Last May a plane conducted an aerial survey of the rainforests near Peru. Gleison Miranda snapped a photo that soon flashed across the world as evidence of a “lost tribe” shooting arrows at an unknown god in the sky. Trouble was, the story wasn’t true. Turns out the isolated people in the photo were descendants of the Tano and Aruak tribes, had been in touch with Western civilization for more than 100 years, and were shooting arrows because they thought outsiders were dangerous.
When someone strange arrives, our human instinct is to attack.
This election year has seen a lot of hate flowing in many directions. Conservatives have spread emails claiming Barack Obama is Muslim. (Colin Powell, endorsing Obama, noted he is not Muslim but so what if he is?) Some Obama supporter, fighting back, has posted the web site Isbarackobamamuslim.com, but liberals have not been flawless — a group today attacked a caravan carrying Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin. British Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing predicted in February that someone will assassinate Obama if he is elected. The world is watching America as it once again turns inward to fight itself.
The fear of others, known as xenophobia, seems wired into human minds, perhaps a survival instinct left over from thousands of years of fighting for resources — when a strange tribe actually could kill you. Psychologist Markus Kemmelmeier tested this in a simple experiment. He put stamped letters on windshields of cars parked in Detroit to see how many would be dropped in the mail. Half the letters were addressed to a Christian organization, half to a Muslim group. Almost all the Christian letters were forwarded, but only about 50% of the Muslim notes were. Kemmelmeier then performed a twist; he added little American flag stickers to the letters, and found almost all the letters in both categories got mailed.
And then there was the classic case of Iowa teacher Jane Elliott, who wanted to see how quickly people could learn to hate. She began giving all students with brown eyes special privileges while withholding them from students with blue eyes. Within 24 hours the students split into two opposing camps. The “privileged” students began acting superior and casting nasty remarks at the “inferior” students, who hung their heads in shame.
The children were in third grade. Elliott ran her experiment on April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot.
We like and help people who think like us. We fear and even slip into hatred of those who don’t. Unfortunately the base instincts that helped us survive the dark winters of Ice Ages make for an ugly election year.