While I was in Japan this winter, I was invited to a party at my parent’s neighbour’s house. The host was a British professor called Bruce White. He spoke fluent Japanese and we chatted about his work as a cultural anthropologist specialising in identity. The conversation quickly turned to his NGO called the Organization for Identity and Cultural Development (OICD) that he runs and as he described the systems him and his team were building, goose bumps formed all over my body and a shiver ran down my spine. It was the first time I could imagine world peace as a tangible concept. True hope with substance to back it up. Since hope is a rapidly diminishing resource worth cultivating, I’ve decided to edit and compile some of his articles he’s written to present the case to you. If you’d like to read the original full versions, click on the link.
In the article ‘Weaponized Identities: Mankind’s Ultimate Tool of Destruction?‘, Bruce lists many weapons we humans have used over the millennia from stone and rock to the atomic bomb. But he proposes that ‘Mankind’s ultimate weapon maybe that shaped from a most unexpected material in the catalogue of human weaponry–the human imagination.’
‘.. what if I told you that there was a technology you could use to turn tens or hundreds or even millions of people into violent killers? Surely a technology that allowed you to gather and motivate an entire army of intelligent individuals to destroy whatever or whomever they are told to target would represent a weapon far more powerful than any individual weapon technology?’
How Is This Done?
By telling a convincing story about who they were, where they’d come from and who threatens their entire way of life, the people can be manipulated to a point where they will ‘act to destroy that target, even if people in this target group had, up until that point, been neighbors, relatives, friends and partners of those people’.
‘In “When Identity Becomes a Knife”, Helen Hintjens reflects on the 1994 Rwandan genocide. She shows how cultural divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups were carefully manufactured and myths of their respective origins reinvented. The effect on the imaginations of those affected was to block the “human capacity to extend and limit compassion”. These techniques legitimized the terrible collective violence that killed 800,000 people in 100 days, turning “identity into a knife that severs social relations and disembowels entire countries”.
He continues to list examples of identity weaponization of Albanian and Serbian identities in Kosovo, Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka, German-Aryan vs. Jewish as well as with terrorist recruiters providing their targets with new meaning by limiting what religious/ethnic/racial group they should belong to, and which cultural versions of themselves they need to eliminate.
In another article, he references UN program that categorises 141 different conflict causes and found identity and culture dynamics in 86 of the 141 causes of conflict which puts the identity-based conflict at 60% of all human conflict. He continues, ‘it is important to realize that even for conflicts that may not begin with identity-based dynamics, a large proportion will come to involve identity factors at some stage in their development. And thus identity will need to be addressed as part of the conflict transformation work in many of the remaining 40% of cases.’
‘Whatever the context in which it is employed, identity weaponization is carefully targeted to manipulate people’s sense of who they are, where they come from, where they belong and who is their enemy. Through the manipulation of their cultural imagination, identity weaponization convinces people that they are divided from one another, severing their ability to feel affinity with manufactured enemies, and potentially turning these targets of manipulation into weapons capable of orchestrating terrible acts of violence.’
In the article, Bruce quotes Nobel Prize Laurate Amartya Sen and states that ‘the richness of identity comes from the fact that “…the same person can be, without any contradiction, a Norwegian citizen, of Asian origin, with Bangladeshi ancestry, a Muslim, a socialist, a woman, a vegetarian, a jazz musician, a doctor, a poet, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights”. This plurality means that identities can and should be entities that empower and liberate us to fulfil our potential and stimulate us to grow.’
However, when this ‘state of plurality, of multiplicity and choice’ is diminished and restricted, we are only able to see ourselves in singular ways such as members of only one ethnic group or a political group. This narrowing of identity maybe a tell tell sign that our identities as individuals and as a community are being weaponized.
Blind faith can justify anything. If a man believes in a different god, or even if he uses a different ritual for worshipping the same god, blind faith can decree that he should die – on the cross, at the stake, skewered on a Crusader’s sword, shot in a Beirut street, or blown up in a bar in Belfast. Memes for blind faith have their own ruthless ways of propagating themselves. This is true of patriotic and political as well as religious blind faith.Richard Dawkins -The Selfish Gene
Can We Counter or Prevent Identity Weaponization?
Bruce continues to layout the obstacles to countering this phenomena, namely the challenges of bringing together wide variety of academic disciplines that are involved in understanding the social, cognitive and neurological processes of weaponisation, many of which may not currently interact or share the theory, method or jargon. This challenge of multi-disciplinary collaboration and application of science is echoed by several academics I know and it is a critical barrier to extracting true value out of new scientific discoveries. Can we afford it when China is set to rise as the next dominant power?
He also states that ‘part of the problem seems to be that there are few research methods able to reveal a detailed picture of how cultural manipulation (that de-pluralizing of identity options) is taking place, as well as a lack of a systematic platform upon which to strategize and counter the effects of these manipulations.’ And this is where his NGO comes into play.
‘While the technology that allows the imaginations of our fellow humans to be manipulated is doubtless many millennia old, the platforms and propaganda techniques that people can access today potentially makes identity weaponization more likely and more easily practiced. The answer to whether we can prevent or counter identity weaponization may depend upon whether we are able to develop and deploy effective and timely tools to engage and counter the efforts of those intent on arming the human imagination.’
As Bruce spoke about these ideas, he continued to explain how these complex cultural narratives can be mapped and quantified. For example if a person is in an argument with a French citizen, of African ancestry, a Catholic, a conservative, a women, a vegetarian, a hiker etc, we can begin to construct a map of least resistance between the two parties to lower the tension. By finding similarities that we can relate to rather than differences that divide us.
The next step, he told me, was to incorporate the use of AI in processing vast quantities of data. Imagine the possibilities when this system could be used effectively between US and China, India and Pakistan and other geopolitical time bombs. The implications of this algorithm in a world of diminishing resources, heightened geopolitical tension and mass refugee migration is immense. Applied multi-disciplinary science is badass and represents a strong case to keep our hope alight.
As Bruce continues to work at a macro level, I’d like to discuss what this means for us and how we could apply it on a more local community level in my next post.