How can strangers quickly become friends? Or at least avoid being enemies?
On my way back from vacation, I passed through Miami International Airport. It’s an enormous place, so I spent a half hour walking from one terminal to another.
A middle-aged TSA officer was walking in the same direction. I struck up a conversation with him. We had a nice chat before we went our separate ways.
Easy. We had something in common. That’s frequently all it takes.
I saw that he wore a yarmulke, so he was obviously Jewish. I took a chance and spoke to him in Hebrew.
I asked if he was an Israeli. Israel’s airport security is better than ours, so I thought he might be helping TSA improve its procedures.
He wasn’t Israeli but he understood enough Hebrew to know what I had asked. He was actually from Venezuela. We talked about how he and his family had come to America. Nice guy. And I got a chance to practice my Spanish.
Even though we were strangers at first, my question in Hebrew signaled that we were members of the same in-group. In-group members tend to feel friendly and cooperative with each other. So we were able to chat as casual friends even though we didn’t know each other.
“People must have a tribe. It gives them a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world. It makes the environment less disorienting and dangerous.”
But groups can be based on almost any shared trait, as long as it’s known to other group members. Wilson continues:
“Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups, then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong. Even when experimenters created the groups arbitrarily, then labeled them so the members could identify themselves … prejudice quickly established itself. Whether groups played for pennies or identified themselves as preferring some abstract painter to another, the participants always ranked the out-group below the in-group. They judged their ‘opponents’ to be less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, less competent.”
Until recently, “Americans” formed a great big in-group. Whatever our differences, we had that shared identity in common. We wanted to solve our problems together.
I’m not a historian, but I think our sense of shared group identity started to disintegrate when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. Since World War II, the Soviet Union had been an external threat to our group’s survival. It encouraged us to set aside our differences and unite against our common enemy.
But now, with no common enemy outside of America, identity politics divides us against each other. We no longer feel enough in common to be members of the same group. We’re also importing millions of people who were never part of our group and who don’t want to be. The inevitable result is as obvious as it is tragic.
What America needs is leadership to re-unite us and re-establish our group identity. But nobody is doing it. Not President Trump. Not Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi. Not the talking heads on cable news. Not Hollywood.
And the hell of it is, it can be done! It’s not rocket science. The resources to do it are available. All it takes is the will.
Please, won’t someone step up to the plate and take a swing? It’s the bottom of the ninth and we’re losing. We can still win. But the team leaders have to lead.
Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”