Sunday, April 1, 2012

A few thoughts on ethnicity and identity

My recent post on Jewish immigration to England implicitly raised some issues which I thought I would try to make more explicit here. In that piece, I noted that large numbers of individuals and families with a Jewish background made their way to England in recent centuries and assimilated to the Christian mainstream, often adopting English names. Many descendants of these immigrants remain ignorant of their Jewish ancestors.

Of course, this could all be seen as rather trivial and unimportant, and such questions of family history - though often of interest to the families or individuals concerned - are of no particular significance. What is significant, however, is how we think about ethnicity or 'race'.

The word 'Jewish' can be used to refer to genetic factors or to the religion or to culture, and often to a combination of these elements. But I think the genetic or 'racial' aspect is problematic insofar as our racial categories are unlikely to correspond in any precise way with the pattern of actual genetic differences between different people and groups. For example, would Sephardi Jews whose ancestors lived in Spain be closer genetically to particular Spanish populations or to Jews from other parts of the world?

One possible result of the increasing use of DNA analysis is that, as complex patterns emerge, some of the ethnic categories which our languages just happen to have words for will be revealed as simplistic and in some cases perhaps completely unfounded.

This is a sensitive issue, in part because so many people base their sense of identity to a greater or lesser extent on their ethnic background. And, of course, this identification is often accompanied by an acceptance of cultural myths and stereotypes.

Of course, the word 'ethnic' is ambiguous. Like the word 'Jewish', it can refer solely to so-called racial factors. Or it may refer to cultural factors. Mostly it refers to both at once. The trouble is, this mixing of racial and ideological thought is the source of many of the world's most toxic and intractable problems.

My view is that it is good to be aware of where we came from, of who our forebears were. All of what we are - genetically speaking - we inherited from them. It may be interesting to know what they thought and believed, but those beliefs need in no way affect ours. On cultural matters we are free to make up our own minds.

Just because your parents and their parents and so on believed certain things and engaged in certain rituals associated with those beliefs - whether we are talking about Islam or forms of Christianity or Judaism or any other form of religion - there is no reason for you to feel any obligation to conform to this pattern.

Sure, one often feels solidarity with one's kin and respect for one's ancestors but this should never involve any intellectual or religious constraints.

Secular customs are another matter entirely. They do not in any way restrict one's freedom to think for oneself.

Group identity is inevitable to some extent, and many forms of group identity are based on kinship. But it is well to remember that there are no clear dividing lines in this matter, just degrees and complex patterns of relatedness which are unlikely to correspond in any simple way with conventional ethnic categories and stereotypes.


  1. There is a sense in which culture is arbitrary or accidental. Certain turns of phrase or color choices or the shape of an Old School tie--these help define tribes or teams, but they have no inherent significance. Sometimes, though, culture appears to access deeper meaning. Certain moral insights about human nature are common to many cultures. The packaging is different, but the substance is the same. These cultural traditions we discard at our peril, because they represent the long experience of the species.

    1. The trouble is, it is not always easy to distinguish the substance from the packaging - or to separate them.

      I agree that many cultural and religious traditions incorporate profound insights into human nature and human psychology. But mixed in with this are myths and doctrines which are quite dispensable - or worse.

      In my view, you can't take out the bad bits and the false bits without in effect rendering the tradition in question impotent. Religious and cultural traditions only really work when their myths etc are intact.

    2. Agreed. Hence the conservative impulse not to disturb traditions.

    3. I don't know about impulses (mine are all over the place) but there are definitely good reasons not to seek to upset traditional beliefs and practices which are not clearly harmful.

      One is good manners, minding one's own business. Another is that (religious) traditions serve certain social and personal needs and it does not seem right to go out of one's way to deprive people of something when one may not have anything to offer in its place.

      A third and fourth reason is that any attempt one might make to demonstrate the incorrectness of doctrines etc will most likely (a) make one unpopular and (b) totally fail to convince believers anyway.

      Which is not to deny that there are circumstances where challenging beliefs is justified; it's a matter of judgment, I'm sure you'll agree. And when beliefs are linked to ethnic factors they do tend to become more dangerous...