Imagine this breaking news:
“Aliens Attempt to Steal Earth’s Sun. Humanity Doomed Unless Aliens Defeated.”
As preposterous as this headline may be, it does one important thing. It unites humanity against a common foe. Lately in the news I hear a lot of “us” versus “them.” Whether it’s Republicans versus Democrats, Christians versus Muslims, black versus white, or Kanye versus Taylor Swift, our feeling of otherness feeds latent fears and creates a world in which binary polarities dominate. While this good guy/bad guy trope works well in fiction, it’s terrible in reality. That happens sometimes. It’s like communism, anarchy or sex on the beach. Even though by now we should know better, why do we keep separating ourselves into “us” and “them?”
Fear. There is a lot of change and uncertainty in the world right now. For social progressives that change is positive—gay marriage, for example. But many people from across the political spectrum are change averse. And things like Zika virus, terrorism and global warming are closer to our fictional alien foes, threatening us all equally. Facing the same threats, what makes us respond differently to those fears?
In The Authoritarian Dynamic Karen Stenner proposes that:
… There is a certain subset of people who hold latent authoritarian tendencies. These tendencies can be triggered or “activated” by the perception of physical threats or by destabilizing social change, leading those individuals to desire policies and leaders that we might more colloquially call authoritarian.
Authoritarians are thought to express much deeper fears than the rest of the electorate, to seek the imposition of order where they perceive dangerous change, and to desire a strong leader who will defeat those fears with force. They would thus seek a candidate who promised these things. And the extreme nature of authoritarians’ fears, and of their desire to challenge threats with force, would lead them toward a candidate whose temperament was totally unlike anything we usually see in American politics — and whose policies went far beyond the acceptable norms.
A candidate like Donald Trump.
Plenty of people have expressed better than I can how insane Trump is as the potential GOP candidate, so I won’t go into that here, although I highly recommend John Oliver’s breakdown.
I can understand being terrified that his supporters must be crazy and unreasonable to choose a candidate who outspokenly advocates war crimes, for instance. While a policy debate may not be productive, there are other ways of fostering understanding. In order to breakdown prejudice, fear and bigotry we need to eliminate “otherness.” We need to specifically engage with the people we understand least. What persists in generalities breaks down one on one.
In order to effectively address any of the issues facing our species, we have to understand and empathize. It is only through understanding and empathy that we can address the fears of others. When my son fears the basilisk he’s sure is lurking in his toilet (it’s a Harry Potter thing) I don’t dismiss him as irrational. I rub his back, tell him a story and let him watch as I check the toilet to find it basilisk-free. Fear is irrational by nature, but to respond to people’s fear with name-calling and scape-goating is to feed the beast. And that doesn’t help anyone.
It is not easy to engage. It is not convenient to be patient when there are pressing issues at hand. It is frustrating to have to argue against bigotry and violence when it seems so obvious that both are counter productive and offensive. It’s important to do it anyway.
Take the case of Sears CEO, Eddie Lampert, who in 2008 restructured the company after Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, or everyone for themselves—an oft-cited capitalist manifesto. His thinking was that promoting internal competition would lead to higher profits. By 2013, AOL Jobs named Sears Holding the 6th worst company to work for, share prices fell and the company was heading toward bankruptcy. According to a Salon.com article by Lynn Stuart Parramore:
What Lampert failed to see is that humans actually have a natural inclination to work for the mutual benefit of an organization. They like to cooperate and collaborate, and they often work more productively when they have shared goals. Take all of that away and you create a company that will destroy itself.
Or a country. Let’s not let that happen. As Denise Cummins says in a KPBS Newshour article, to take an anthropological perspective:
Our very survival as a species depended on cooperation, and humans excel at cooperative effort. Rather than keeping knowledge, skills and goods ourselves, early humans exchanged them freely across cultural groups.
When people behave in ways that violate the axioms of rational choice, they are not behaving foolishly. They are giving researchers a glimpse of the prosocial tendencies that made it possible for our species to survive and thrive… then and today.
In today’s climate that means that we need to veer away from cynicism, away from the belief that there is an “us” or “them.” It means that separation is a myth. We are all connected. It’s why Elon Musk released all of Tesla’s patents, favoring the betterment of humanity rather than the company’s bottom line.
People joke about moving to Canada if Trump is elected, but we cannot escape our connectedness. To try is to work against ourselves. We do not operate alone—we are not anarchists. Not in politics or in our personal relationships. Whether or not we wish to, everything we do and say affects those around us. As does what we don’t.
We need to take ownership of that responsibility and act and speak accordingly. And in doing so, we reap significant benefits, according to science. The same way we feel great when we’re able to help neighbors or strangers after a natural disaster, we enjoy being of use to others. It’s a bonding mechanism and a social imperative. We cannot survive without one another. So let’s stop pretending we can. Pay attention. Accept that our actions have consequences and know that, with every action and every word we are creating the world in which we live. What world do you choose to live in?