Two years into the pandemic, it’s become glaringly obvious that while we might be in this together, humans have the rotten tendency of falling into “us” versus “them” camps. Forget about clashing over race, religion, and politics, it’s all about the vaccine now. Only in the future, it’ll be something else because humans are wired for prejudice. Until we recognise our collective blind spot, we’ll keep choosing sides and sticking up for our clan while sticking it to others.
We all know it: humans evolved by hanging out in groups because it helped us survive. It was evolutionary common sense that kept us safe, fed and looked after. The thing is, whatever group we belong to becomes our primary reference point and we identify with it, making other groups—with their different ideas and behaviour—look odd. Consciously or not, we question their legitimacy and when we find the opportunity, challenge it.
Psychological theory suggests that competing with other groups can be positive, like when it spurs innovation, cohesion and collaboration—you know, teamwork. Or it can be negative, such as when resources are limited, which is when it gets ugly. Too many examples come to mind, think immigration (they’re after our jobs!), gang scuffles (they’re after our turf), kids playing on the school playground (they’re after the monkey bars!) or more recently, Covid (they’re after the damn toilet paper!)
Even more significant, did you know that just categorising people into separate groups is enough to make things hostile? It doesn’t matter what the group is or how meaningless the distinctions between them are, whenever duality enters the picture, it leads to bad juju. Again, there are too many real-life examples: gay/straight; man/woman; Hutu/Tutsi, Muslim/Hindu, etc. Division leads to animosity because humans have an innate sense of fairness. We all want to matter and belong but are hard pressed to convince other groups, which are walled off by their own convictions, that we do. Think of all the destructive, blood-stained rivalries that mark history. The two sides clash and fight, the battle is eventually won, but the war itself is never over.
One of the biggest problems with groups is loyalty. People will conform to group norms no matter how irrational, violent and ridiculous they are, demonising, devaluing and attacking those outside their circle. Rather than approaching life differences with curiosity, as a potential source of intrigue or learning, we quickly deem outsiders as invalid, stupid, incompetent and threatening—because, come on, they just don't get it. They’re not like us, right?
This is distorted, tribal thinking and it’s dangerous. This is what we see on social media when people shame others or reject and dehumanise them simply because they disagree with “us.” This sows further division because there is no room for nuance, healthy debate or complexity, which pretty much summarises life, an incredibly intricate unfolding of infinite layers.
The irony is that in today’s multicultural multiracial world, people fit into increasingly more groups, groups that often overlap and intersect. It’s actually getting harder to find a them. This offers a potential bridge to focus on commonalities, of what groups share. It sounds like a saccharine cliche but it’s teamwork that helped us survive and it’s teamwork that will help us thrive in the future. We can keep wasting time arguing over our differences (have you ever tried to feed a group of 20 people with different dietary requirements?) or give up, knowing no one group has the monopoly on the truth, and instead break bread together.
A better, sane perspective is to go beyond all groups—millions exist at any given time—and instead see everyone, no matter what group they belong to, as worthy of respect. When it comes to the virus (our latest mirror), we all share frustration, fatigue, and growing restlessness wrestling with yet another year of uncertainty. Whatever group you happen to fall in, you’re probably asking yourself when this will be over. No one can say, no one is certain, and no one has the complete story.
If we are really in this together, we have to keep seeking commonalities, and calling out toxic, destructive politicians who legitimise division. Division is a losing game. Unity isn’t. We have to keep remembering our humanity, how we are all susceptible to the massive, unprecedented collective change affecting us now. We need to remember how we are all together for this small moment on planet earth before our mortal coil unwinds.
If you asked astronauts looking down on our gorgeous blue planet to point out a them, they couldn’t… there’s just us, the global human family.