Ethnic streaming

You get married. You are excited about living together with another person. You know that sharing your life, your bathroom and your thoughts with somebody else is not easy, but you are sure you can do it.

After some time, stress mounts up. Things are harder than expected. Disagreement leads to tension, tension to dispute, and dispute to resentment. You feel lonely and isolated because you stop sharing your intimate thoughts. You regret the situation and commit yourself to change. You will change yourself so the relationship works.

But you don’t. You cannot change that much. You don’t want to change that much. Could you ask the other person to change? Not really. You start acknowldeging that some degree of incompatibility may exist.

Eventually you (and perhaps also your partner) admit that you are not as compatible as you had previously thought. You analyse the situation coldly and decide to unite forces for the sake of your relationship. Because you believe that having a relationship and sharing your lives is good, you start making an effort to fix the problem. You and your partner talk, discuss, think and momentarily forget your differences for the common good.

But it doesn’t work. Again, you feel the differences creep in and overcome your good-hearted wishes. You are worn down, tired and disappointed. You start being pessimistic about a resolution and become cynical.

Some time may pass. Eventually, you and your partner decide that the old dream of sharing your lives is not a good idea anymore. Both of you realise that you will be better off living separate lives. This is an inflection point at which the price that you pay everyday to continue a dysfunctional relationship becomes larger that the price that you need to pay in order to terminate the relationship and disengage yourselves from any common goals.

So you take the step. As soon as you say “my partner and I have finished our relationship” publicly and also to yourself, problems start to disappear. Tension, disagreement and resentment heal up.


This is a generic story that certainly applies to many. Most people in the “western” culture have learned (sometimes through painful experiences) that admitting that incompatibilities may exist is good, and that terminating a relationship when it is clear that it does not work is also something good. Most of us agree that there is no reason why we should stay together forever if we don’t like each other and spend our time fighting and arguing.

So, why don’t we apply this strategy to the relationships that occur between social groups? Whites and blacks and jews and catholics and buddhists and muslims and gypsies and communists and capitalists have been trying to live together for ages. Sometimes we succeed; sometimes we don’t. And sometimes we fail with huge costs. Still, we keep talking and discussing and thinking and making efforts trying to change, or to change the other; trying to smoothen out the differences; trying to build “tolerance”. And we keep failing to live together. The fact that ghettos and enclosed groups do exist shows that, in some way, we are failing to live together, and that disengagement is happening anyway. Why don’t we recognise that, in some cases, the time for divorce has come?

In his novels, Peter F. Hamilton describes something calling “ethnic streaming”, through which colonies are populated by more or less homogeneous communities with a common social and political background. In his novels, these colonies are far more successful than heterogeneous colonies populated by a cosmopolitan mix of people. In Hamilton’s world, we have realised that forcing people from different groups to live together is not always a good idea. Of course, this clashes frontally with our current obsession with politically correctness, which seems to assume not only that living together is possible and good, but that it must be achieved at whatever cost. Are we sure? Can we step back for a moment and consider divorce?


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