E Pluribus Unum?
By Jeremy Douglass
The divisions between us as individuals do not align neatly to the "sides" we are all supposedly on.
Individuality is one of the most important traits of our day. Cries of “be yourself” and “make your own path” have started many movements in the past few decades. But rarely do these movements desire true individuality. Instead, these groups focus on one particular set of people: people of a certain race, a certain origin, a certain amount of wealth, a certain gender, a certain religious background, and the list continues. Everyone has a variant of each of these traits, resulting in an infinite variety of people and personalities, and each of those people will have a unique perspective of the world. But instead of speaking out for themselves, they decide to join a group, containing members with whom they share only a handful of similarities.
This desire to be a part of something outside of oneself is natural. We all grow up in families, communities, and schools, each holding different values; we are all members of some religion or belief system; we can all fit into a certain slot on the political spectrum. But on a large scale, when all members are willing to put everything at stake for their group, a dangerous group mentality can evolve. It ignites riots and coups, it allows corrupt people to remain in power, it tears down the fabric and order of civilization. When people stop thinking like individuals, it becomes easier and easier to go with the flow without regard to how choices will affect yourself and others.
When individuals become a mob, suddenly people that we disagree with can be classified into their group and ignored. If someone is in a different political party, we assume they hold all the views we find unreasonable and hazardous, and we, by doing so, become our own group. In this state of “group vs. group,” individuality is stifled, inter-party communication is cut off, and compromise cannot be made. Those within a group are expected to hold all of that group’s ideals without variation or hesitation, kept in line with the threat of being rejected or ignored. The minority of members who try to bridge the gap are dismissed as eccentric. Compromise is impossible as groups are pushed towards extremes, even if individually the members could be reasonable. In this state, the Other becomes less than human. This is where death threats, slander, vitriol, insults, and destruction of livelihoods originate. This is a dangerous place to be, for both those in the mob and those outside it.
Let me relate two stories. My friend Ana has near-polar opposite political views from me. We discuss our differences gently and reasonably. We find other things that we share in common, too, like our taste in books and our senses of humor. We respect each other, because we try to understand each other’s positions, and because the sum of our selves is not our political views. Whomever Ana and I will each vote for is not the fulcrum of our relationship; no one thing is, since we have accepted each other as equals.
Conversely, my acquaintance Josh has similar political views to mine. However, not once have we had a civil conversation. The small things on which we disagree politically are always brightly illumined. He seems to believe his political views are the totality of his self. Those views we share are the norm of the school, so we are always, unconsciously, part of that group—and he thrives on group mentality. I have barely discovered anything about Josh besides his political views, because we can never talk about anything else. I cannot respect him; since he is always trying to be part of a group, he will not try to understand my position, and simultaneously he is unwilling to be understood.
In this state, empathy is impossible. Empathy—the ability to understand someone’s feelings while in a different situation from them—cannot happen when someone considers themselves a something. Besides the groups we belong to, there are other characteristics that separate one human from the next: our individual needs, our experiences, our perspective, and our thoughts. Not a single person has joined any movement for the exact same reason as another. Maybe someone says they want equality. But for whose sake do they want equality? What event alerted them to the lack of equality? What do they think could be changed to achieve equality?
Variables like these are important to understand, as everyone has a different view of the world. But a mob rarely cares about such nuances. A mob considers the common desire shared by its members, and throws all outsiders to the wolves. Empathy, on the other hand, wants to understand each individual. It wants to find a solution that helps the most people. Empathy considers the needs of everyone, and then chooses a path.
Of course, nature is a hard thing to suppress. Empathy is not easy; it takes time to get to understand someone. But I believe it is vital for the wellbeing of the human race to create solutions that benefit all and hurt as few as possible. When we are able to do that, we will be able to progress as never before, harmoniously, as one race, composed of individuals, each with their own needs, characteristics, and dreams.
Jeremy Douglass is a seventeen-year-old CLT student from Washington. He plans to study computer science in college, with a focus on video game production; in addition to these games, his hobbies include wider computer-craft and reading.
Each time we administer the CLT, the forty highest-scoring students from that administration are invited to make a contribution to the Journal. Congratulations to Mr. Douglass on his achievement! If you’d like to read more from the Journal, try these “top forty” essays on education in the thought of C. S. Lewis or the importance of music among the liberal arts. Or check out our own informal introduction to ideas with our “Great Conversation” series, on topics like the idea of language, the nature of matter, or the history of rhetoric.