A Common Enemy

A Common Enemy

A silhouette picture of a group of people protesting. All signs and banners have been blacked out.

I’ve mentioned this in an earlier blog but one of the things that I wish had been taught at school was the process of how we make friends. I don’t just mean how you can make friends in a new group (although I think that definitely needs to be part of it), but also how certain groups actually come together and the ways in which groups build up their own identity which is distinct from the identities of the individuals.

Obviously the idea is that we tend to gravitate towards others with whom we share common interests, goals and life experiences, but that doesn’t seem to be all of it.

Groups of people in society (and in the school yard) do form around similar values, but much stronger bonds are also formed through a protection of those values against others and then as a result of the need to prove that those values are worth defending by following them more rigidly.

It’s not enough for me to say that I believe X. To prove that, I need to defend my belief against all others who don’t, and especially against those awful people who believe Y (because we all know how stupid and ignorant those Y people are). My values are important to me, not just because they help me make decisions but because they define who I am as being different and unique from everyone else in society. One of the ways I actually define myself is by dividing society into those who are for me and those who are against me.

This helps me. It gives me easy to understand boundaries for my behaviour and also defines how I should act towards those who are not part of my group.

One of the things that WAS taught to me at school was that if people who hold different viewpoints just sat down calmly and talked out their differences then some agreement will be reached and we can all get along. This is so blatantly wrong I’m surprised that anyone still thinks this.

There is an idea that if we can just put our opinions and views out into the marketplace then we can all have a healthy respectful discussion and agree on something, or at the worst we can ‘agree to disagree’ and just move on (and by ‘moving on’ I mean not talk about it to that person ever again and justify myself to my friends later.)

Nine times out of ten though, talking through my differences with someone else doesn’t make me change my mind. It actually tends to provoke me to stand firmer in my opinions and become defensive about them. The more important those opinions are to my sense of identity then the more defensive I will become and the firmer I will stand. Challenging me will not automatically make me question myself, it will just make me feel attacked and angry.

Even coming at me with facts won’t necessarily convince me, it may just make me angrier and convince me instead that you are ‘cherry picking’ evidence for your own cause and therefore I should do the same. Or else I may just doubt the facts, or the source, or look for extenuating circumstances, or find my own facts, or do my favourite thing of just attacking you and telling you how “you just don’t understand how it is.”

If you have read this far, firstly, thank you, but also there is a chance that your reaction to what I’ve just said is: “That’s not true! People can have civilised decent conversations where they put forward their views. I’ve seen it happen all the time!”

Yes I agree. What I’m interested in is ‘What are the actual long term outcomes of these discussions?’ Do the people talking actually walk away thinking, “Wow, I didn’t realise how wrong I have been all my life, but now my eyes have been opened and I’m going to completely change my mind”?

Are you thinking that now too as you are reading this, for example? Or are you thinking, “I think this opinion is wrong and I will prove it in the comments.”

It’s good to have mutual friends but it’s even better to have mutual opponents. Nothing brings a team together like having a common enemy to fight. It’s one of the most potent ways of establishing a group identity. Life is so much easier if I can see it in terms of black and white, and especially if I can apply those black and white terms to increasingly morally complex and difficult problems.

The other great thing about an enemy is that if a group doesn’t have any then we can just create one. I know how to do that very easily:

  • I know that people who disagree with me are all the same (they dress the same way, talk the same way, all believe exactly the same things), whereas people on my side, we are all individuals who have our own hopes and dreams.
  • I know that people who disagree with me are willfully ignorant of the facts, and if I just tell them the facts then they will have no choice but to believe me. The only reason they don’t believe me is because they don’t understand, so I will keep repeating myself in a louder and louder voice until they do.
  • I know that the people who disagree with me are not necessarily bad people, they have just been deceived by government / big business / corporations / bad schooling / aliens / the economy / the Illuminati / the devil / themselves (pick one or several).
  • I know that the people who disagree with me are all either communists or fascists, depending on which side of the political fence I happen to be standing on at the time that I’m speaking.

The best thing about this is that if I can be convinced that this is actually a time of war, e.g. a war of ideas, or of values, then it also helps me to justify a lot of my militant reactions to issues if I think that those reactions are necessary ‘in a time of war.’ Things that I would never think of doing because I’m a peaceful person may subtly become a lot more possible if I think the values of my society and by extension my own identity may be at stake.

There have been experiments done on this, on the power of group identity and its ability to separate people and circumvent their decision making processes, such as the Stanford Prison Experiment, and Jane Elliot’s ‘Blue eyes-Brown eyes’ classroom exercise. The problem is that it’s easy to see it happening as an outsider and say that I would act differently. It’s much harder to notice how it’s happening to you right now.

That’s something I wish I was taught at school.

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