When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were. It was “us versus them,” and it was clear who them [sic] was. Today, we’re not so sure who they are, but we know they’re there.
—President George W. Bush, quoted in the New York Times, April 16, 2006
The world is awash in divisions rooted in the human compulsion to believe our differences are more important than our common humanity . . . . [But] our common humanity is more important than our interesting and inevitable differences.
—President Bill Clinton, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World
This book sets out to explore and investigate the most resonant forms of human solidarity as they have been invented and created, established and sustained, questioned and denied, fissured and broken across the centuries and around the world, and as they have defined the lives, engaged the emotions, and influenced the fates of countless millions of individuals. It does so by looking at the six most commonplace and compelling forms of such identities, namely religion, nation, class, gender, race, and civilization. Sometimes regional, sometimes national, and sometimes more global in their compass and in the claims made on their behalf, these groupings have commanded widespread allegiance and commitment, on occasions for good, but often not, since every collective solidarity simultaneously creates an actual or potential antagonist out of the group or groups it excludes. Even if we confine ourselves to the twentieth century, there have been many such confrontations and conflicts variously described as religious wars, or national wars, or class wars, or gender wars, or race wars, or wars for civilization. And whatever the solidarity ties specific to our own time, analogous groupings and analogous conflicts have existed across the millennia and around the world, from Christians versus pagans during the later Roman Empire to the white supremacists versus anti-apartheid campaigners until 1994; and there is no reason to suppose that the twenty-first century will be free of such confrontations. As a consequence, it has come to seem almost axiomatic that the best way to understand past worlds, as well as present circumstances and our future prospects, is in the workings and outcomes of latent or actual conflicts between antagonistic identities, or of how things go in the great game of “us versus them,” exemplified in the words of President George W. Bush quoted above.
What is perhaps most remarkable is how well the appeal of “us versus them” works over a range of categories, aggregations, and identities that are scarcely comparable. For much of recorded history the two most prominent have been (initially) religious affiliation and (subsequently) national allegiance. It is only in relatively recent times that they have been augmented, and in some measure superseded, by the secular, international trinity of class consciousness, gender awareness, and racial solidarity. And since the events of September 11, 2001, the even larger identity and more capacious category of civilization, earlier invoked by historians from Edward Gibbon to Arnold Toynbee, has made a comeback, embodied in the writings of Samuel P. Huntington, which were subsequently invoked by his neoconservative followers in the United States and by his New Labour admirers in the United Kingdom. But the fact remains that each of these solidarities is constituted around a distinctive axis of interest and awareness: religious cohesion is an expression of faith and belief (or, depending on one’s sympathies, of superstition and irrationality), and can be as much concerned with the next world as with this; national identity relies on a shared narrated memory and sense of geographical belonging, reinforced by a common language and culture and state power; class consciousness is seen as the outcome of the different relations of people to the modes of production, leading to the hostile solidarities of workers and employers; gender and race identities are partly the result of biology, but also of the meanings and antagonisms constructed and projected onto anatomical features shared by some human beings but not by others; while civilization is perhaps the most flexible form of human grouping, which can be defined according to any number of criteria. Yet however disparate and incommensurable, these collective identities have all been defined and reinforced through confrontation, struggle, and conflict—against an alternative religion, an enemy nation, a hostile class, the other gender, a different race, or an alien civilization. The result has been the serial reiteration of the Manichean view that the world is divided into conflicting groups, with a monolithic “good” on one side (those with “us”), and a no less monolithic “evil” on the other (those against “us”). This ultimately apocalyptic perspective has resonated on many terrible occasions throughout history, and it was vigorously and unapologetically reiterated by President George W. Bush in his final address from the Oval Office: “I have spoken to you often,” he told his fellow Americans, “about good and evil, and this has made some people uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise.” The trouble is, whether good and evil exist as such, the absolutes they imply have been ascribed with various degrees of literalism to every manner of perceived difference. And so a battle of cosmic significance might be claimed between Protestant and Catholic, America and Russia, employee and employer, women and men, black and white, or “the West” and Islam, confrontations in which each side seeks to galvanize its supporters by exaggerating their solidarity and virtue, and by imputing to the other side a no less exaggerated solidarity and wickedness. This impulse thus to sunder all the peoples of the world into belligerent collectivities has existed as long as humanity itself, and in our own day the easy recourse to such polarized thinking by many political leaders and public figures, and by pundits and commentators, is further exaggerated by an increasingly strident media. It has also been underscored by some historians who have been more concerned to legitimate the claims and urge the merits of one collective identity over and against any (or all) others than to take a broader view of the human past.
