Post No.: 0706
If you only tend to like or feel safe around those who are similar to you then find out what you may have in common with someone who otherwise seems different to you. They might hold a different religious or political standpoint to you but you could both be parents, support the same sports team or love to cook? It could be that experiences of loss or other problems you are going through right now are what unite you both?
Sometimes it requires a change of perspective to find a ‘superordinate identity’ or larger group we together belong to. It’s like contrasting a Whippet with a Cane Corso – but a superordinate identity they both belong to is dogs. So you might both follow different faiths but you’re both still spiritual people. You might have different approaches to parenting but you both want the best for your children. You might have different ideas about how to move the community forwards but you both want to keep everyone safe. Or you might support different ice hockey teams but you both at least enjoy ice hockey. These shared or superordinate identities, backgrounds and values often transcend the differences, and will help us to see everybody as ‘us’ rather than ‘us versus them’.
We’re more likely to discriminate against those we consider as members of ‘outgroups’ and favour those we consider as members of our ‘ingroup’. But finding a superordinate identity shows us that whom we place in our ‘ingroups’ or ‘outgroups’ is malleable, not fixed. We all possess a multitude of identities, and which groups we feel we belong to at any given moment depends on the identities that we feel are most salient to us in that moment. The aim is to expand the sense of who belongs in our group so that we broaden our circle of care and compassion, and overcome the feelings of division and distrust even across lines that may have once divided us before. Post No.: 0694 uncovered different ways we can get to know members of other groups better.
There are situations when it’s inappropriate to focus solely on our superordinate identities though – like when a minority group is being denied certain rights or privileges by a majority group. This is because this can lead to an ignorance of the inequities that exist in practice between the groups – for example denying that racism exists because ‘we’re all one big race’. We therefore need to simultaneously find our commonalities without dismissing our differences. Not every commonality is equally meaningful either, such as having blonde hair in the context of a dispute over geopolitical borders. Avoid creating a superordinate identity that’s based on demonising others too, such as pointing out that you both hate atheists. Lastly, make sure you both mean the same thing when you point out a superordinate identity – for example, being a ‘feminist’ can mean different, opposing, things to different individuals who call themselves feminists.
The assumption is that we are good and thus we are right, hence if someone disagrees with us on a strongly moral issue, they must necessarily be evil. Whenever we discuss the issues we care about, we normally give our own rationales based on our own morals or values, but different people may have their own morals or values and therefore concerns and priorities. ‘Moral reframing’ is a method to help each other understand where the other is coming from. For example, you might support action for minimising global warming because it’s unfair that the biggest negative impacts are on poorer countries, but the person you’re trying to persuade cares more about their own livelihood in a local coal-mining community. In this case, you could point out that the coal will inevitably run out and leave their community stricken hence a gradual transition towards renewable energy production will ensure that jobs will be sustained in their community for the long-term. You can think about how you can address their values while still holding true to your own point of view. Well you don’t always have to convince another person to agree with you but you can have more civil political conversations with them if you think about what they value rather than just what you value.
When those from different groups share a common goal, like a common problem that all parties want solved or a shared fate, then they can find ways to put aside their differences to work together to fulfil their common needs and interests – even if finding superordinate identities, and shared values and reasons for having that goal, appear elusive. Goodwill will replace distrust. We won’t listen to those we don’t trust so use unifying language like ‘we’ and ‘us’ instead of ‘I’ or ‘me’. Assume good intentions from others. Put people before politics. Focus on solutions, not identities; although one superordinate identity here would be that you’re both people who want the same problem solved. The overarching key to bridging differences is feeling like you’re on the same team. Just randomly assigning people into two opposing groups can be enough to foment intense inter-group hostility. But if these groups share a common goal, they can start to work together.
At the level of nations – democracies have fought against each other, as have religious states. Secular states too. What most deters a violent conflict from erupting between two nations appears to be how deeply their economies are (perceived to be) interdependent upon each other’s. If your country’s own interests are so intertwined with another’s – severely harming them would also severely harm you hence it makes no rational sense to destroy them (although who ever said that people always do the rational thing?!) Trade embargoes, sanctions or protectionist policies can reduce the mutual gains of free trade, but as long as there’s enough interdependence between two countries then non-violent resolutions remain the sensible option. So it can be useful to appeal to everybody’s enlightened self-interests – to understand that, to best serve oneself, one must work together. If they win, we win too, and vice-versa. It’s like everybody playing on the same team.
