Thisness And Thatness

There is an Arab saying that says: me against my brothers, me and my brothers against my cousins, and my family against the world. I must admit that this has never been my own personal way of behaving, as much as I might envy those with higher degrees of higher internal cohesion in their in-groups than has been the case for me in my own life. While squabbling with those who are close to me has never been particularly difficult, it has often been more difficult for me personally to unite with those who are relatively close despite the disagreements we have against more distant potential opposition. Identities are complicated matters, and for all of our obsession with identities, there are indeed overlapping identities and cases where there are people closer to us than others are even if they are not part of a still more close identity that we identify with stronger.

This is not a particularly difficult problem to think of, as our opening saying indicated that we can conceive of identity as being a set of concentric rings going out more distantly from ourselves with those who are closer to us than the rest of humanity in increasingly broader and less close amounts. We could, if we so chose, extend this beyond humanity, to look at our similarities with other supposed great apes as opposed to mammals, as opposed to animals as a whole and so on and so forth. We might conceive that we are closer to an amoeba than we are to a rock because both we and amoebas happen to be alive, for example. The broader the categories we look at, the more we share in common, but the less distinctive those similarities are. It might be easy to think of ways that we are like other omnivorous beings, but the need to identify with omnivores as opposed to herbivores or carnivores is less clear. How we might want to identify with those who share a very specific faith tradition as opposed to those who do not is considerably more obvious.

Our ability to cohere with other people, even for a limited time and very limited circumstances, depends on how we are able to combine the human tendencies to lump and to split. Lumpers tend to be gifted at finding commonalities that seek to bring people together, and splitters tend to be gifted at finding differences and distinctions that allow us to pull things apart and separate them. To the extent that we may find it important or even necessary to combine with others for the common defense or to pursue common interests, it may also be necessary for us to keep in mind why these people are not closer to us than they are. Simply because we may find ourselves on the same side as someone else in a given matter does not mean that this person is identical to us, or someone we necessarily can fully trust or approve of, it simply means that they are close enough in this particular case and for this purpose to work in harmony with, for as long as it takes to achieve common goals.

This need not be a very profound degree of similarity. In World War II, for example, the United States and Great Britain (two nations who have a great deal of common history and culture and language and all that) were allied with the Soviet Union and various other nations against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, militaristic Japan, and their minor allies. Had Hitler not invaded the Soviet Union or declared war on the United States, two mistakes that were made in the same year of 1941, things might have gone differently. Once Hitler’s regime was defeated, the Soviet Union became rather predictably and obviously the next enemy, because the common goal had been achieved and the general wide gulf between an evil Communist regime and a flawed but far better Western civilization raised its head again, allowing the United States to ally with Western European nations we shared more in common with than we did with the Soviet Union. And so it goes.

Generally speaking, as human beings we tend to be more focused on who is on our side at a given time and in a given situation than we are in figuring out the more complex taxonomies of relative closeness that would more closely help us to understand how close we are to those we would nonetheless consider our allies. This task becomes particularly challenging when one looks at the issue of governing coalitions, where it can be a real challenge to find the sort of common ground that allows good things to get done, which is all too much a rarity when it comes to the operation of political power. A board that is split 6-6 or a senate that is split 50-50, to give two examples, often faces serious difficulty in effective governing because it is the behavior of those members on the margins that allow things to get done, and those individuals can effectively leverage their position as the swing votes for considerable power and influence, much to the annoyance of those whose goals and plans are held hostage to the deciding vote needed to bring those plans into fruition.

It is a common human temptation to exaggerate the closeness we have with those whose support may be of vital importance to us but who may not share any particular closeness to us when it comes to worldview or belief system, but who may have tactical reasons for supporting the same particular course of action we have in a particular situation. It is vital for our own well-being that we be able to distinguish between those whose support for common interests and goals is vital but who support that course for reasons that are much different than our own and not necessarily compatible. Just because we may fight against the world with some people does not mean that we truly walk together with them in harmony and agreement. Sometimes, though, in order to win we must build coalitions with those we might not otherwise want to work with, but find that we cannot do without them anyway.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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