Humans are obsessed with organization. Since time immemorial, people have organized themselves according to different values, beliefs and physical characteristics. Religious organization into different faiths or denominations is but one example of this. Political organization into partisan groups is yet another manifestation of this phenomenon. Before the Peace of Westphalia (this is debatable but for the sake of this piece please accept it), people organized themselves in city states and loosely outlined empires and kingdoms. After 1648 however, human approaches to geographical organization evolved, and people began to establish socially constructed boundaries, creating the modern concept of states. Today, the cities we live in are organized into different neighbourhoods, districts and municipalities – fragmenting society based on socio-economic status or in some cases, ethnic enclaves. Our schools have catchment areas, enabling some parents to enroll their children, while excluding others. Social media has only exacerbated this human fascination of creating groups and categories. We now have the ability to subscribe to information from specific sources, which further solidifies groups of people that communicate only because they share common interests. Even the more intimate things in life, such as music listening, are now offered in conveniently organized playlists that are sequenced according to similarities in sounds. Perhaps this is not surprising – we are social creatures after all. It seems only logical that we align ourselves with like minded individuals, as this creates welcoming environments, where shared goals can be advanced. It can even be conceivable that perhaps by participating in activities with those who share similar interests, we actually increase our overall satisfaction, thereby increasing our quality of life. Undoubtedly, human practices of organization are convenient. However, this human obsession with social, political, and technological organization also has a potential downside. I would argue that ascribing to the values of a single group, pidgeon holes one’s way of thinking. Simply because someone joins the Liberal party of Canada for example, does not mean that he or she should blindly follow all the initiatives of the party and blindly reject the opposition’s mandates. Group-think creates a state of rigidity, fostering closed-minded approaches. In a world that is becoming increasingly interconnected, this ingroup and out-group mentality can create friction and tension, ultimately resulting in conflict. This is incredibly dangerous, and the negative impacts this entails for society are all too noticeable in 2016.
This train of thought was inspired by a political science course I am taking at the University of British Columbia. In this class, we examine the various moral and ethical theories which (supposedly) underpin our behaviours, and more specifically, political decisions of our world leaders. We have explored theories of utilitarianism, kantianism, cosmopolitanism and the likes. While all of these theories have their merits, what becomes increasingly clear from in-depth studies, is that humans utilize multiple theories depending on their situations. It makes very little sense to proclaim that you are a “realist” – because realistically, you will adopt other frameworks in different circumstances. For example, virtue ethicists judge actions based on their intrinsic qualities. In other words, actions are innately either good or bad. Adopting this framework would mean that lying is absolutely a bad act. But what if someone lies in order to serve an alternate moral purpose, such as saving a human beings life (for example, lying to hide jewish refugees during Nazi occupation)? In this situation, lying could be justified. This clearly demonstrates the limitations of adopting the singular approach of virtue ethics. Instead, one should examine situations from many perspectives, which will allow for more holistic understanding of motivations and behaviours.
Let’s return to 2016. This is a year that is marked by consequences of human organization. Ideas of outgroups such as immigrants fuelled hatred and xenophobic sentiments in the United Kingdom. As a result, British society elected to separate from the European Union, distancing themselves from the international system. This inspires ignorant nationalistic and ultra-right wing movements worldwide, and will perhaps result in further secessions and separations in the international community (i.e Quebec, Basques). Similarly, outgroups such as refugees were also subjects of prejudice. Countries refused to help desperate Syrians after they fled their failing state. In the United States, the presidential election is another example of patriotic-paranoia which excludes and marginalizes the ‘other’.
So what can we take away from this? I think that human history is a story. This story, and our current chapter specifically, should be viewed as a cautionary tale. We should be mindful about the groups we associate with and acknowledge that there are as many opinions and perspectives as there are people. Only through open-mindedness and collaboration between groups will we be able to fully self-actualize as a human race.
By: Jacob Medvedev