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Unplug from group identities

January 31st,2024 | Valley Voices

By Paul Hetzler

The adage “pride comes before a fall” warns us that if we get too full of ourselves, eventually, we’ll plunge back to Earth. And yet, a measure of pride in one’s work is appropriate; it inspires us to do our best. The danger lies in feeling proud of aspects of ourselves that we don’t control. 

My pink skin, which for some incomprehensible reason is called “white,” is from my “white” parents. It confers privilege on me, although I didn’t choose it. I was born male, which gives me a further unfair advantage. Again, I had no choice. Gender and so-called “race” are accidents of birth. I didn’t rescue drowning children to earn blue eyes or cure cancer to warrant light skin. 

It’s the same with birth nationality. Mom and Dad were U.S. citizens; thus, I magically turned American when I was born. Nation of origin is random. We can be grateful for nationality, but being proud of it is irrational. My devoutly Catholic parents raised me in their faith. The religion one starts with is arbitrary as well. 

Humanists and religious folk agree that a Canadian infant has the same intrinsic worth as a newborn in Somalia, Iran, or Indonesia. Had we been born elsewhere, we’d have assimilated the cultural and religious norms of our birthplace.

It’s natural for kids to identify with their family, religion, culture and nation. These institutions are where they learn loyalty, sacrifice and generosity. That’s the plus side of identity. 

My wife Marie-Line and I have been reflecting on the role identity and conditioning play in all forms of violence. We’ve observed how blindly following the rules of any group without interrogating shared norms has devastating results. Genocides in Rwanda, Serbia, Nazi Germany, and Gaza are the outcomes of group identity run amok. 

We think dismantling the lies we’ve been taught is key to letting peace begin at home. One can glean the good from our respective group identities and unlearn the intolerance and judgements that are integral to collective identities.

Like most middle-class “white” kids, I proudly waved the U.S. flag at our town’s Independence Day parade, taking for granted my country was best. Then, in my teens, I learned the U.S. sponsored the horrific 1960-96 Guatemalan genocide and brutally crushed pro-democracy groups in other nations solely for economic gain. It was time to outgrow nationalism. 

To think one’s religion, nation, “race,” or kinship clique is inherently superior is dangerous. It’s to say that people of divergent skin colours, religions, nations or customs are cosmic errors. A self-styled “chosen people” at once praises God (or invokes history or destiny) for their own group identity while rebuking God for making (or repudiating the identity of) cultures and creeds that are different. 

A group that’s too proud of their collective identity is at risk of using status as a “favoured” people to justify abuse of “inferior” peoples. We’re more than our conditioning. Unplugging from group identities can help us see how big our family really is.

Val-des-Monts resident Paul Hetzler is a former Cornell Extension educator.

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