We love to be part of groups.
At one level, it is a powerful social bond that draws us together with like minded souls into a community. From family to interest groups and clubs, to political parties, and on to religions – the list is endless and often the benefit immense, to the members, and sometimes to the wider community where they are charitable or compassionate in intent. Quite simply, together we are stronger.
There is another side to our gathering in groups, an often sharpened and sectarian awareness of what we are not – Catholic or Protestant, Sunni or Shia, Socialist or Marxist. Without these differentiations, part of the definition for that group is lost (or at least blurred). So when it becomes important to emphasise that difference – say Catholic versus Protestant, or Socialist factions within the Labour movement, we move to define those “borders” more. If I support a London football club, that is not enough, it must be Arsenal or Chelsea for example – and suddenly we are no longer fellow Londoners but rival factions driven to assert the supremacy of our selected heroes.
Once we have defined our “borders” we might be moved to protect them – perhaps create entrance criteria for our club, which our committee can approve, or establish a means of recognising ourselves – colours or uniforms. We might even simply build a wall (physical or academic) to keep Johnny Foreigner outside.
Where does this take us …..
Neuroscientist David Eagleman observes that “Repeatedly, all across the globe, groups of people inflict violence on other groups, even those that are defenceless and pose no direct threat.” (2016).
He continues to discuss the concept of “outside” – those that are not us – those that are not “inside”. As soon as we differentiate, we can push away. And as soon as we establish that physical separation we can superimpose all manner of behaviours and beliefs upon those outside, elements that the average person “inside” is in no position to test or challenge – and quite often pre-disposed not to even consider raising a challenge.
Think of that familiar story from the first Christmas during the First World War when the men left their trenches and played football in no man’s land. For an a hour or so, they ceased to be evil Huns or blood thirsty Tommies and were just men, just another regular guy, who looks just the same as you – not those weird reflections in satirical cartoons or demonizations from political rhetoric.
When we travel around the world and we cross borders – do people suddenly change? If I cross the Rhine at Strasbourg, the man in the street ceases to be French and is now German. One immediately searches for the difference – be it language, architecture or cuisine. Both might men eat steak, but they put a different sauce on it – and one might choose a beer to accompany it, the other a glass of wine. And in our heads a differentiation is born. A badge of a different colour. A label with a different name.
By default we are driven to judge difference. Maybe it was once an evolutionary imperative – which plant is healthy, which is not – but not so in our modern metropolis.
As humans we are assert the ultimate difference – (a) human versus the rest of the world, be it in terms of nation, race or species.
That is not to say that we are all one human being, anymore than to say that a man is a horse, but there is commonality. We are both mammals, we are share essentially the same physiological systems which maintain our being, we share the same core emotional systems. We might be a different shape or communicate in different ways but we are in totality much more similar than we are different.
If we drill down to DNA level – think of the tiny difference between man and ape. There is significant commonality between man and plants – for example according to the genome project we share 60% of our DNA with Banana trees.
We need to seek not the difference but the similarity – like the first world war footballers – in celebrating what we share, we create a comradeship, we open the channels of empathy. We tear down the constructs of division.
When we recognise that our dog shares our emotional feelings and needs, would we still beat our dog? When we recognise that the forest is a connected and sentient organism, would we continue to bulldoze the trees in great genocide like swathes?
When we recognise that our religious difference is but different words would we still tear apart non-believers and heretics?
Look around us – we are rebuilding the walls. A year ago I was European, I am now British, I may yet just be English, and I now a “Remoaner”. We are building new and smaller silos. Like some great global divorce proceeding. Nationhood is no more than an a human construct – one bloody great network of little clubs.
And as I see those walls being created around me, I find myself building new ones of my own. I want this to stop, please!
I want to find time to indulge what we share – embrace what is common between us.
I ask you to stop and take a compassionate reflection – understand what you share with other people, what you share with those other living and breathing beings on the planet, what you share with Mother Earth herself.
(c) the Mindful Horse