Our Next Step Should Be Together

Now that the country has collectively pieced together more of what happened under the Bush administration in the past few weeks, it is imperative that we work on addressing a much-neglected form of bias that is responsible for many political and social ills: tribalism.

Tribalism is the tendency to use one's affiliated group as a way to see the world, which depending on the form of the group, can take precedence over individual, patriotic, global and universal values. While one might like to believe that America is more of a melting pot than a nation of patchwork tribes, sometimes we operate more like the latter. Biases against other tribes prevent us from working together on important issues. This approach is seldom the best option when deciding among multi-perspectival choices that people are faced with in the modern world.

Tribalistic discrimination is a form of bias. While there is no doubt about the high levels of racism in America, some scientists have questioned the interpretation of the popular Implicit Association Test, a computer measurement designed to tell if millisecond differences in reaction times correlate to racism. Now scientists are wondering if there are other causal mechanisms that explain the findings of the test, including whether membership in groups, both in-group and out-group, plays a role. Other studies are confirming that people you spend time around strongly influence your thinking. In one study, people on a plane who bought things significantly increased the odds that those they sat next to would do the same.

These investigations and our reflection on past events can lead to the realization that it takes all kinds of people working together to create a peaceful society. While groups certainly can do wrong things, there is a difference between blaming those responsible and blaming everybody. If some groups continue to perform bad actions, their leaders should be confronted. Oftentimes the followers are not responsible, even if they think similarly. There is also the fact that some groups nest in each other, so wider groups become tarnished by the actions of bad apple groups. These distinctions must be kept in mind even as change should be encouraged.

We also need to be more careful not to take chauvinistic positions. Though there may be purpose in life, nothing is guaranteed. We have to remain vigilant not to fall for the same traps of groupthink that have claimed other generations. Just because the world is much more technologically advanced and human knowledge is flourishing, or just because fewer people suffer from disease and poverty today, does not mean that we can let our guard down too much. The so-called upward spiral of evolution is a poor analogy. As biologist Stephen J. Gould envisioned it, evolution creates complexity, not superiority. Some scientists even believe Neanderthals were much kinder than humans, who merely won out evolutionarily. That is not to say evolution does not favor kindness or gentle personalities. In fact, studies are suggesting just the opposite. But the world's healthy level of randomness should make us more committed to securing the future for each other, not only for ourselves and people who think like we do.

We need to renew the spirit of cooperation and acceptance that is necessary to navigate a complex society. I believe we can do it, though I know nobody will be perfect at it. Our survival and our evolution depend on it.