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close this bookThe Courier N 140 - July - Aug 1993 - Dossier: National Minorities - Country Reports: Dominica, Mozambique (EC Courier, 1993, 96 p.)
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The basis of prejudice


by Christian Guyonvarc’H

The drama of minorities is the drama of mankind as a whole, in that it poses the problem of accepting differences in a shrinking world. What we mean by minority here is not necessarily a numerically smaller group (although it usually is). It is a community subject to domination and discrimination because of apparent or alleged ethnic, linguistic, cultural or religious particularities.

The factors, and there are four of them, leading to prejudice towards minorities and tension between groups are psychological, historical, economic and political.

Psychological, historical and economic factors

The psychological factor is inherent in the nature of man and the history of mankind. Apparent or alleged 'otherness', wherever it may be, has always been a potential danger for the person who sensed it, be it to his physical integrity (tine 'mixed blood' phobia) or moral wellbeing (the fantasy of degeneration). The danger is perceived as being all the greater when the prejudice has been handed down from one generation to another. In this case, the 'other' becomes a scapegoat, someone who takes the blame and, when times are hard, becomes the enemy. The more obvious the 'other's' differences (as regards colour of skin, religion, customs or language), the worse the discrimination against the minority tends to be.

In periods of economic crisis and social tension, the risk of conflict with and prejudice towards minorities will be worse if there are historical precedents. In many cases, history will be rewritten or twisted in an attempt to show that the minority in question was to blame during periods of decline. The falsifiers take the opposite tack too and exaggerate the history of their group, with abundant reference to the notion of original purity. So history becomes a weapon used to justify discrimination or aggression. The aggressor always believes it is a case of legitimate self-defence, or that he is wreaking vengeance for past aggression, or that he is heading off future aggression. History is of great importance in collective paranoia.

The economic factor, by no means the least important, can come into play in two different circumstances - in a context of economic competition or in a context of expansion. In the case of competition, the group which is the target of discrimination or aggression is accused of wrongfully having certain economic and social privileges, or, more simply of having the same rights as the majority. In the case of expansion, the minority will be the victim if particular raw materials found in the area in which it lives are exploited. This form of aggression is strongly resented by the native populations, whose way of life is closely bound up with their natural environment. Going beyond that, material prejudice in the shape of an attack on the environment is perceived as physical and moral aggression and, significantly, organisations which defend the right of indigenous peoples have linked the right of self determination to the protection of the environment.

A political factor-the nation state aiming for unity

The political factor lies in the internationalisation of an approach to government which was initially confined to Europe and which does not countenance the coexistence of different communities-the nation-state.

The concept came to the fore in Western Europe during the late Middle Ages, at the courts of the French and English kings. The state, which was vested with the power to strike coin, raise armies and mete out justice, came before the nation, which was the community of subjects in the time of absolute monarchy and the community of citizens thereafter. The state commanded the nation. So the nation-state was an ideological construction which brought civil war, the conquest of land and antagonistic empires in its wake. It conformed to no ethical or religious criteria. Territorial conquest and the subjecting of more people to the authority of the central state were justified, in the view of those who held power, by the demands of the economy (controlling raw materials) or its universal mission (evangelising souls or awakening minds).

The United Kingdom and France, together with Spain, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, have lost their empires and Europe's last empire, the Soviet one, has just gone too. But the former colonies inherited the nation-state concept from the empires whose subjects they once were and they have applied it rigorously. And other concepts related to it-territorial integrity, for example, and national sovereignty-have become the principles of government of the new states. The paradox of the post-colonial era in which we now live is, of course, that the former colonies have reproduced exactly the mode of government from which they fought to free themselves.

Although the nation-state was designed independently of all ethnic or religious considerations, it was, as we have seen, soon confronted with the problems of administering a population which might well be heterogeneous from the point of view of language, religion or custom. Rare cases apart, the answer has always been the same-to glorify the 'one-ness' of the nation, because nationstate means united state. One state, one sovereignty, one nation, one motherland, one people, one language, one culture, one history and so on. The nation-state has no room for iotherness'in its external manifestations or its public life. So the refusal to accept the 'other', anyone who does not conform to the standard national which the state requires, can be expressed in two ways-by physical or mental exclusion. Physical exclusion may involve population movement, expulsion or elimination-the crime of genocide, the typical solution of totalitarian states. Mental exclusion may involve a policy of assimilation which breaks down the solidarity and coherence of the minority group by removing or restricting the possibilities of collective expression at school, in the media, in the civil service, in the courts and so on. The policy of assimilation is typical of liberal nationstates which only recognise the rights of the individual-an insidious way of imposing the culture and way of life of the majority on the minority.

From nation-state to tribe-state

Now that it is clear that people have the right to self-determination, more and more peoples and minority groups are putting up peaceful or violent opposition to the unitary approach of the nationstates to which they are subjected. But a process similar to the one which occurred in the former colonies of the European empires seems to be emerging and some national minorities are adopting a unitary argument to justify the creation of ethnically homogeneous states-what might be called tribe-states, because it is no longer the state which determines the nation but the tribe which justifies the state. The tribe-state, a transformation of the nation-state, is based on homogeneity to the exclusion of all else and the farfrom-reality theory of independence and sovereignty.

The policies of ethnic purification are related to this strategy of introspection and rejection of the 'other', which is all the more irrational in that it does not take the future into account. The aggressor forgets that today's enemy is tomorrow's neighbour and that ways of cohabitation have to be sought.

If different communities are to co-exist peacefully, then frontiers must be less important, the nation must be demystified and the state must be made more relative. This drive for a better world can only be made through federal-style types of organization in which differences are accepted and developed, not exacerbated, and are no longer thought of as a handicap, but experienced as an asset.
C.G.