Understanding ourselves – two island stories


Several hundred miles off the coast of southern Argentina there is a cluster of small islands called the Falkland Islands, with a climate similar to Scotland (unpleasant) and nothing much inspiring in the way of landscape. They were uninhabited when European explorers crossed the oceans in the 17th century, and France, Spain and Great Britain all laid claim to bits of the islands over the years. The descendents of the early settlers and subsequent incomers all identify with the UK, speak English and an overwhelming 99.8% of the population want to remain a territory of Great Britain. An Argentinian dictatorship government tried to seize the islands for Argentina in the 1980s in an attempt to bolster support for their failing regime with nationalistic territorial pride, but failed when faced with the might of the British navy. From a British point of view, the rights of the inhabitants to self-determine their future are fundamental.

But there is also a cluster of islands just off the coast of Argentina called “Las Malvinas”. These islands were stolen from Argentina by the British, and contravening international agreements the British have refused to return them to their rightful owners. Colonial European powers at their worst. To make matters worse, hundreds of brave young Argentinians have died in an attempt to rightfully return these Argentinian islands. So they are never forgotten, there is a national holiday every year in March to remember their deaths and remind all Argentinians that these islands are part of Argentina. Indeed, Argentinian maps all display Las Malvinas as part of their country, schools are named after the islands, Argentinian bank notes display the islands and they are regularly discussed in the media. From an Argentinian point of view, these Argentinian islands evoke a deep sense of national pride and are a strong part of their identity.

I’m sure you can guess that these two clusters of islands are one and the same. If you ask the average British person about them, they know that these British islands and their inhabitants must remain as a British territory. If you ask the average Argentinian person about them, they know that these Argentinian islands must be returned to them.

Our opinions are often entirely at the whim of our culture and upbringing, and most people when faced with contrary facts struggle to shake off deeply felt sentiment about islands. Or about guns. Or about homosexuality. Or about eating animals. Or about gender roles.

The best we can do is honestly look to evaluate what harm is actually being done in any given situation. Britain did keep those islands dishonestly and with a track record of stealing and ruining land around the world, should offer to give them back. And yet the inhabitants of the island should be able to self-determine, so Argentina should offer to relinquish their claim.

Perhaps no-one is ever right, because there are no rights and wrongs, just better and worse scenarios. Acknowledging the depth of our own prejudices and honestly examining them is a good place to start making better decisions, particularly for an animal species like ours that is in a strong position to use our acquired knowledge and self-awareness more intelligently. But apparently we don’t do that (see the islands story above, from an age of easy information access).