fully human, worthy of love, respect or at least curiosity."

Let us become better students of each other's individuality and culture. And let us agree to work together better by insisting on peace on Earth and good will to all men — and women — and Muslims, Christians, Jews and Hindus, all of us. For, the truth is, in our common humanity, we are much more the same than different.