Our world – including, perhaps especially but not exclusively, the United States – appears to have taken a dark and chaotic turn. This has been building for some time, though only now bursting into full view. Contrary to the beliefs among some, this is neither an isolated incident nor is one particular group of people particularly responsible. The truth is: we are all equally to blame.
Politics isn't the primary culprit. Both good and bad – constructive and destructive – people exist across the socio-religious-political spectrum. Our current predicament transcends politics and gives lie to problems rooted deep within our consciousness. What is bubbling to the surface is the accumulated fruit of many wrong turns in our understanding, from which few of us are exempt, including many of those who believe themselves to be on the "right side" of the current issues and turmoil.
When we scrape past the superficial differences in belief, there exists a nearly universally agreed upon and alarmingly pernicious view of ourselves and world, one that is continually reinforced and even celebrated by a wide swath of humanity: our reflexive tendency toward tribalism and group identification.
Everywhere we look and to almost every person we speak, we discover that we've created and assigned ourselves to a bewildering array of groups; so very many, I couldn't begin to list them all. There are the big, obvious ones of course: race, religion, nationality, political beliefs, socioeconomic class, gender, education, region, and sexual identity. But also the endless number of smaller ones: our jobs, hobbies, cultural preferences, neighborhoods, clothing, affinities, personality types, bodily constitutions, lifestyles, and so forth. The list of group slicing, dicing, joining, and jostling is, for all practical purposes, infinite. We thick slice and thin slice ourselves into so many groups that most people would struggle to list all of the groups with which they've chosen to identify at one time or another.
And not only do we ascribe ourselves to a panoply of affinity groups, we unconsciously assign everyone we meet, read, or hear to them as well, often assuming – indeed, choosing – their affiliations for them, without knowing anything about them personally. Then, of course, we proceed to judge and/or interact with them on this basis.
None of this is benign.
When we assign ourselves to groups and sub-groups of humanity and concomitantly appoint every individual we encounter to a group – when we fashion our identities around our group affiliations – we create the underlying condition that leads to misunderstanding, devaluation, hatred, and violence.
The moment we identify with a group(s), anyone not in our group becomes "The Other" or "Not us." And that's when the darkness creeps in: "The Other" is easy to dehumanize: they aren't like us; they don't think, or feel, or behave like us; they are inferior in some fashion; or, if we are feeling magnanimous, we will concede that "they" are equal to us, but intrinsically and forever separate; and in that eternal separateness, they threaten our existence – or, inevitably, will at some point, since eternity is enough time that anything will eventually happen; and as such, we become justified in our distrust, fear, and ever-harsher treatment.
And, no, I don't care how mild or neutral you think claim your group attachments are; the damage wrought is intrinsic to the creation of and affiliation with any group. Don't believe me? Do a quick search for how many people are killed over their allegiances to a football team, or the outcome of a single, meaningless game.
For too many of us, our identity is inextricably bound – created – by a long list of group affiliations. Let me ask you right now: who are you? Stop and think about it. Or write down a list.
How many groups just popped into your mind? Did you just define yourself by your race, religion, nationality, gender, sexuality, job, parenting status, hobbies, economic class, or some other affiliation? I'll bet you did. Can you even think of a way of expressing who you are without referencing a group? I'll bet not. Try it, right now. I'll bet that even if you start off okay, it won't take long for a group to slide on through.
Too many of us see ourselves as members of an overlapping series of groups. Our self-identity is nothing more than the central field in a Venn diagram, forever (and conveniently) shifting prominence and allegiance based on our needs of the moment.
Here's the radical truth: you are none of these things. Not on your deepest and highest level.
At best, our list of group of affiliations is a superficial and meaningless way of defining ourselves. But most of the time, it's much worse than trivial, it's deleterious to humanity and a threat to our universe: when we craft our identities through the lens of group membership, we create the conditions and excuses that engender anger, fear, hatred, and – ultimately, inevitably – bring evil into our world.
I know what some will say: tribal or group affinity is "natural." It's always been this way. It's part of the order of things. It's innocent – or even good. Groups provide protection. They allow us to live in security and comfort with like-minded folks. Groups may even help us recover or bolster our pride and self-worth.
But the more we examine it, the more we discover this is the wrong way to achieve these (sometimes) noble goals. Think about it: from whom does your group need protection? Other groups, of course! Groups that we perceive – sometimes correctly – as threats. So we band together in groups of our own to fight off the threat of another group. And why do we need to bolster our self-worth? Usually because some other group has belittled or repressed us! So we decide to turn the tables by embracing our group and diligently working to counter the negative perceptions of our group by emphasizing all that is positive about it.
The more we succumb to group consciousness, the more inevitable it becomes that at some point our group will be pitted against another. This isn't the only danger, however. Perhaps worse: the more we emphasize our group affinities, the more we lose our individual selves. Our personal selves become subsumed by the broad and impersonal nature of our group.
Retreating into tribal consciousness not only fails to resolve the underlying problem, it further entrenches it. Yes, it's true, all sorts of ignorant, even pernicious, groups roam the Earth. But the solution isn't to create more groups or retreat into the safe confines of our group(s), it's to dismantle the whole damn apparatus. Anything less and we've done nothing but perpetuate the problem.
Here is the truth that will set us free: we are unique individuals and we are all in this together; we are one or everyone – and nothing in between.
Those are the only two "groups" that truly exist; and their truth is simultaneous. We are individuals, unique and original in every way. There is no broad list of groups that can define or contain us. The world has never seen anything like you before, nor will it again. Concurrently, all seven billion of us – and, really, that's a gross understatement, as it's not just humanity but all creatures and matter throughout the universe – are whole and indistinguishable; interlinked, interdependent, and united as one.
It's important that we don't see ourselves exclusively as unique individuals or a united humanity. We must see these two poles as aspects of the same reality. Pure individualism in philosophical isolation leads to a callous self-centeredness that too easily devolves into sociopathy and may leave us prone to feelings of isolation, angst, and ennui. And if we see ourselves solely as tiny, insignificant and meaningless dots in the infinite fabric of the universe, it becomes too easy to ignore our uniqueness and devalue our individual lives. Each is the complement and antidote to the other, the perfect balance through which humanity will thrive.
Peace, harmony, joy, and love: these come only when we transcend the artificial boundaries that we've imposed on ourselves.
The silver lining of our current dark predicament: instability leads to opportunity. It's time to take a good, long look at how we've come to this place and get serious about lasting solutions. We cannot reduce hatred and resolve conflict by continually reinforcing our group identifications, no matter how noble we believe those groups to be. Instead of recommitting ourselves to the widespread and tragically mistaken framework that has brought us to the brink of destruction, we can seize the opportunity to expand our understanding and rid ourselves of the tribal consciousness that lies at the root of so many of our problems.
Know and embrace this, now and forever: we are one and everyone – and never anything in between.