The USA is divided in many ways. There are strongly-held dichotomies in all arenas, from politics to sports. People identify with liberals, conservatives, city people, country people, whites, blacks, red sox fans, yankees fans, geeks, jocks, the rich, the poor, kids, adults, skinny people, fat people, fashionistas, involved people, apathetic people, 420-friendly people, 420-unfriendly people, singles, couples, etc. And many of these identity distinctions are somewhat surprisingly dear to those who hold them, often associated with instantaneous judgment of any opposing groups. Liberal city people don’t respectfully disagree with their opposition, they truly think that they are pure idiots! Particular religious people don’t turn the other cheek, they declare war on contraception! And it’s most obvious of all in sports. “Those a**holes on the other team are so evil and horrible that I just can’t stand it!” I actually know people who pack extra cans of gas when they drive through Ohio so as to not “support their economy” for this reason. (Don’t even mention the ref when he makes a call against my team! Complete imbecile!)
Within these groups, confirmation bias runs rampant. People surround themselves with like-minded peers, further pushing productive discourse into a neglected and forgotten corner. “You’re either with us, or you’re against us! And there’s no in-between,” we say.
I was having a typical conversation at work, discussing life after the next apocalyptic event. It occurred to me as we discussed our plans that the first few days after rule of law falls would be the scariest. People rioting through the streets, looking everything in sight, killing on a whim to get a pretzel or something; every man for himself. During this time, I plan to just hunker down with some PB&J and wait out the craziness. But after a few days, somewhat structured neighborhood alliances would form, enabling me to have a bit of trust in those around me. Instead of every man for himself, it’s now us vs. them. And in that situation, I’m feeling much safer. I can cooperate with people again and defend against the neighboring block when they decide to invade again, and so on. Hooray.
Snapping out of this dark fantasy, and thinking instead about our less dire identity complexes, I came up with the following hypothesis.
Humans need safety to survive, by definition. Community groups have historically offered a bit of safety against the roving hoards. As old structures (such as neighborhoods, small towns, and churches) decrease in dominance in the modern US, there is an equal and opposite force diminishing community. Naturally, we have a subconscious urge to regain some community, so we do it the old way, but in lieu of “real” danger, we fabricate enemies through fairly trivial mechanisms (think sports) and in doing so, recreate the good old feeling of being part of “us” where they, those bastards, are part of “them.”
If this is the case, then the natural antidote to cure our fabricated identity wars is to bring community back. Things like Facebook show how much we want it, but they are still pretty empty in terms of how well they satisfy our instinctual quest for safety. Everybody knows there’s something ridiculous about how pigeon-holed we have made ourselves, but we’re all in a kind of daze as to figuring out what to do with our ceaseless and unproductive arguing.
Others have argued similar points, but not quite for this reason. A book review I read in New Scientist of this book explained that this author claims that secular society needs religious institutions to be happy. There may be some truth to that, but trying to promote these ideas coming from an atheist group is just fanning the flames. It’d be nice to get some easy community going that is inclusive to both religious people and secular people. Maybe after cookies-and-punch hour we could all get together on Sunday afternoons and have community members give little talks about things they’re good at, or a news story they’ve been following closely. There could be like 10 rooms, and you can go from one to the other depending on your interests. The mechanics could host a “learn to change your own tire day.” If we could somehow institutionalize these kinds of gatherings, thereby giving people a little community, I think the ridiculous arguing would slow down, and we might feel better about ourselves.