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