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“Me against my brothers. Me and my brothers against my cousins. Me and my brother and my cousins against our tribe; our tribe against all other tribes, all our tribes against the world.”
— Sherri Tepper, The Companions
It’s a familiar sentiment. I’m sure each and every one of you considers yourself to be a part of several different groups. We define ourselves by our families, our nationalities, our political and religious beliefs. Furthermore, we self-segregate along these lines. We’re more comfortable in the company of those who share similar histories, opinions, and beliefs. We like being around people like ourselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Unfortunately, our tendency to group together usually goes way beyond recognizing and appreciating similarities. The problem arises when people start to elevate their own groups and devalue others. Rather than saying “I belong to this group and you belong to that group and that’s fine”, people say “I belong to this group and you don’t, and therefore you are less than me”. It’s a natural instinct, this type of thinking, but it’s completely irrational and, worse, it’s dangerous.
Humans have an innate desire to rationalize our behavior. It probably developed in relation to language. Somewhere along the lines, we started caring why we do things. We progressed from “I did this” to “I did this because.” The problem is that all too frequently, we do it backwards. We attempt to rationalize our motivations rather than attempt to base our motivations on rationality. In fact, it often seems that this backwards way of going about life is our default state.
Most of the thought process is subconscious: “They are unfamiliar, so they must not be of my group. If they are not of my group, then they are a threat to my group. If they are a threat to my group, they must be stopped.” We’re left to rationalize this feeling of fear and anger toward the other group. We come up with reasons that sound acceptable to us — they want to steal our jobs, destroy the moral fabric of society, kill everyone in our group. Every group has its own specific set of perceived threats that it feels vulnerable to, and unfortunately, very little thought is given to the veracity of these threats.
There are leaders that know about these tendencies and deliberately use them against you. This kind of thinking — this instinctual need to defend your territory against encroaching groups — is a weakness and a distraction. I’m not denying that there are actual dangers out there; threats to the freedom and well-being of yourself and others. There are, however, a great many things that pose no actual danger to the groups concerned about them. The majority of ways in which groups are different from one another are completely irrelevant in terms of anything other than categorization.
Politicians and religious leaders are well-versed in polarizing topics. They know how to create enemies that will unite their constituency, and they know what language to use to make these irrelevant differences seem like dangers. They know how to misdirect your attention away from real threats that they don’t know how to defend against. While you’re concerned about whether or not your neighbor speaks the same language as you, there are people spewing brainwashing hate speech in your own native tongue. While you’re wondering which immigrant is stealing your job, there are CEOs receiving huge bonuses for taking away people’s pensions. While you’re worrying about which consenting adults are allowed to start families together, there are children being kidnapped and forced into slavery and prostitution. While you’re pondering who’s going to hell because they follow the wrong interpretation of a collection of fairy tales passed down from the Bronze Age, there are people whose actual lives aren’t so different from that hell you’re imagining.
These groups we assign ourselves to are entirely arbitrary. We’re like Dr Seuss’s star-bellied Sneetches, assigning significance to superficial details. Some methods of categorization are guiltier of this than others, of course. Defining oneself by one’s political or religious beliefs, for example, at least says something about a person’s opinions, but categorizations like race and sexuality only speak to a specific, relatively inconsequential aspect of a person.
We’re only human. We can’t worry about everyone, and we certainly can’t get along with everyone. Categorizing ourselves may well be the only way we can deal with one another. Using these categories as an excuse to antagonize one another, however, is unacceptable. All too often we allow our group identification, however arbitrary it might be, to dictate our motivations and rationalize after the fact. Yes, it’s easier, but laziness is a terrible reason to hate people. Asking people not to hate at all is a tall order, I know, but at the very least set your baser instincts aside and think about whether or not there’s any factual basis for your feelings. Our brains are what elevate us from being instinct-driven pack animals; let’s use them.
Johanna is a member of CVA. The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of Connecticut Valley Atheists or its individual members.