Beyond tribal competition

Shared action is the key to reducing political polarisation, but how to make it happen?

Perry Walker
13 August 2020, 8.01pm
A protestor and counter-protester in Charlottesville, Virgina, August 12, 2017.
Flickr/Evan Nesterak. CC BY 2.0.

In 1954, psychologists Muzafer Sherif and Carolyn Wood Sherif brought two groups of eleven- and twelve-year-old boys to Robber’s Cave, a summer camp in Oklahoma. Each group occupied a different part of the camp and, for five days, thought itself alone. Each marked out its territory and chose a name - the ‘Eagles’ and the ‘Rattlers’ - and each became a tribe.

On day six, the Sherifs arranged for each tribe to become aware of the other. They also created artificial situations that were zero-sum. In games between the tribes, there were prizes such as a medal and a multi-bladed pocket knife for the winners, but no consolation prizes for the losers. The psychologists also found other ways for one tribe to gain at the expense of the other, like delaying one group reaching a picnic to find that the others had eaten all their food.

Antagonism was instant. Each group became still more tribal - making flags, hanging them in disputed territory, and raiding each other’s bases. The groups became so aggressive with each other that the researchers had to separate them physically.

The psychologists were appalled at how successful they had been in polarising the two groups of boys, and were determined to reverse it, so they staged various events that forced everyone to work together, like the breakdown of a truck in which all the boys were travelling. Quite quickly, hatred was replaced by comradeship. The shift came from sharing common tasks.

As this story shows, neither competition nor collaboration are innate: both are created by circumstance, so it should be possible to stimulate a shift from one to the other in the wider world too - but how?

The first problem is how to get groups that believe they have nothing in common with each other to sit down and talk. One part of the answer to that problem is that collaboration is more likely if dialogue is the only viable way forward for either party to achieve their goals.

Gorka Espiau, for example, was a member of staff at Elkarri, a grassroots peace organisation in the Basque region of Spain. In 2002, when the campaign for Basque independence was at its most violent, he said, “If I know that you, my opponent, would approve of my being killed, that you do not have a basic respect for human life, then how can I have an open, human dialogue with you? And yet without such a dialogue, how can we end the violence?”

In situations where it’s not yet clear that dialogue is the only way forward, one alternative is to find a convenor that enjoys enough trust on both sides to get people together. For example, in Minnesota in 2012 child custody laws were a major political battleground. Brian Ulrich, a divorced father and activist with the state’s Center for Parental Responsi­bility, remembers seeing an opposing legislator approach the elevator in which he was riding, at which point “The legislator turned around and took the stairs instead of getting on the elevator with us.”

In 2012, the Minnesota Senate passed a com­promise bill with a default split of 35/65 for the proportion of time a child would spend with each parent, but Mark Dayton , the Governor of Minnesota, refused to sign the legislation, noting that there were compelling arguments on both sides, and calling on the warring factions to break the impasse.

Initially, Ulrich laughed when his group was invited to meet their adversar­ies: “I thought, you’re just wasting your time. We were so entirely opposed. I had seen the lobby­ing. I had seen the emotions of the presentations at the committee hearings, the unpleasant glances, the unwillingness to sit down and talk before that. It was just a recipe for failure.”

Other stakeholders shared his pessimism. Rep. Tim Mahoney later told a House committee: “I really had no interest nor any belief that it would actually do anything. One of my opening statements was that I didn’t trust anybody in the room.” But in 2015, a package of bills developed and supported by both sides passed the House of Representatives 121-0 and the Senate 61-3.

The Governor’s role in convening opposing sides was crucial to this success, but also vital was the fact that the people involved recognised the other side as fellow human beings, living in the same world.

The city of Chattanooga in Tennessee did some impressive visioning of this kind in the 1980s and 1990s. As Chattanooga Venture, the organization behind it, reported, “Residents of South Chattanooga were so vocal about air, ground and water pollution that they attracted the attention of other neighbourhood associations throughout the city, even in the outlying suburban areas, where residents recognised that they ‘breathe the same air and drink the same water’.”

Once the required human connections have been made, the next step is to find ‘win-win’ solutions. Mary Parker Follett, an American Quaker born in 1868, tells the story of two sisters who want the same orange. The compromise solution is to split it, but it turns out that one sister only wants to drink the juice of the orange and throw out the peel, while the other wants only the peel (for a cake) and would discard the juice. The apparent contradiction here is resolved by going deeper into the needs of both parties.

Denied a place at Harvard for failing to be a man, Follett went into social work, ending up one of the greatest early management gurus and an advisor to President Theodore Roosevelt. The expression ‘win-win’ is credited to her.

Exactly the same pattern was in play in the 1978 Camp David negotiations between Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt over the status of the Sinai Peninsula. Each took the position that his country wanted complete control of the land. On deeper investigation, it turned out that Israel’s primary interest was in security - having fought a series of wars with their neighbours - whereas the Egyptians’ interest was in sovereignty. This made possible a solution that satisfied the need and interests of both leaders: the Sinai was given to the Egyptians but demilitarised.

In other situations, groups with different values may find reasons of their own to support the same policy. A good contemporary example is the notion of a ‘citizens’ income’ - a regular payment by right to everyone. This idea appeals to the left because it appears to promise equality, solidarity and redistribution, but it also interests the (libertarian) right because it offers small government, freedom and efficiency.

A third pattern of win-win is to uncover shared interests and values between parties who begin by believing that they have nothing in common. During the Minnesota child custody battle, this began when both sides discovered that they wanted families to be dealt with on the basis of their specific circumstances. That mutual acceptance got them talking, and over time relationships improved enormously.

But as Brian Ulrich said, “Despite the trust and the goodwill that clearly existed by that point, in December 2014 I thought it might all still collapse, because we still hadn’t gotten to the core issue of parenting time.” The breakthrough came when a participant who had always resisted the prescription of 50/50 parenting time suggested that a new factor be added to the list used by judges and custody evaluators to determine the “best interest of the child” - “The benefit to the child in maximizing time with both parents and the detriment to the child in limiting time with either parent.” That formula became the basis of the legislation that eventually went through.

It’s in all our interests to find similar solutions to the pressing challenges that face divided societies - and to develop the skills and willingness to engage with each other as more than mortal enemies.

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