“It is clearly not easy for man to give up the satisfaction of this inclination to aggression. They do not feel comfortable without it. The advantage which a comparatively small cultural group offers of allowing this instinct an outlet in the form of hostility against intruders is not to be despised. It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness.”
Sigmund Freud: Civilization and its Discontents.
Ever find yourself angry at a brother, sister, parent or cousin? Sometimes the emotions can get you seeing red but then a while later you have put the differences aside? Yes, we tend to have far more long-term toleration to our close relatives. And generally, even if we do have differences with them we would still tear into a non-relative who attacked them.
Studies in anthropology and psychology indicate that genetics bond people, and the closer the relative the more likely we will connect with them – some research shows that people tend to form friendships with people who share similar genetic patterns. Even psychopaths can be extremely loyal to first-degree relatives (their children, for example) and I integrate that concept into my science fiction thriller “The Destiny of Our Past” in which the pre-flood elite bloodlines form a lethal bond against the rest of the human race (check link at the end of this article). The point is, loyalty to family appears to be hard-wired into us.
So what about other people, people we have no relations to? Again, it appears that the more we share in common with others (beyond genes) the more we can relate to them and thus feel a stronger connection with them. This can explain tribal societies and even the extension to clans and their sense of unity. However, we no longer live in a world in which we tend to identify with tribe or clan. So what is it that bonds a nation together, such as the USA, made up of a wide variety of peoples and beliefs? Well, let’s take a close look.
When we are small children we automatically bond and identify with our parents, siblings and immediate extended family. They are our world, our safety and beyond genetics we are taught to get along with them, to love them and that we are to be loyal to them. As already noted, even if a sibling is irritating if someone outside the family tries to pick on them we are praised for standing up to a bully in their defense. However, we are also taught by parents early on who are the “us” group and the “thems.” We are told that we are different, for instance, from people with a different religion. We learn to bond to a new extended family of sorts – those who share our beliefs. However, it does not stop there. We eventually learn what social class, sub-group, political system/party are also part of the “us” group. We learn what traits and practices we share with our culturally-extended family. Oh but wait, it also goes on to what nation we are born into. So all-in-all a complex web of connections bind the individual to the whole; some close to the center of the web, with others at the periphery, but nevertheless in a nation we feel a sense of belonging and unity with others under our flag.
Just like the family unit we tend to be far more tolerant of our perceived connections than those on the outside. However, this could be seen as a form of what could be called “false ego projection.” The individual perceives stronger connections to people seen as identifying with their values and aspirations. They project a kinship onto people who are from their nation, belong to their religion or maybe even who support their favorite sports team. Others may seem as rivals, or outsiders, but as long as the general culture teaches a sense of tolerance then any hostilities may only take the form of competing high school students egging each others cars during the homecoming game or a Baptist father urging his daughter not to date a Mormon guy she has a crush on. Yet in these cases all the people see each other as Americans and feel a sense of shared identity at that level. So maybe the father wants his daughter to date a guy in their religion but would have no problem having the Mormon teen’s father as their family doctor.
Problem is, what happens when tolerance collapses?
Let’s look at what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s. When Tito was in charge he held what was then Yugoslavia together as a nation. The various ethnic and religious groups got along as they were united as one nation. However, when communism fell, and Yugoslavia no longer had a central unifying authority, people who had existed together for quite some time broke into factions based on more identifiable group identies such as religion and ethnicity. We see what happened when leaders emerged on all sides that magnified the differences between groups which eventually led to massive bloodshed.
So could it happen in the USA?
One variable that tends to facilitate tolerance and cooperation between people is economic prosperity. If people have a job that occupies their time, but also provides them and their families with resources to live as they desire, they tend to be satisfied with life. Security usually leads to people not making a big deal about differences – even at the political level. And for most of the past century, the political differences between Americans has been minor when compared to many nations. However, things appear to be changing.The tremors on the fault lines.
The political fracturing of the American population did not begin in 2016 – one can see evidence of its evolution in 2012 and even further back. However, the rivalries, or what some call the “culture war,” became really apparent in 2016 where we saw the intensity of economic differences between urban areas of the nation and suburban/rural intensify. And since then we see a growing distrust between groups of Americans. Many no longer trust politicians, and while they may support the ones they feel agree with them, the “loyal opposition” ideal has given way to demonization of those they don’t agree with.
Few people hold high regard for the media, which in times past was biased, everyone knew that, but people felt it was mostly trying to be fair. Neither liberal or conservative feel that way anymore. And politics has even entered sports, entertainment and other areas of life that tended to give people a form of non-political escapism from everyday stresses in life.
So polite political discourse and respect for those with differing viewpoints has almost vanished. If one sits down and talks politics with people it matters not whether they are Democrats or Republicans, they are more likely to describe the other side in ways that are more characteristic of how people in times of war describe the enemy country. Some on the left have even gone so far as to label those on the right as traitors and puppets of Russia. However, those on the right often see the left in the same regards as the movie “The Hunger Games” where the rich in Capital City exploit and repress the masses; and you can add to this the idea the “elite” are at war with the religious and cultural values of those they consider as “flyover” territory inhabitants. And the fissures are growing.
Could it get worse?
For the most part Americans still enjoy a very comfortable existence. So while they may release a lot of hostility against political adversaries on social media not too many want a societal breakdown. However, if the economy were to collapse one could easily see that change. Society could easily fracture and people no longer see each other in the more abstract sense as “Americans.” And while it might not look like the Civil War we read about in history books it could be more a neighbor against neighbor situation. And with a real, or perceived, breakdown whatever might be left of the infrastructure could collapse, leading to more competition between networks of people who, by then, would see other networks as enemy forces.
Freud believed that civilization was held together by a thin thread but once it was broken then savagery would follow. And ironically, the more modern and complex a society is the more fragile it might be. When the chains that binds the aggressive urges (family, religion, community, nation and supportive institutions in-between) are in place people tend to be fairly tolerant of each other. Yet modern societies of today tend to minimize the importance of traditional institutions; we see less marriage and childbirth, people not as active in their religion, little community involvement and more a sense of being defined by what one is able to afford to buy. Yet, as stated earlier, what happens when the sense of being economically secure, as well as advancing, disintegrates?
Hopefully we can restore a sense of people having civil discourse on issues, being willing to cooperate, and not so quick to break into warring camps. The alternative is something that would merely result in needless bloodshed, much of our infrastructure damaged and the winner being the one with the most power. One thing is for sure, the winner would be unlikely to give up power once it was secured and what might evolve from there is anyone’s guess.
* As I promised here is the link to my newest science fiction thriller, “The Destiny of Our Past.” See if you can ever think of the era of Noah quite the same way after reading it.