The Divisiveness of Cohesion
By Bryan Caplan
Suppose you live in a deeply divided society: 60% of people strongly identify with Group A, and the other 40% strongly identify with Group B. While you plainly belong to Group A, you’re convinced this division is bad: It would be much better if everyone felt like they belonged to Group AB. You seek a cohesive society, where everyone feels like they’re on the same team.
What’s the best way to bring this cohesion about? Your all-too-human impulse is to loudly preach the value of cohesion. But on reflection, this is probably counter-productive. When members of Group B hear you, they’re going to take “cohesion” as a euphemism for “abandon your identity, and submit to the dominance of Group A.” None too enticing. And when members of Group A notice Group B’s recalcitrance, they’re probably going to think, “We offer Group B the olive branch of cohesion, and they spit in our faces. Typical.” Instead of forging As and Bs into one people, preaching cohesion tears them further apart.
What’s the alternative? Simple. Instead of preaching cohesion, reach out to Group B. Unilaterally show them respect. Unilaterally show them friendliness. They’ll be distrustful at first, but cohesion can’t be built in a day. If respect and friendliness fail, try, try, and try again. There are no guarantees in life, but human beings are born reciprocators. If you stubbornly ask to shake a man’s hand, odds are he’ll eventually offer his in return. Once enough people walk this path of unilateral respect and friendliness, differences fade away – and cohesion silently takes its place.
A feel-good just-so story? I think not. Consider American politics in 2016. We’re basically the same people we were a year or two ago, but preachers of cohesion have achieved a new prominence. What’s happened? The American public is more divided than ever. Cohesionist themes have scared out-groups, who understandably feel threatened. And they’ve angried up in-groups, who understandably feel spurned. This is obvious for the Trump movement, but social justice progressives preaching “inclusion” exhibit the same dynamic. “We demand inclusion” makes outsiders feel threatened and insiders feel spurned – driving them further apart.
There’s an ongoing Twitter war between the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter. If either side really wanted to promote cohesion, they would swap hashtags. Moderates and conservatives would reach out to African-Americans and progressives with #BlackLivesMatter. African-Americans and progressives would reach out to moderates and conservatives with #AllLivesMatter. Why won’t it happen? I’ll outsource that to Robin Hanson.
Summing up: The first rule of promoting cohesion is: Don’t talk about cohesion. The second rule of promoting cohesion is: Don’t talk about cohesion. If you really want to build a harmonious, unified society, take one for the team. Discard your anger, swallow your pride, and show out-groups unilateral respect and friendship. End of story.
P.S. Next week, I’ll post if any of my election bets resolve. Otherwise, I’m hoarding my words for mid-November when election tempers have cooled.