Do recognise though that the incentive to cooperate can be person or context dependent. For instance, if you’re not Muslim, you may support the idea that your Muslim football teammate should receive a sporting prize but you might still not wish to patronise a Halal restaurant in your town. The error in thinking that causes this is when we treat the individual we know as ‘but you’re different’ – as in ‘your lot are x but you’re an exception’ – hence the perceived stereotype of this person’s group remains. We’re all the same in some ways and exceptional in others.
It’s generally true that a collection of diverse minds can produce higher quality ideas and solutions if they cooperate with open minds. Creativity benefits from diversity because of the variety of, and fusion of varied, ideas. There’ll be a larger pool of innovative ideas to choose from. A diverse group provokes more thought between its members because the differing opinions challenge each other. Such groups also work harder because they need to convince those who initially have other ideas that their own idea is better (e.g. facts are double-checked rather than taken as given by virtue of an implied consensus amongst likeminded people). So it forces everybody to consider and argue their own beliefs more carefully. In prediction or estimation tasks where the average guess of the group will be submitted – the biases of each individual will have a greater chance of getting cancelled out through the averaging process.
Diverse groups aren’t guaranteed to succeed though if there’s too much infighting – to minimise this, all members need to feel a sense of psychological safety (the feeling that everybody can take interpersonal risks like make mistakes as a result of good intentions, show vulnerability or be honest around others without being shamed or punished for it). A system should also be in place to welcome divergent viewpoints even if they are challenging. And there should be reminders of the shared fate amongst all members.
You might be met with scepticism or resistance when attempting to bridge differences with those considered as the ‘enemy’. People on your own side might even view it as a betrayal. But trying to understand someone isn’t the same as agreeing with them or accommodating them in some way to always find a consensus or compromise. In fact, regarding someone as the enemy is a way to dehumanise them, which feeds the cycle of inter-group hostility, which will come back around to harm us. So it’s in our own self-interest to reduce the dehumanisation. Besides, if we’re the hostile ones then we’re probably not the good guys! As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Woof.
We can, for example, learn to understand why many Black, Latino, Asian and Muslim communities across the world are suspicious of vaccination programmes due to historical episodes where their communities were specifically exploited without their consent by the US or British governments, often under the guise of a drug trial or some other public health programme (e.g. the Tuskegee and Guatemala syphilis experiments, Rawalpindi experiments). And it’s a double injustice because now they’re avoiding all kinds of genuine vaccines. History matters, for the present and the future. Abusing trust, for any purpose, leads to long-range intergenerational costs. So their anti-vaccination stance has a grounded reason and it’d only reveal our own naivety and make things worse to accuse them of stupidity or selfishness.
We might think that people cannot change hence it’s pointless – but people can change. We might believe that listening to others will validate and legitimise their views – but listening and responding with an open mind might help you to progress towards your own goals. In a democracy, not much can get effectively done without cooperating with others, such as passing bills in parliament or agreeing to a federal budget in congress. When we’re infighting, we’re wasting fuzzy energy on fighting each other rather than on being productive. This allows groups who are more collectively harmonious to outcompete us. Inter-group fighting isn’t great either though because some major problems require our global cooperation to solve.
So if you want to get things done, you’ll need to avoid the trap of polarisation. Bridge-building isn’t primarily about persuading the other side and it doesn’t mean shifting your own beliefs; albeit these things could happen. It’s about understanding where each other is coming from by shifting perspectives. We might discover that underneath their opposing views, they are perhaps in fear or are suffering from a past trauma? Knowing this can help you to find ways to alleviate those concerns at the same time as serving your own overall objectives or pursuit of justice. You can still advocate your own positions and stand up for yourself but you can do this without disparaging or dehumanising your political opponents. You might find that you are clashing over one issue but can still be allies with them on another issue hence they’re still worth getting along with. The groundwork we sow now in building our social capital can reap dividends later – sometimes in beneficial ways we cannot currently anticipate.
Bridging our differences is difficult but worth a try if you’re constantly feeling exasperated about how ‘the other side of the political divide are always spouting nonsense’ in a world where we need to work together to make things happen. Finding our superordinate identities, moral reframing and all these other tips will help; yet there is a limit to what we can unilaterally control and there’s no guarantee that harmony will be achieved. The social or cultural change we hope for could take many generations to happen. So show some self-compassion and humility when attempting it too.