“I just don’t understand it. How could most Britons vote to leave [the EU]? The world needs more unity, not less, doesn’t it?” So lamented a Briton to my family and I the day after the UK’s referendum last June, as we traveled in southern England and Wales.
My gut reaction was to agree with her. Unity certainly seems a good thing to my center-left, empirically minded outlook on life. But unity in terms of what? And among whom? Isn’t it quite likely that those who fall at different places along the social, religious or political spectrums than myself or this Briton also desire some type of unity?
Our new and somewhat disheartened British friend was, I believe, thinking of unity at multiple levels of human interaction. She was specifically referring to the unity of the European Union and what she perceived as the resulting benefits, from a reduction in armed conflict among European nations since it was formed to the increased economic power of the collective whole. But I also believe she was considering unity relative to our species as a whole. In order to unite and work together for the common good, there must be some level of acceptance of our differences.
A lot of the rhetoric among supporters of Brexit leading up to the referendum’s vote specifically promoted a lack of tolerance or acceptance of non-Britons, Britons of non-Anglo descent or Britons of a different socio-economic class (i.e., elites vs. non-elites). As reported by the Huffington Post, “Britain first” has been a popular slogan among English nationalists who supported Brexit. But it’s also the name of an active anti-EU, anti-Islam political organization.
Nigel Farage, who headed up the UK Independence Party (UKIP) prior to the Brexit vote (and currently serving as interim leader as of October 5th), while discussing Muslim immigrants in 2015 stated, “People do see a fifth column living within our country, who hate us and want to kill us. However, even main stream British politicians who opposed Brexit have contributed to the rhetoric. David Cameron, the former British Prime Minister, has previously referred to “… a ‘swarm’ of migrants trying to gain access to Britain,” effectively dehumanizing migrants and refugees by equating them to swarming insects.
Such rhetoric and framing plays on people’s fears – fears and insecurities relative to terrorism, jobs, a lack of control over their own destiny, etc. – and is effective at redefining unity relative to those who seem most similar to you. The result has been less acceptance or tolerance of non-Britons, fellow Britons who don’t look and talk like Britons of Anglo descent, or the “elites” of the EU.
In the U.S., Donald Trump’s campaign has embraced these tactics of dehumanizing the “other” and playing on people’s fears and insecurities. He has focused on generating unity among a smaller, radical right faction of the U.S. public, as well as a larger group of primarily white, older, blue collar, non-urban males who increasingly find themselves out of touch with a changing U.S. demographic and economic landscape. One could probably argue that the Trump/Pence campaign has at least tried to pivot from this tactic during the general election cycle, but the efforts certainly haven’t been consistent.
A previous analysis by the New York Times of Trump’s public utterances at rallies, speeches, interviews and news conferences over the course of a week at the end of 2015 found several interesting patterns. Among them was a common practice of using divisive phrases and harsh language as he pits “you” and “we” against dangerous “others,” often composed of Mexicans, illegal immigrants, Syrian refugees, or anyone who publically disagrees with him. On Face the Nation in 2015, Trump stated “What I won't do is take in two hundred thousand Syrians who could be ISIS,” despite significant evidence demonstrating the risk from refugees as practically nonexistent.
And Trump’s long history of objectifying and dehumanizing women (sometimes glorifying sexual assault in the process), part of the various threads of a male dominated worldview still woven into contemporary U.S society with arguably more extremes on the right, has continued into the general election cycle. Trump’s demeaning declaration that Secretary Clinton doesn’t have the look or stamina of a president during the first presidential debate plays to the stereotypes of women held by the same males discussed above (and some females) out of touch with a changing world.
That’s not to say the Clinton campaign hasn’t done its own share of belittling the opposition, or even dehumanizing to a degree (such as Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” quote). One could probably say that all political campaigns in an effort to rally and unify the troops will at times to varying degrees vilify, demonize and dehumanize the opposition. But it seems to be a primary method of Trump himself.
In Kansas, the governor and ultraconservative members of the state legislature have embraced these tactics as well. Governor Sam Brownback played on people’s fears when justifying the actions he took to prevent Syrian refugees from resettling in the state. After the Paris attacks in the fall of 2015 the governor tweeted the following (again, with no evidence to justify his fear mongering):
- “I will take every available option to protect Kansans from having terrorists moved to the heartland.”
- “We must take immediate action to ensure terrorists don't enter Kansas under the guise of refugee resettlement.”
Perhaps even more divisive was the anti-transgender legislation formulated by some of the state’s ultraconservative legislators, targeting a small group of kids in order to help generate unity among those of their constituents who erroneously believe that gender identity must always correspond to biological sex at birth.
And on the last day (June 1) of the legislature’s 2016 regular session, the ultraconservatives forced through a non-binding resolution condemning the white house’s directive that public schools allow transgender students to use the restroom that matches their gender identity. During the debate, Republican Senator Steve Fitzgerald outrageously equated being transgender with being mentally ill.