During the last half century or so, the conventional wisdom that “the history of humanity is based upon the immemorial divisions of its peoples” has been reinforced by a growing academic insistence on the importance of recognizing the “difference” between collective groups. According to the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, “difference is what makes the world go round, especially the political world”; many of his colleagues as well as literary scholars and cultural critics would agree, and so do those historians who have focused their attention on the creation, perception, working, meaning, and significance of what they varyingly describe as “difference,” or “otherness,” or “alterity,” or “unlikeness,” or “dissimilarity.” Beyond doubt, such historical approaches have yielded significant work of enduring value, illuminating dimensions of human experience once unexamined; but as William H. McNeill, one of the pioneers of global history, has pointed out, the academic preoccupation with the binary simplicities of difference, and with the antagonisms based on them, results in a version of “the past as we want it to be, safely simplified into a contest between good guys and bad guys, ‘us and them,’ ” which disconcertingly resembles the polarized, apocalyptic perspective of President George W. Bush—or, indeed, of the late Osama bin Laden.
But the fact that humanity is still here, that no one has vanquished “us” or “them” on either side of any of these divides, despite such “ultimate” confrontations and conflicts, suggests that there is a case for taking a broader, more ecumenical, and even more optimistic view of human identities and relations—a view that not only accepts difference and conflict based on clashing sectional identities, but also recognizes affinities and discerns conversations across these allegedly impermeable boundaries of identity, which embody and express a broader sense of humanity that goes beyond our dis-similarities. This alternative perspective is well put by the poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou:
I note the obvious differences
Between each sort and type,
But we are more alike, my friends,
Than we are unalike.
In the same vein, if more prosaically, the historian Timothy Garton Ash has deplored the “Manichean cultural dichotomies” that are peddled by a partisan media, at the expense of the alternative conversation “about what all human beings have in common”; and Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, has lamented the “brutally over- simplified notions of identity” that “sustain entrenched conflicts,” when in reality, cultures constantly “overlap, borrow from each other and live together” in “a conversation with the whole of humanity.” Hence the second epigraph to this introduction, in which President Clinton urges us to see humanity in less paranoid and more imaginative ways than the exaggerated polarities embraced by his successor in the White House.
In his recent book, appropriately entitled The Fear of Barbarians, the Franco-Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov puts this point emphatically: “the facile dichotomies between Light and Darkness, free world and obscurantism, sweet tolerance and blind violence, tell us more about the overweening pride of their authors than the complexity of the contemporary world.” “No merit,” he goes on, in words that might be an explicit riposte to President George W. Bush, “lies in preferring good to evil when we ourselves define the meaning of these two words.” But most of the academic writing that is skeptical of these Manichean ways of seeing the world, and which urges the broader claims of our common humanity, has been produced by scholars whose interests are philosophical rather than historical, and who are concerned with the present and the recent past rather than with more distant epochs. This book, by contrast, seeks to address these issues from a longer-term historical perspective: by examining each of these six collective identities over substantial periods of time; by drawing attention to the excessive and inaccurate claims that have invariably been made for them in terms of their unity, homogeneity, and shared consciousness; and by investigating the conversations and interactions that have gone on across the boundaries of these allegedly impermeable identities, in the sustained and successful pursuit of a more sympathetic vision of a shared humanity. Like Todorov, I argue that the unrelenting insistence on seeing the world in Manichean terms is at best partial and divisive, at worst reductive and misleading: for these very categories of “us” and “them,” whatever their particular articulation, and though proclaimed to be irreducible and absolute, frequently reveal themselves to be unstable and ambiguous; they often prove to be incoherent even in the thick of their confrontations with the implacable foe; and they are held together not so much by shared self-awareness as by the exhortations of leaders, journalists, activists— and by some historians, too.
