Sunday, December 1, 2013

Why are Parsi elites welcomed, while Jewish and Chinese elites are reviled?

Foreign ethnic elites who have a disproportionate influence in their host society's economy are called market-dominant minorities. The two best examples are the Chinese who settled southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, and the Ashkenazi Jews who lived mostly in the Pale of Settlement in eastern Europe, and more recently in western Europe and its offshoots.

In her book World on Fire, Amy Chua looks at how the presence of market-dominant minorities can easily spark ethnic tensions, as the lower-status natives feel envy and anger toward what they come to perceive as an intrusive race of bloodsuckers. Again the Ashkenazi Jews and the Chinese provide the strongest examples -- no matter where they go, the locals usually come to view them with antipathy. Occasionally that escalates into full-blown ethnic riots, like the pogroms against Jews in eastern Europe and the series of anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia.

Explanations for the psychology underlying the native masses' hatred of ethnic elites tend to portray the envy and resentment as an inevitable consequence of the presence of market-dominant minorities. Yet there is a clear counter-example of a market-dominant minority group that has been welcomed wholeheartedly by most of the host society -- the Parsis of India, who have a disproportionate influence at the higher levels of the Indian economy.

Even though they are only one case, it is such a strong counter-example that it must make us reconsider what truly underlies the psychology of anger toward ethnic elites. The Parsis, like the Jews and the Chinese, are not a native ethnic group of the society where they have strong influence, having come from Persia into India. (While they do share some genetic and cultural heritage, it would still be like a group of Armenians settling and wielding much control over the economy in Ireland.) They also came to their high status gradually through greater intelligence and industriousness, not through force. And they have been living in their host society for hundreds of years -- plenty of time for the seeds of envy and rioting to have been sown.

And yet, there has been no history of pogroms against the Parsis. If anything, they're seen as more of a national treasure, not that Indians worship them or anything. All the ingredients for an explosion of ethnic hatred and rioting would seem to have been present for centuries, so what gives?

The general consensus by native Indians and by European observers, for at least the last several hundred years, is that the Parsis are incredibly charitable, preferring to spread around their wealth. (See some representative quotes in their Wikipedia entry.) They themselves emphasize this aspect of their community in the phrase "Parsi, thy name is charity." Most importantly, they aren't only generous toward one another, but toward the masses of their host society. A 20th-century Parsi captain of industry, J.R.D. Tata, was right out of the progressive mold of Andrew Carnegie and Milton S. Hershey.

So, it looks like the primary way that they've avoided the fate of so many other market-dominant minorities is to not behave like a bunch of greedy gold-hoarders. They don't give away all of their wealth, but they do donate enough to prove their generosity. Moreover, no one sees them as doing so without any real care for others -- i.e., just being charitable to gain approval or to keep the would-be rioters content. All observers seem to agree that it's out of a sense of duty and empathy.

And it's empathy where the Ashkenazi Jews and the Chinese are lacking. I touched on this in a longer post about why they tend not to be very good social scientists. Popular stereotypes everywhere that they've settled depict Jewish and Chinese people as brusque and rude, whereas the opposite stereotype prevails about the Parsis. They would also not fail basic tests of the recognition of facial emotions like the East Asians do. And unlike Jews, the equally high-IQ Parsis haven't produced scores of fruitcake intellectuals and political "thinkers," from Karl Marx to Ayn Rand, whose failures stem from nothing more than their inability to get other people.

In general, looking over this list of famous Parsis, they don't seem to produce many autistic or nerdy people. It looks more like professionals, entrepreneurs, and entertainers. (The Han Chinese have over 10,000 times as many people as the Parsis, and yet they can't produce a single Freddie Mercury.)

What was it about their niche in India that preserved their empathy, unlike other market-dominant minorities like the Chinese and Jews? Beats me, I don't know their history well enough. Something about the types of white-collar jobs they held must not have selected for having a dim and suspicious view of other people, unlike the case of Jewish tax farmers in Europe.

Their story should give us hope that it is possible for an ecological niche to select for higher average IQ, as well as for business skills, while not corroding our social nature. Sadly they do have very low birth rates, but then what brainy group these days does not?


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