Should we Separate Society?   Leave a comment

Recently, I’ve been enjoying watching the Channel 4 documentary Amish: World’s Squarest Teenagers (Sundays at 8pm).  In case you haven’t seen it yet, this series takes five teenagers who have grown up in Amish* communities in America and sends them to live with different British families, so they can learn about the lives of 21st century teenagers.  The Amish teenagers spend time with different families living in different areas of Britain and go on a ‘journey of discovery’, both physically and emotionally.

The reason I’m writing about this documentary in my blog is not just because I think it’s an interesting programme that I recommend you watch, but because of a thought that popped into my head whilst watching it.  During the first programme (which you can still see on 4oD), the Amish visitors have a look round a run-down London estate by their British hosts and are ‘shown the sights’ – unfortunately, ‘shown the sights’ in this area of London means the British kids point out the places where people they know have been stabbed or where their friend was attacked by complete strangers and died from his injuries.  Now I know the reason this happened was probably because the documentary-makers thought it would help to create more ‘thrilling’ scenes for their audience due to the reaction they knew it would get from the Amish teenagers.  However, one of the Amish children’s reactions that had been filmed included a comment that crime and violence would never happen where they are from.

The truth behind her statement is that Amish communities are able to keep crime and violence at bay much more easily than the rest of society because every person in that community believes in exactly the same things.  You would be hard pressed to even have an argument with someone who agrees with you about the majority of things, let alone to become violent towards them.  This of course gives us a completely different view of the statement than if we read it without knowing the teenager’s background.

Is this Amish practice of remaining separate from the rest of society necessarily a good thing for its followers though?  Amish communities are basically a form of self-segregation which would be viewed as akin to ‘ghettoisation’, ‘apartheid’ or even a step towards ‘ethnic cleansing’ if it had been enforced by others rather than self-imposed.  If every belief group lived separately then there might not be as much violence towards others, but that would be a bad solution to the problem.  It’s tantamount to an ostrich sticking its head in the sand – if we avoid the problem then it goes away; but of course it doesn’t because whatever the issue is, it is just lurking, waiting for the ostrich to think it’s safe again and remove its head from its hiding place.  In fact, I think that if we all lived in ‘shared belief tribes’, it would actually cause much more conflict in the long-run because as the communities grew there would be a need for more space and battles would resume, but this time over the rights to land rather than over beliefs.  This is rather worryingly beginning to sound more and more like a description of the events which took place in Germany in the lead up to the Second World War.

What we need to do is learn how to live together with those who have other beliefs and who originate from different cultures to our own.  Avoiding those who don’t agree with our opinions is actually an immature way of coping: the way to grow as a person (and so also as a society), is by celebrating our differences, not hiding them away.  Hiding ourselves away to practice our religion or way of life is the best culture in which to breed discrimination.

Lastly, a thinking point for those who grow up in Amish communities: can ignorance of the rest of the world ever be bliss?

* Amish = a Christian community who believe that, in order to be fully committed to Christ, they should withdraw from the rest of society (as it is full of temptations) and place the importance of their own community of believers above themselves.  You can find more out quite easily by searching the internet (or look at the Channel 4 mini-site related to the documentary).


Posted 07/08/2010 by thinkmindy in Morality, Religion

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