Our Ideological Opponents: collaborate with … or kill them?
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(Synopsis: In a democratic union, one has only two choices in working with opposition: find a way to work together toward a common good, or defeat them. The latter is not behavior conducive to either party remaining in union with the other. This is why lasting unions — even ones as “simple” as friendships and marriages — always find a way toward the former, collaborative approach. The author illustrates why we know this to be in our interests, but how we frequently forget this with respect to national politics. It is natural and appropriate to have even passionate objectives for improving one’s community. That is a separate question from, “How does one persuade others to support that objective?”)
Millennia ago, when the earliest human hunter on the savanna for the first time encountered a second hunter, it had a decision to make: Collaborate with the other hunter, form a hunting party, capture more prey and grow the size of the tribe they jointly could feed, or consider the other hunter a competitor for prey and kill it?
Humans have always faced this choice: to collaborate or to conflict.
Often enough we chose to collaborate, forming groups. This group-forming behavior nearly always improved our prosperity and prospects for surviving to reproduction, which is why it expanded fantastically to communities, townships, states, nations and — among nations — trading partnerships, defense alliances, research collaborations and joint explorations of where we grow next.
Forming a group necessarily implies compromises. For instance, it means you’re not going to have the savanna to yourself. You’re going to have to share it. But sharing of labor is what allows you to exploit more of the savanna, which is why you do it. Group-forming also means encouraging prospects to join, participate and remain in the group. This implies “Group-Sustaining Behavior,” such as getting to know other members, their needs, culture, sensitivities, why they want to participate in the group. Perhaps most simply, it means building trust. So humans learn this Group-Sustaining Behavior. We exercise this among our friendships, our team-mates, our spouses, our companies, our communities.
Within groups it is natural for subgroups to form. Generally this is to advance some shared interest, perhaps business interests, gender, wealth, ethnicity, nationality, ideology; many things. When these groups form, they face the same choice of whether to collaborate or conflict with those not in the group, and with the super-group at large. If a subgroup intends to remain a participant of the super-group, and particularly if its goal is to influence the super-group to adopt a particular direction, the subgroup may passionately pursue its specific interest, but must not forget to simultaneously continue fueling its bonds with the super-group, through Group-Sustaining Behavior. This can be difficult to balance when human nature makes one passionate about a cause, but the reality stands; a group member cannot be effective at leading a group if it is not influential within that group, or if its actions result in division of that group. As an example, if one spouse wishes to successfully influence the other to have the family jointly take a certain action, they will do so in a way that persuades the other spouse toward mutual action, rather than alienating the spouse into a divisive reaction.
“This can be difficult to balance when human nature makes one passionate about a cause, but the reality stands; a group member cannot be effective at leading a group if it is not influential within that group, or if its actions result in division of that group.”
The United States is of course a super-group, comprised of myriad subgroups, each with its own interests. It is normal for them to disagree on various aspects of the super-group’s direction. But, perhaps with the obvious exception of The Civil War, even in their most angry moments these subgroups simultaneously display even unconscious awareness of the value of their participation in the super-group. They buy products — food and cars and clothing — manufactured elsewhere in the super-group. They utilize services — power and telephone and Internet — generated elsewhere in the super-group. They vacation throughout the super-group; enjoy entertainment created elsewhere in the super-group; pursue romance with partners from elsewhere in the super-group; are employed by companies from elsewhere in the super-group; achieve national defense strength-in-numbers shoulder-to-shoulder with other members of the super-group.
Despite the polarization and rancorous discord in America today, if we think about it, I believe few of us question the core value in remaining in the super-group. Indeed I believe that most people who are passionately motivated on political issues, what they are really trying to do is influence the direction of the super-group, not simply have things their way in their own little neighborhood. Abortion rights activists in California will always have access to abortion, with or without Roe v Wade. What they want is to ensure that women everywhere have those rights. Advocates of a strong defense don’t just want Mississippi protected. They want the entire nation strong. Climate change activists don’t just want blue states to cut emissions, they need all states to do so. Union critics of free trade and outsourcing don’t just want to protect jobs in Detroit; the United Autoworkers has local chapters in essentially every state of the nation.
These activists seek to influence the direction of the nation, which means they are trying to influence the super-group. And that means they cannot neglect the fundamentals of Group-Sustaining Behavior. If you want to encourage your spouse in a collaborative direction, yelling at them doesn’t work, we’ve learned. Calling them names doesn’t work. Just in the general sense, elevating anger and fear doesn’t work. Not with a spouse. Nor a friend. Nor a coworker. So why do we think it will work with a person with an opposing ideology, with whom we have to collaborate to accomplish the business of the nation?
It is one thing to rally the members of one’s subgroup to motivate themselves toward a cause. It is another entirely if the methods chosen to rally them alienate them from the rest of the super-group, thereby undermining their ability to influence the super-group toward a collective end.
“It is one thing to rally the members of one’s subgroup to motivate themselves toward a cause. It is another entirely if the methods chosen to rally them alienate them from the rest of the super-group, thereby undermining their ability to influence the super-group toward a collective end.”
Okay, so if that won’t work, then what will? What do we do if we want to successfully influence the direction of the nation? What is Group-Sustaining Behavior?
A proposed answer for how to collaborate is here.
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