Thought Experiment: Desert Island Hypothesis What really matters when selecting a companion?

Oh, how we love to belong. Humans are deeply social creatures—so much so that we can scarcely imagine a life for ourselves that doesn’t involve being part of a commu­nity. And, as former British Museum director Neil MacGregor showed in his recent podcast series Living With The Gods, believing and belonging go hand in hand.

This sense of belonging, of “us-ness”, is some­thing I’ve looked at before in the article “Whatever Happened to the Principle of Charity?”. Our sense of commu­nity member­ship is much more than an objec­tive assess­ment of which qual­i­ties “we” do or don’t possess. Its entire purpose may well be some­thing other than a dispas­sionate clas­si­fi­ca­tion. Beyond distin­guishing us from them, it also includes a value judg­ment. To wit: we are better than they are.

Me Tarzan, You Not Tarzan

Such value judg­ments, in turn, have many (often perni­cious) impli­ca­tions. “They” are not enti­tled to certain rights and resources that “we” claim for our own group. The others, for example, may not be allowed to take up resi­dence here, to marry one of us, to own this prop­erty, to receive these bene­fits, and so forth. In many cases, they’re not even allowed to live. Just look at the history of the world, and the Middle East in partic­ular, to see these dynamics in full effect.

In other words, humans system­at­i­cally favor their own clan over others. But on the basis of which criteria?

This puzzles me to no end. The char­ac­ter­is­tics that entitle us to these commu­nity memberships—of which we, some­times para­dox­i­cally, hold many simultaneously—seem to be mostly arbi­trary. Why are you “Basque”? Simply because you were born on this partic­ular tiny patch of planet Earth. Why are you a “Muslim”? Because you happened to be born to this family. Why are you “gay”? Because that’s the card you drew in the genetic lottery.

And yet, for all such labels, there are people standing by to judge and dismiss you for being not-Castilian, not-Hindu, not-straight, etc. So perva­sive and harmful are these judg­ments and the behav­iors they inspire, that we even put laws in place to forbid discrim­i­na­tion based on age, nation­ality, ethnicity, reli­gion, gender etc.

But are these really the qual­i­ties we should be using to assign commu­nity member­ship at all?

A Thought Experiment

Allow me to take you along on a little thought exper­i­ment. I call it: The Desert Island Hypothesis.

Imagine that you had to live the rest of your life on a desert island, with only one other person to keep you company. Before you’re sent there, the Great Storyteller gives you a choice. There are two candi­dates for who that second person will be, and you get to pick your favorite. Let’s call them Person 1 and Person 2.

  • Person 1 is kind, consid­erate, intel­li­gent, honest, generous, depend­able, eloquent, calm, self­less, open-minded, creative and respectful. You can add other qual­i­ties to the list, but you get the gist.
  • Person 2 is cruel, incon­sid­erate, impru­dent, dishonest, stingy, unre­li­able, inar­tic­u­late, nervous, selfish, narrow-minded, unimag­i­na­tive and impo­lite. Again, feel free to add other similar char­ac­ter­is­tics.

Which candi­date do you choose? Any sensible human being, of course, will select Person 1 to be their desert-island companion. Who wants to be stuck on an island with an asshole?

Now comes the twist. Once you’ve made your choice, the Great Storyteller provides you with a little bit of extra infor­ma­tion: Person 1 is part of a group you consider to be the others, and Person 2 is part of a group you consider to be us.

Then the Storyteller gives you one last chance: do you want to change your mind?

What Do You Do?

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time imag­ining someone who would actu­ally recon­sider their previous choice and switch to Person 2.

Would any Rolling Stones fan choose to be stranded on the island with a Stones-loving jerk rather than a helpful Beatles aficionado? Would any Catholic prefer a god-fearing jackass over a civi­lized atheist? I hope not.

Then why do we so consis­tently ostra­cize and demo­nize people who don’t subscribe to our preferred tribal iden­tity? We are, after all, all stranded on this little desert island called Planet Earth, some­where in an incon­spic­uous corner of an unre­mark­able galaxy in a vast, vast universe.

Join the Club

Perhaps it’s more bene­fi­cial to rede­fine our sense of us-ness to reflect the things that really matter. Kindness, integrity and respect. Benevolence, compas­sion and dignity. To name a few.

These values are much more impor­tant than your sex, the color of your skin, the pass­port you carry, whom you love, the gods you pray to, or if you even pray at all. However different we may be, in the end we’re all human beings, and Humanity is the one club whose member­ship we can never disavow. You know: “Human first, human first.”

All those other groups and iden­ti­ties then become secondary char­ac­ter­is­tics, and a foun­tain of diver­sity. Something not to be judged and dismissed, but appre­ci­ated and cele­brated.

• • •

Image credit: Her Eyes are with Her Thoughts and They are Far Away by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (source)

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