SIX-YEAR-OLD Kate was playing with her younger brother, each had a Frisbee, which they threw as far as they could. After each round of throws Kate declared that she had ‘won’, having thrown the Frisbee further than her three-year-old sibling. She was the ‘winner’, and by extension, Richard was the loser. They were not playing together any longer, they were competing; Kate had been conditioned into the ideology of competition, presumably by school and her peers, perhaps her parents, and her brother, whether he likes it or not, would shortly join her.
Some years ago the Max-Planck Institute in Germany conducted an experiment with a group of toddlers; the children were placed in a room with adults, the adults dropped something and the children were encouraged to pick it up for them. This they happily did, working collectively. Then a reward was introduced and given to the child who handed the item to the adult. The group work immediately broke down, harmony was shattered and the children began fighting over the item to be retrieved. Their behavior had been corrupted — conditioned by motive; the effect was social division and conflict.
We have all been the victims of such sociological/psychological conditioning, some more, some less. Conditioned images of oneself and of others are unconsciously built up, attachment to content made firm. Far from creating the security we yearn for, attachment to the construct ensures fear is maintained. Instead of allowing ourselves to be, we have become something — someone: we belong to a nation, and share in its values; its history and traditions become ours, as do its enemies. We are Brazilian, French, British, American, etc; successful, middle class, or unsuccessful and poor; white or non-white; a colonizer or the colonised; strong or weak, ideologically inclined — Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, socialist, capitalist, and so on. The image of ‘me’ in contrast to the ‘you’ is formed, the ‘us’ against ‘them’ takes root; my country versus your country, my political party against yours, my God versus your God, my opinions versus yours and so on, and on, and on.
Attachment to the image is strong, defence of its beliefs and ideals fierce. From this narrow, conditioned centre thoughts emerge and actions proceed, creating multiple divisions and disharmony, endless wars and violent conflict. The Jew stands in opposition to the Arab, the Hindu to the Muslim, the socialist to the capitalist. Italy competes with Japan, the British with the French, America with everyone, etc., etc. The result is a divided world of fragmented fearful human beings in conflict with themselves.
This is not philosophy, it is the very fabric of our lives, the animating impulses that form the type of society in which we live; a global society that is more divided than ever, and therefore in great conflict, for where there is division there is conflict. Societies within countries are divided, regions are divided, groups within communities, individuals within households/families.
A poll surveying attitudes in 28 countries by Ipsos Mori in 2018 found that 76 per cent of people believe their country is divided (80 per cent in America), and almost 60 per cent think it is more divided today than it was a decade ago. Europeans are the most likely to think divisions have grown; ‘77 per cent of people in Spain say their country is more divided now than 10 years ago, followed by Sweden, Germany, Britain and Italy (all 73 per cent).’ The countries that feel the least divided according to the survey are two of the most suppressive regimes in the world, Saudi Arabia and China, so their responses can probably be disregarded.
The president of Ipsos Public Affairs, Cliff Young, says this sense of division is a ‘symptom of these times… there has been a decline in trust in traditional institutions and a rise in the belief that the system is broken… Citizens in general no longer believe that governments, politicians and other institutions can deliver on their promises.’ This is certainly a factor; the current systems are completely inadequate to the needs and nature of the times and are feeders of division. They are inherently unjust, are built on divisive principles and are in a state of terminal decline. Many people recognize this and are calling for fundamental change, but because of entrenched resistance from those that benefit from the system it is being artificially kept afloat. This cannot last.
Tolerance and unity
THE various expressions of division are plain to see, they abound in the economic, political, social and religious spheres and impact on everyone. Political parties of all colours are retreating more deeply into their own ideology; within parties splinter groups are widespread, cooperation between parties rare. Stark economic division manifested as inequality of wealth, income and influence underpins and is a form of unprecedented social injustice. Without fundamental systemic change such economic divisions will deepen — wealth will become even more concentrated and with it political influence — allowing the spiral of injustice and social division to be perpetuated, and with it conflict and a plethora of social ills.
With strengthening divisions and hardening extremes, tolerance is weakened, societies become less compassionate, more judgemental, and mental illness increases. The Ipso Mori poll found that 40 per cent of people believe their particular country has become less tolerant in the last ten years. Divisions occur in parallel with, and are in large part the result of, competition, together with the dual mechanisms of reward and punishment and the attachment to ‘isms’ of all kinds. Divisions create an environment of suspicion and fear, which the survey confirmed, revealing that only 18 per cent of people claimed to trust groups with different political views, a mere 16 per cent trust immigrants and wealthier people. Nobody trusts politicians, no matter what badge they wear.
In order to break down divisions and inculcate ways of living that unify people and build right relationships, a new collective atmosphere needs to be created and different values inculcated. Crucially this requires changing the economic system, which lies at the heart of many of our interrelated problems. As currently designed it is completely divisive; based on competition and endless consumption, nations, regions, cities, businesses and individuals are set in opposition to one another. A kinder more just model needs to be introduced based on the principle of sharing with the aim of meeting the needs of all and saving the planet, which under the present approach is regarded as a storehouse of resources to be exploited by mankind, rather than an integrated living organism to be respected and cared for. The field of institutional education is perhaps the next single most important area in which changes could and should be made. Competition, reward and punishment and conformity characterize the education policies of most governments, policies that are all anathema to real education.
The responsibility to create a unified harmonious world rests with us all, we can all think and act in an inclusive tolerant manner, but it is governments that have the power to make policy changes and introduce systemic reform. Although it is not possible to legislate unity and social harmony into being, it is possible, as the current methodology demonstrates, to exacerbate notions of separation by designing systems based on divisive principles.
Unity is our inherent state; remove those elements that cause division and aggravate intolerance, encourage modes of living that work towards mutual understanding and bring people together, and unity will naturally and spontaneously come into being.
CounterPunch.org, April 8. Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up the Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India.