"I'm not surprised that those who are confused about their sex have a high rate of suicide," Fitzgerald said. "Suicide does have a high rate with those who are afflicted with some form of insanity."
So back to my original question of unity among whom and with respect to what, how do we create a greater potential for people to accept “differences” and draw a wider, more inclusive boundary of unity, acceptance and cooperation relative to a common goal or goals? How do we increase the “social glue” among people of different racial, ethnic, socio-economic, religious or educational backgrounds, effectively increasing the ingroup while decreasing the number of outgroups? Or as I’ve previously discussed from an evolutionary perspective, how do we effectively shift the level of selection from these smaller, factionalized groups to the larger group of all of us, whether the all is at the level of Kansas, the US, the UK, the EU or the entire planet?
Throughout human history, groups of varying levels of homogeneity have united in the face of a common foe, whether the “competition” is of a military, economic or even sports nature. Natural disasters, particularly if immediate and widely devastating, can also act as a significant “external” threat to unite people in a common goal to prevail.
In the situations described above the social glue and its strength are essentially derived from the shared experience of an external force that is perceived to threaten everyone. The strength of the social glue and how long it’s able to unite everyone together in common cause depends on many factors (including the degree of homogeneity of the overall population to begin with), but in these cases is correlated with the perceived seriousness of the external threat and its duration.
A key element of creating, strengthening and sustaining this social glue long term is creating day-to-day shared experiences among the populations in question. The more people limit their interactions to others who are similar in terms of physical traits, politics, religion, socio-economic status, etc., the harder it is to relate to, empathize with and accept others who differ along these lines. And the easier it is to marginalize, demonize and/or dehumanize them with rhetoric.
If you’ve never connected with someone who is transgender and gotten to know them as a person, it’s easier to fall sway to certain conservative, divisive religious world views and equate being transgender with being mentally ill. If you surround yourself only with people and information sources that support a very narrow ideological view of the world, it’s easier as governor to ignore mountains of evidence that refute your supply side march to zero income tax policy. And if you’ve never gotten to know a refugee, someone who once was a refugee or just bothered to look at the statistics, it’s easier to see them as a potential terrorist threat or a threat to your economic security.
Social glue is also impacted by economic prosperity and security, both in terms of the overall degree of each and their equitable distribution among a population. The less of each and/or the more inequitable they’re distributed among the populations in question, the greater the potential for competition, fear and discord among subgroups.
Therefore, it would seem that policies which promote economic stability and security among the population(s) in question (not an easy question in and of itself), along with a push to increase shared experiences through interactions across racial, ethnic, religious, political, national and socio-economic lines, are necessary components for strengthening our social glue and achieving greater levels of acceptance and unity.
In response to the ongoing police shootings of black citizens (part of the institutionalized, systemic racism that still permeates our nation) and the seemingly retaliatory shootings of police officers, calls for understanding and empathy are in many ways seeking to generate some form of shared experience (even if just a mental exercise) among white and black America, and among first responders and non-first responders, in order to address racism manifested as the criminal justice system’s treatment of blacks.
In Kansas, with the threat of public schools not opening in the fall of 2016 uniting and galvanizing greater numbers of Kansas constituents into vocalizing their dissatisfaction with their elected officials, ultraconservatives, moderate Republicans and Democrats all managed to compromise in formulating a funding plan to address the state Supreme Court’s equity ruling. However, the fact that every legislator (unless retiring) is up for re-election this fall certainly created an environment more conducive of compromise. At least for this issue and until the serious campaigning for the elections began, it reduced the potential for competition and divisiveness among the different legislative factions in a similar manner as discussed above for increased and equitable economic prosperity and security.
How genuine the ultraconservatives truly are, though, in their desire to compromise vs. saving their political skin is certainly open to question. In all likelihood, once the elections are over, their willingness to listen and compromise will diminish as the ultraconservative social glue will have shown itself to be stronger for these legislators than the greater Kansas social glue. Enough Kansans seem to recognize this that it appears to have had little impact on the strong grassroots efforts to remove as many of these ultraconservatives from the legislature as possible.
This is certainly a simplified discussion of unity and acceptance. There are multiple types of social glue that manifest in different ways and under different conditions, having different impacts on unity and acceptance. Anxiety resulting from local to global crises often spurs the need to find someone or some group to blame, impacting our decision making processes (like voting). And the list of relevant factors goes on. In general, though, research from the intersection of biology, behavior, history, economics and the social sciences has a lot to offer in helping us let go of our fears and navigate the complex issues underlying unity and acceptance. Much of this research is accessible through The Evolution Institute, This View of Life and the Social Evolution Forum.
I would agree with our forlorn British friend that the world needs more unity and acceptance, but that requires more interaction, a greater occurrence of shared experiences (even if just mentally placing oneself in another’s shoes) and greater equity of prosperity and security. Many of the problems of disunity faced by the EU, the UK, the US and Kansas are contributed to by inadequately addressing these issues.