Saturday, February 14, 2015

Group Identities and World Peace

George Friedman, one of the most brilliant geopolitical analysts in the world calls it brotherhood in his book “Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe” and in his recent blog post. I have referred to it as group-identity resonance – which is when you use the same processes as self-identity resonance but with group attributes.  It is the root of peer pressure, racial discrimination, nationalism, and many other really powerful social psychology motivations.  We have many groups that we identify with.  Our family.  Our company (in good cases).  Our town.  Our religion.  Our sports teams.  Our University.  Our country.  Each of these has its own unique set of attributes that become active parts of our personality when the group identity is evoked.  An attribute that we might not even believe in ourselves becomes a part of us for the period of time that our group identity is dominant. 

I have a strong feeling that George Friedman’s idea will resonate with you and seem intuitive when you hear about it, especially if you are familiar with identity-resonance in general.  The way Friedman applies it to geopolitics is really brilliant.  Of course, that may be because he is one of the world’s leading experts in geopolitics.  The key message is that a strong feeling of belonging (group-identity resonance) has more influence than rule of law, peace, or prosperity on world peace.  In the US, who do we consider part of our societal in-group? In the beginning, it was our state.  That is why the Civil War was possible. But now, it is the whole country.  If an alien came down to earth and asked you “which side are you on in this world?” I suspect that many US citizens would say “American” before we say most of our other attributes.  Especially compared to other countries, immigrants to the US are much more likely to assimilate, in part because there is such as strong identity of being an American as part of our residency.  You don’t even have to be a citizen to feel it. 

In Europe, they don’t have this.  Their societies evolved over centuries based on ethnicity and tribe. The Middle Ages pretty much locked in their mindset to the point where immigrants can’t assimilate.  They don’t feel like they can be accepted into the broader community because the community identity is based on something they can’t have – the ethnicity.  So they keep the one they have.  And once the multiple communities coexist within the country, it is easier to associate with others of your ethnic identity rather than your national one.  You already have the attributes, you know what they are, and you are accepted by them.  Friedman makes a great case that this is why the European Union can’t get its act together.  The Germans care more about how the German economy is doing than how the Greek economy is doing, by orders of magnitude.  So they would rather see the EU experiment fail than risk their German stability.  “Je suis Charlie” is a great marching chant, but I doubt that it will result into any lasting inter-ethnic group identity. Friedman has me convinced. 

My Take

Unfortunately the others - rule of law, peace, and prosperity - come in cycles.  Economies will have periods of inflation and recession as well as growth.  We thought there was a new normal where we would have smaller, shorter recessions and longer more constant periods of growth. Our central bankers were too smart to let us fall into a new depression.  Then we had the 2007 “Great Recession” crash, which is just easing in the US and looks like it is getting worse in Europe.  Prosperity is fleeting.

Conflicts arise that no one predicted.  Two years ago, ISIS was an Egyptian goddess or a software application.  Two years ago, who thought Russia would be invading Ukraine?  Who knew about Yemeni Houthis?  These are not over.  Peace is fleeting.

Rule of law always seems stronger than it really is.  The recent police shootings in Ferguson and Staten Island demonstrate this.  So does the Edward Snowden situation.  And these examples are in the relatively stable US.  Just search for “corruption” on your favorite news aggregator and you will see endless examples around the world.  There is a reason that the Nigerian army can’t do anything about Boko Haram. 

The group identity challenge emerges when we look at how people react to these kinds of challenges when they arise. We attribute the best ofmotives to members of our in-group and the worst of motives to the “other.”  If we could somehow develop a group-identity called “human” we might get better results from a world-wide perspective.  I suspect (and I am not the first) that only when we are faced with some extraterrestrial invader that there is any chance this might emerge.  But one can hope . . .

Your Turn

This is my second World Peace related post.  But I really think it is important so I want to throw the idea out to everyone who understands people, behavior, and interaction.  How can we get people to develop stronger group-identity resonance to “humanity” than to their religion, race, tribe, or soccer team (for the uninitiated, soccer hooligans are a serious problem for these same reasons).  I love the heatedness of the Red Sox – Yankees rivalry, but even after Game 7 of a tough ALCS, I would help a Yankee fan if he fell in the parking lot.  Can we generalize this attitude to all of our other group-identities?

Do you see a path forward?