A black Dallas Cowboys fan has more in common with a white Dallas Cowboys fan than he (or she, there are many lady fans as well) does with a black Philadelphia Eagles fan. At least on Sunday afternoon. You see, human beings are tribal. The us-vs-them response is buried deep in our amygdala. It is a vital defense mechanism that helps guarantee the survival of the human race. But our tribal affiliations are malleable. They can change over time. Or on a Sunday afternoon.
But just because it is malleable, does not mean that the Us/Them dichotomy isn’t powerful. Stanford neurobiologist Professor Robert Sapolsky states in his book, Behave, The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, that a “fifty millisecond exposure to the face of someone of another race activates the amygdala.” He also noted that “the brain groups faces by gender and social status at roughly the same speed.”
He also notes that animals, at least higher-level social animals such as chimps and baboons, have similar responses. This means that the Us/Them dichotomy is an evolutionary tool that helped our species survive. It is, literally, built into our DNA.
But the Us/Them dichotomy is also malleable. We can change who we think of as Us. Dr. Sapolsky notes in his book, that during the filming of the original planet of the Apes, the actors had to put on very elaborate make-up and costumes that they had to wear all day (the original movie was pre-CGI). When the actors took their lunch breaks the actors playing chimps ate together with other chimp actors as did the actors for the gorillas and orangutans. They self-selected because their identities had become more defined by their movie roles than their race or gender before the make-up was put on. Just like the Dallas Cowboys fans, we can define who we identify as Us.
Dr. Sapolsky cites research that shows that test subjects easily associate things that are considered Us with pleasant concepts, while things that are considered Them are associated with things that are unpleasant and contemptible. Them and nice things literally do not compute. Dr. Sapolsky also explained that groups of chimps or baboons that had grown so large that they had to separate into smaller groups that could forage more efficiently, quickly became Them and Us to the point of attacking and killing the new Them.
This is why identity politics is so toxic. Identity politics is purposefully trying to divide Americans for political purposes. Instead of trying to find the things that unite us as Americans, they seek out things that make us different. Make the other Americans Them. And not only make them different but make them detestable and even evil. This gives us insight into the source of the racism that caused such terrible cruelty to the Negro slaves and the lynchings of freedmen during Jim Crow. But it also explains, at least in part, the incredible anger and venom that the antifa and Black Lives Matters protestors have for the police and anyone that does not support their cause.
Identity politics enhances our tribal instincts. Tribesmen (and women) only trust members of their own tribe. Mistaking a stranger for a tribe member can be deadly. That is why ethnically similar groups resort to facial scarring or tattoos to facilitate identifying a tribal member (which, we remember, only takes 50 milliseconds). That is why tribe members wear distinctive clothing (for example gang colors). The circle of trust does not extend far outside the boma that protects the village. Trade with other tribes is difficult because of a lack of trust. It is the Us of the tribe against the Them of everybody else. It is a very limited and primitive life.
The process of building a civilization (which humans have been working at for about ten thousand years) is a process of expanding that circle of trust. Tribes can incorporate other similar groups to make larger tribes, especially if they share similar languages or religions. Small kingdoms can absorb several tribes to facilitate trade within the kingdom and to protect the kingdom’s subjects from outside groups. Trust within the kingdom is guaranteed by the king who will adjudicate any disagreements among his subjects. Larger kingdoms, empires and nation states continually expand the circle of trust among inhabitants even as their differences multiply. And, as the inhabitants work with each other and perhaps intermarry, trust grows.
If it appears to you that our country is falling apart you are not wrong, because it is. The circle of trust that we have been building for over 240 years is shrinking and with it, the bonds that hold a nation together. The seeds of trust between the races that had been growing since the Civil Rights era are beginning to wither. Politicians that loudly claim their concern for the common folk, put scoring political points ahead of making the concessions necessary to provide relief for people hurt by the pandemic and the recession. The country is full of swamps, deep states, conspiracy theories, masonic cabals and who knows what else.
It is the intent of identity politics to break the bonds of trust. What do they want? Revolution? Race War? Extremists of the far right and far left are facing off, while the rest of the country suffers. Without trust our civilization cannot sustain itself.
Science shows us the challenge we face in trying to unite America and end the divisiveness we are currently enduring. But it also gives us clues on the way to face this challenge.
Some income inequality is probably inevitable in most societies, but too much income and wealth inequality creates a powerful Us/Them dichotomy. The problem is that taking from the wealthy rich and giving to the low-income poor does not resolve the US/Them dichotomy. The wealthy rich resent having the incomes and estates that they have worked so hard to create taken from them to be given away. And the poor get little satisfaction from the handouts from the rich.
In order to reduce the Us/Them dichotomy we need to attack the real causes of the dichotomy. When the politicians of identity encourage poor people to think that the rich are greedy and to encourage the rich to think the poor are lazy, they are just widening the gap, not resolving it. Policies that would work toward making sure students from low income families get a good education to prepare them for life as an adult and a citizen of the United States, combined with sex education that explains why it is a good idea to wait until after marriage to have children, and backed up by policies that encourage employment over welfare would go a long way to close the income dichotomy. But these are not quick fixes, such policies will take a generation to have their full impact.
Racial and gender dichotomies can also be reduced. But like closing the wealth gap, these are long term solutions that will take a generation to see results, not the quick fixes that politicians prefer. Politicians berate public companies for having a short-term focus on quarterly results, but few politicians can see beyond the next election. They like to accelerate benefits before the elections and defer the costs until after the election (also called kicking the can down the road). It will take real statesmen backed up by national will to implement these changes.
Given all our differences, we need to establish common goals that can bridge our differences and help to build trust. America’s founding principles have performed that task for 240 years and they are up to the challenges ahead. But we can’t just spout patriotic slogans and think that will solve all our problems. We must work diligently to create the level playing field that will give everyone the equal shot at the American Dream that the Declaration of Independence promised.