Sounds like a slogan from the Sinister Six movie, doesn’t it?
No, I’m not talking about a bunch of malicious supervillains teaming up to kill Spiderman. I’m referring to the idea of uniting two bitter enemies (Israel and Palestine, anyone?). What’s the best way to pacify hostilities on both sides? How would you resolve antagonism between adversaries?
Here’s a mind-boggling answer: give them a common enemy.
Sounds whacky, right? But it’s not.
Don’t misunderstand me. By giving the mutual enemies a common enemy, I don’t suggest we throw between them an actual person so they can spit-roast him and make merry on his charred flesh and a bottle of Riesling afterwards. Even if that were to happen (although I do hope not), the rift between the parties won’t certainly be narrowed in a single night.
But why do we hate others in the first place? Where does the feeling of ill-will come from?
The answer lies in a short story (shorter than an O. Henry story, I promise).
Once an elderly man took a group of school boys on a summer camp trip. The boys were handpicked from various schools and had a common background; all of them white males from upper middle-class families. Upon reaching the designated site, the man did what a typical plutocrat would do – he split the group into two teams and gave each team a title and a separate cabin for their stay. As the camping activities began, the two teams were given competitive tasks, with prize going to the winning team.
From the very day the group was divided, animosity emerged between the two sides. They went from clueless strangers to resentful enemies in almost no time, and sometimes their resentment went so far (like stealing and burning the other team’s banner) that the man began to worry if he had created and set loose miniature Frankenstein’s monsters. At once he sought to rectify the situation.
Instead of competitive acts, he tried setting them up on cooperative activities. That didn’t work out though, for it’s really hard to befriend people who stick bubble-gum in your hair while you’re watching a film together.
The man came up with another idea then; instead of attempting to force the two teams to participate together in diverse activities, he had them work unitedly in situations where both suffered if they didn’t stick together (for example, finding and fixing pipe leaks as they had single source of water supply). Gradually, the boys’ disliking for each-other began to vanish and by the end of the camping trip, some of the former die-hard enemies even became best friends, and went singing together in their bus, riding into sunset.
Sounds like a plot from some Disney movie, doesn’t it? (does anyone have tears in their eyes?)
Except it isn’t. This is a very real story. Or to be precise, an experiment (by the way, those boys didn’t know then they were just test subjects; I imagine they were too preoccupied planting whoopie cushions under their opponents to think about it). The elderly man in this story is Muzafer Sherif, a Turkish-born psychologist, and he found that simple acts like segregating kids into teams and assigning them labels (the ‘eagles’ and the ‘rattlers’, in case you’re wondering) introduced differences even in a homogeneous group. The ingredient to perfect the recipe for disaster came from competitive activities, and just as it is impossible to obtain raw materials back from the cooked meal than the other way around, it is tougher to unite people than divide them. The most effective remedy, Sherif found, proved to be a common adversary that harmed their mutual interests (like the leaking water pipes).
Like a real movie, this story (experiment) has a title, too. It’s called Robbers Cave experiment (not because the kids were out plundering nearby villages and storing their loots in caves. Just the place they went to picnic happened to have that name).
Now you have an inkling what it takes to abate hostilities. If both sides are mutually harmed by something that requires cooperation to tackle, they will call truce, even if temporary, and work together to rectify the situation. (Take notes, peace-mongers).
I have described the solution even before discussing the problem i.e. the fundamental question: Why do we make enemies? Or more precisely, why do people dislike or hate other people?
Well, before you protest and say ‘C’mon, I don’t hate people. I only despise the jackasses who bully me in school or at office,’, I want to remind you that they are human beings, too, and not aliens from Mars. And no matter how unbelievably obnoxious one can get, or how irrational their loathing seems to be, people aren’t villains in their own eyes (each of us is the hero of his or her story – John Barth, The End of the Road).
Seemingly complex, the psychology of hatred is actually very simple at its core. It all began from our stint as hunter-gatherers (or our ancestors’, to be fair). When human beings started getting their hands dirty by hunting bigger and dangerous animals, they did so in groups (think about it – how else could they take down an elephant or lion on one-to-one basis? Their tools didn’t exactly measure up to modern arsenal). Cooperation was necessary as much within a group as a male-female pair, so that led to evolution of those groups into tightly-knit and localized tribes, and from there on things rapidly went downhill.
The creation of different tribes also resulted in a ‘us versus them’ mentality among all their members. Psychologists have special terms pertaining to this situation – in-groups and out-groups. Taking the example of tribes, a person belonging to a particular tribe was considered as ‘in-group’ by its members, and any outsider to that tribe was treated as ‘out-group’.
Each tribe now had to protect its territory not just from wild animals, but from other tribes as well. A sense of solidarity pervaded within a tribe, leading to favoritism of the members of one’s in-group (even if the favored member would later turn out to be a Benedict Arnold). But defense is only half the story; the other is expansion. When the population of a tribe grew too large, it needed to spread its limbs, too (sounds like Agent Smith from Matrix wasn’t so wrong about his observation of human beings). These acts of aggression are analogous to Sherif’s competitive acts, and generally resulted in negative treatment of all the members of out-group (it remains true even today; horrible acts of a single person belonging to a particular clan or religion results in all-out persecution of its every member).
As tribes morphed into societies and nations, in-groups and out-groups became even more firmly rooted in us. Anyone who disagrees with us (Green Lantern movie sucked, do you agree or disagree?), who doesn’t share our opinions or tastes (what! you don’t like Yankees?), whom we treat as competition (my marks will be better than hers this semester), who differs from our accepted standards, whether in looks or behavior (geez! look at that pimply nerd!), we are inclined to see them as belonging to out-group, and hence, view them as threatening to our interests. This discriminatory attitude has gone full monty today and has now assumed sophisticated forms – based on race, based on culture, based on beliefs, based on gender, and so on. Now that we have access to World Wide Web, this phenomenon is even more conspicuous – just have a looksie at the comment sections of any popular website, like Youtube. Whether debating Miley Cyrus’ new raunchy music video or Russia’s involvement in Ukraine crisis, you’ll often catch fans and critics alike resorting to ad hominems and flame wars.
I hope today’s post might have enlightened you about hatred (and its wholesale hazards), and what can be done to mitigate it. So what would you do to bridge gaps between yourself and your adversaries?
But more importantly, how would you treat people not part of your in-group?
- Muzafer Sherif’s paper on Robbers Cave experiment
- A paper on social projections to ingroups and outgroups