What team do you belong? Democrat? Republican? Black; white? Are you a Phillies fan or a Yankees fan? Black Lives Matter? Proud Boys? Male? Female? All these and more we use to describe ourselves and others. We use it to identify and categorize each other, inferring traits and characteristics upon others or simply signaling our own status to others. We show off what team we belong (or support) and differentiate others. And often, our ethics or morals seem to bend or break depending on this.
In many conversations I have, one of the more frustrating observations I make is how something is only good or bad depending on the perspective of what team is committing an action and what team is observing. A great example of this is in the Trump vs Biden dynamics of sexual misconduct. I do not wish to delve into details on this, but depending on which team one belongs in the conservative vs liberal (or rather, Democrat vs Republican) debate will tell which of the two men mentioned above is innocent and which is guilty. And if we’re on one team or the other, we can give lip-service to morals and insisting on due-process while still taking the accusations seriously, but we can’t seem to parse out how that’ll work for the opposition — because obviously they are just evil. Obviously they only have selfish, devious intentions behind all their motives.
How do we break through this? How is it that we can have conversations about right and wrong, about morals and ethics — about facts and truths even — without this devolution to team-fighting?
I often think of one’s identity (their characteristics and the groups they belong) to be a lens and filter by which they view all information that is presented to them. ‘Biases’ is another good term for it. These filters, or biases as a whole, aren’t good or evil; they just are what they are. They are the angle that we observe life. They are the rudimentary programs that operate in the background that help to process our decisions. It has nothing to do with our abilities to empathize or ‘step into someone else’s shoes’, but it does have something to do with how things are or can be interpreted. Most people don’t have the time or the energy to try to reach beyond this — to do the aforementioned ‘step into someone else’s shoes’. They simply want to live their life and move on, so they default to however their filters processed the information shown to them and move on. These folks can and do step away from behind these filters, but as stress and anxiety rises, this becomes less likely.
That leads us to the more modern times. Stress/anxiety as a whole has been on the rise. I tried to look up a handy graph for this, but alas I didn’t find one in my cursory search. What I did find was articles from the APA (American Psychological Association) and the ADAA (Anxiety & Depression Association of America) that indicated that we are in the midst of a mental health crisis. Looking around at the turmoil of the last four years culminating in a pandemic that toppled the global economy and it is easy to understand how this is possible. When one is stressed, it is less likely that they will be able to open up and step around their filters. Our evolution has made programs designed for self-preservation. And being the social creatures humans are, we tend to seek comfort and protection — we find our preservation — within our tribes. Seen another way, we lock in with our team.
Here gets a story of competing filters. The more stress on our psyche, the more we will tend towards the more basal of our instincts. This means that we’ll regress more towards how our ancient ancestors might have responded to a crisis — only we have a modern, global society now to contend with. All in all, it becomes no surprise that we have become locked into this team vs team dynamic in our culture. We truly are in a culture war as each side digs their trenches, seeking protection with those they view as in their tribe. We forgo what we espouse as right or wrong if it means that we avoid the risk of expulsion.
Expulsion is deadly. At least in the past it was. Psychologically, it can be just as damaging though. Our minds know this, so we’ll easily brush aside those pesky morals and ethics in favor of that overriding self-preservation-staying-protected-by-the-team thing.
Another thing that might happen (and I won’t spend a whole lot of time here) is that one might see some issues with their own team that disrupt their personal filters. Rather than brush aside those pesky morals, they’ll instead become traitors to their originating team and run over to the opposing team as new allies. Of course in many cases, they’ll then simply fall in line with the new team and adopt the latter’s behaviors and filters.
Again, this isn’t right or wrong — it just is. But we do have to deal with the right or the wrong. It becomes only more important to do so as we get more divided — as stress and anxiety force us to regress to lock in behind our filters and biases, to run in lock-step with our teams.
One way to do this is to be willing to step away from our own filters and show compassion to those we may see as evil otherwise. No, this won’t always work. Sometimes it will mean that we end up sacrificed in some metaphorical sense.
Another may be that instead of identifying with teams based on superficial traits, maybe we seek out higher values to latch onto — values that transcend team dynamics and encompass a more total-human experience.
Still another is to talk to one another. To have those uncomfortable conversations, to bicker and argue, rather than silencing or ignoring each other. It means opening up our ears and shouting at a lesser volume so that maybe we can hear things.
The fear in doing any of this is that we need to preserve our filters. Our identities depend on this. Truly listening to others requires us to almost destroy our filters, even if but for a moment, so that we can understand what is presented to us from the others’ perspective. It is of course why as stress has risen in societies, we dig in deeper, unwilling to risk damage to our precious biases.
Things will turn around. We will wake up and change our ways. The question is: when? And then what will have happened in the meantime? Will one team win out, enforcing everyone else to its standards and morals, only to then have to come to grips with the horror of its own shortcomings? Will we destroy each other, leaving nothing behind? Or will we start to chip away at our defenses beforehand, to start listening and setting aside our filters and biases for enough time to shift society as a whole to a better place? I hope it is the latter.