According to developmental psychologists, when a human being is born, there is no sense of separation between the child and its environment. They assume that because they feel a need, that it will be automatically fulfilled. When that need is unfulfilled, their distress causes them to wail until it is. At between 18 months and three years, infants grow to see themselves as discrete and self-contained entities who need to negotiate for what they want, and thus the power of negotiation is born. Born out of these conflicting world views (the separated and unseparated self), comes a desire for belonging. A desire to be accepted and loved by other people who are not us, but are like us. I think this is what sows the first seeds of tribal entitlement and xenophobia. If children are not provided with an expanded sense of “other”, it’s developmentally inevitable that the kinds of “isms” and “phobias” we see in society are going to arise as children grow into adolescents and adults.
To me, it logically follows that our need to cling “to our own kind” is basically a childish fear of “the other.” Our tendency to judge groups on the actions of a sample of their membership (e.g. Islam, men/women, white-/black-/olive-/brown-skinned people, people who don’t speak our language, people who don’t share our sexual, religious or cultural interests and mores) is a direct result of a lack of empathy for them as individuals, which in turn is basically a reflection of how we saw the world as infants. In response to our fears, we create “tribes” – groupings of people inside our sphere of influence that typically have a large number of common traits. Our tribes make us feel comfortable. I suspect that the predictability of our interactions with them triggers the same sorts of mental rewards as the actions of parents who remembered that “we were they” and changed our nappies, fed us, played with us and burped us when required.
One of the impacts of information technology is that it has created new opportunities to expand our reach and to join global tribes. However, it has also given us more information about the delicious complexity of the world around us, and the amount of difference between the people we identify with as tribe-members and those who fall into the category of the dreaded other. It is only when we seek to understand the individuals who make up the other that we start to realize that our fears of the bogie man are unfounded and that we can start to find new ways to make room for those individuals in our tribes. Letting the actions of the few determine our view of the many is unsophisticated, childish and counterproductive, especially when it comes to conflict resolution. Nobody can ever negotiate a peace with an aggressor until they understand what that aggressor wants. More often than not, this also requires us to accept that we ourselves are aggressors in our own way. We do not have to agree with everyone on everything, but a truly adult mind accepts the possibility that other people’s views have merit and will at least accord them the respect of trying to understand how they came to those views.
Another childish instinct that is rife within our society is the sense of entitlement we have as individuals to impose our will upon others. Referring back to the separation of self: Entitlement is what we have when we simply assume others will behave in the way that we want them to. We demand empathy of others to our own selfish needs, even when those needs are being driven by our ids, not our conscious- or super-selves. But few of us apply that same sense of empathy to others. When our expectations don’t measure up to those of the people we impose them on (whether or not we’ve tried to be empathetic to their point of view before we act), we all-to-often exhibit a churlishness that does no credit to our adult selves.
It is our sense of entitlement that suggests that we have the right to make choices for other people that we would bristle at if we made those same choices for ourselves. It is that same sense of entitlement that drives us to hoard and accumulate wealth and to justify almost any means to protect our accumulated possessions. It is our sense of entitlement that prioritizes the needs of our tribe over the needs of those we identify as the other. It is our sense of entitlement that drags us into just about every conflict. It is our sense of entitlement that sends our sons and daughters to war.
In short – war is the outcome of infantile minds who can’t expand their thinking to accommodate the views of others. The only sure path to put an end to warfare is to put an end to infantile minds. This can only be achieved with one thing – education and training. When I say training, I don’t mean in the sense of sitting in a seminar for several hours nodding off while the person up the front drones on about the theory. I mean training in the same sense as a martial artist spars with others and does kata when on their own. Training in the same way as an olympic sprinter spends years honing their mind-body connection so that on race day, they are in complete control of every aspect of their performance. We need to train ourselves to put ourselves in situations where we can grow to understand others that are outside of our tribes. We need this training to be societal as well as personal, which means that our media needs to step up and start taking some responsibility for this as well. In this respect, I think SBS and ABC television in Australia do a great job – although I suspect there is still room to improve. Our commercial networks and our radio broadcasters are not doing such a great job with this, and I think the whole shock-jock industry needs to take a long hard look at the effects of their pandering to infantile instincts.
Even worse are our politicians, which pander shamelessly to our most childish instincts. They encourage our entitlement; they do what they can to associate themselves with our tribes; they do whatever they can to foster a sense of parental trust, even if that means a continual barrage of condescension and holding close to their chests anything they decide “we don’t need to know.” It’s no coincidence that Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten all talk slowly and clearly – as if to ten year olds. If we want to ascend to the full potential enabled by the information age, we need to start living as citizens of the information age. We need to set aside our industrial age attitudes of working towards a common cause: The capitalists who exploited our labour to make themselves wealthy in that age have already shown a complete lack of loyalty to those whose efforts built their nest eggs and have moved on to exploiting a new set of labourers in a different set of countries. We need to demand better of our capital-rich citizens and our politicians.
Again – the only thing we can do to bring this about is to educate ourselves and train ourselves not to be so easily swayed by propaganda that appeals to our child-selves. Let this be your daily kata. Let your mind be a fortress with open gates. Rejecting the that which panders to our most childish instincts, while being open to new ideas and expanding our tribe to include others whose world-views we had previously not sought to understand. Most of all, behave like an adult, and negotiate outcomes you want, rather than simply assuming that “the world is your oyster” so exclusively. It’s a big oyster, and there’s 7 billion other people who have no less right to assume that it’s their oyster too. I will be.