I’m biased toward critical thinking, I enjoy listening to others use it, and use it myself when I’m not being stupid. Its opposite number, dogma, posits that certainty is preferable to thinking. The former elevates the individual, the latter co-opts the individual. If you value yourself as an individual, it’s harder to devalue others as a group – but if you value yourself BECAUSE you’re in a group, it’s a hell of a lot easier to devalue another group. All of which got me thinking about whether hate is inevitable, or something we (humans) can grow out of.
How a barbecue got me thinking about hate
If you have any illusions about the US being a post-racial society, sit across from a country-ass right-wing racist cracker for a couple of minutes (it helps if you’re also chez whitey – no auto-defense to inhibit the bile flowing). As an artist who lives in a diverse city, the voices I tend to hear lean toward the annoyingly smug but tolerant, so it’s easy to forget that Archie Bunker didn’t die out in the 70’s.
It wasn’t that this guy was such an unalloyed racist that threw me, it was the aggressive way he made sure I knew it. I didn’t know this guy from Adam, and his first three sentences covered keeping his guns (pro), gay marriage (con), Benghazi (traitor) and how he guesses that he should call the “White House the Brown House now, to be politically correct”. I got the hell out of there when it was clear I was the only one at the table who found this guy nuts. They were all neighbors in a small community, so there’s no telling if they just humor this guy in case they need to borrow a mower, or if everybody was simpatico.
The fact that this guy’s opening gambit was a low-level hate/anger meditation got me thinking it was less about the content, and more about him announcing his identity (which he’d evidently found via Fox News and Breitbart). People with strong personal identities don’t tend to open with their group identity – a weak identity can become instantly larger and more important by noting affiliation – so if you know somebody’s politics, religion, nationality, sports franchise or other macro-identity in the first few minutes of meeting be prepared to be bored – there’s no “there” there. So, at bottom, the problem isn’t something specific like racism – it’s human weakness (and the fear it generates) protected by tribalism, even in its most benign forms.
I have no illusions that we’re anywhere near the stage we need to be to leave the “me hate you” world behind, but that doesn’t mean we can’t think about it!
Instinct vs Self-interest
Our instinct for self-protection wasn’t formed in a world with central air and the internet, its rooted in the natural world of danger existing around every corner in almost unlimited forms. Predators, weather, disease, famine – you name it. The need to form strong social bonds far outstripped nutty ideas of personal identity and universal brotherhood, and until VERY recently, you’d be a fool to suggest it. Make no mistake, joining the right fraternity or political party has more to do with hunting lions than it does personal identity.
On the other hand, self-interest is more like self-actualization – something that puts higher value on autonomy and less on alliances. The paradox of self-interest is that you’re more likely to be genuinely interested in others – we are truly the same when we are individuals. Following dogma, the most important thing is to not question the dogma – to have individual thoughts (in other words, your own identity) is the quickest way to get booted from the group – to become the apostate, the other, the enemy.
Creating Positive Associations
We’re social creatures, and that’s a good thing, what’s negative is our sloppy, lazy approach to joining groups. The person who subconsciously wants a shortcut to an identity will choose the group that makes them appear bigger, stronger, more connected, more “with it”. This sets up the classic in-group/out-group dynamic (what good is joining a group if it doesn’t make you better than somebody not in the group?). Throughout my life I’ve watched friends get broken by the stresses of “real life”, and seen them gravitate toward social, religious and political identities which replaced any remnants of the person I came to like. On the one hand, I was happy because it seemed to put an end to a lot of self-doubt and anxiety for them, on the other it’s always a bummer to see someone self-annihilate for acceptance.
My gut instinct is that positive group associations tend to be short-lived but create lasting friendships. This is when strong individuals come together to share a passion, a cause, even something just for fun like softball. It’s less likely to create in-group/out-group thinking because strong, healthy individual identities evolve constantly – allowing them to give to the group, without depending on it for emotional sustenance.
As long as group identity holds sway over individual identity, we’re stuck with tribal affiliations that breed distrust and hatred of “the other”. No matter how seemingly harmless, any group identity trumps individual identity, and choosing a group identity makes you less likely to embrace other individuals. Strong national, local, racial, ethnic, religious identity puts the group above the individual and creates out-groups – there’s no getting around it. Until we’re able to instinctively evaluate each individual on their own terms, and this includes negative evaluations based on poor behavior, we’ll never get out of our own way and into a world without war, famine and hatred.