This book addresses these issues, by investigating each of those six divisive collective identities with which we seem most preoccupied, even while acknowledging and demonstrating that they are in some ways very different sorts of solidarities. For they are sufficiently similar to one another in their polarizing propensities to merit an urgently needed comparative analysis that is evenhandedly skeptical of each and of all their claims to priority and supremacy. Accordingly, the following chapters examine how theologians and priests, politicians and pundits, commentators and historians have each asserted the incomparable importance of one particular form of collective human identity over any other, and how in so doing they have encouraged among those on one side of any divide a sense of the ultimate righteousness of their cause and collectivity. I go on to describe how, on occasion, people have indeed behaved in accordance with these Manichean analyses and prescriptions, in terms of religious fervor, national patriotism, class consciousness, gender awareness, racial solidarity, and civilizational identity. And I note how historians frequently contributed to this identity- obsessed way of seeing the world, most fully in the chapter on class. But I also look at the many conversations that have gone on in denial and defiance of these allegedly impermeable boundaries and antagonistic solidarities, which are too often presented, either mistakenly or mischievously, as if they are the only version of the human condition that has any salience or plausibility. For as individuals, we often recognize the common humanity that we lose sight of when called upon to act in groups.
To tackle such a large, important, and controversial subject over such a long-term and broad range is, nevertheless, to run serious risks. For one thing, the collectivities and confrontations based on religion, nation, class, gender, race, and civilization stir powerful passions on the part of politicians, pundits, and the public—and also of many engaged academics. They want to believe the world is simple in form and easily understood, readily divided between a virtuous “us” and an evil “them,” and in their determined part in helping construct such adversarial identities, they have provided much of the intellectual underpinning for seeing the world in antagonistic, binary ways. Another difficulty is the scale and scope of this enterprise. Of each of these chapters it is reasonable to say that a lifetime’s reading and research is insufficient to acquire even a halfway competent understanding of the subject matter involved; and the same may be said of many of the subsections, too. To this charge, I can but reply that the attempt to open up the subject, if only to encourage (or provoke) others to do it better, is worth incurring the accusation of overreach. A further objection might be that in this search for common humanity amid the ruins of what has mostly been portrayed as its divided past, more of the examples are taken from European history than from any other part of the world. But there are limits to any author’s knowledge and range, and in any case, many (though not all) of the identities explored here did originate and have been most manifest in Europe, or in the nearby Middle East. It has rightly been observed that one of the prime justifications for studying and writing history is to free ourselves from the tyranny of present-day opinion, and these pages seek to contribute to that liberating endeavor by questioning the conventional wisdom of single-identity politics, the alleged uniformity of antagonistic groups, the widespread liking for polarized modes of thought, and the scholarly preoccupations with difference. Most academics are trained to look for divergences and disparities rather than for similarities and affinities, but this relentless urge to draw distinctions often results in important connections and resemblances being overlooked. Despite constant urgings to the contrary, humanity has not been, is not now, and should not be best or solely understood in terms of simple, unified homogeneous collectivities locked in perpetual confrontation and conflict across a great chasm of hatred and an unbridgeable gulf of fear. The real world is not binary—except insofar as it is divided into those who insist that it is and those who know that it is not. For it is in the very range, complexity, and diversity of our multifarious and manifold identities, and in the many connections we make through them and across them, and in the varied conversations we sustain as a result of them, that we each affirm and should all celebrate the common humanity which is the most precious thing we share.