How We Got Here (or, Who We Are)

Donald Trump now formally occupies what is arguably one of the most powerful seats in the world. On the surface, this may seem like it has very little to do with me or my politics as a Canadian. But when I take a step back, I see the bigger picture. This world is reaching a precipice of sorts, a breaking point, where literally everything is on the line and no one is left unaffected.

I have always been hesitant to oversimplify any social phenomenon, because I believe that important information is inevitably lost in the process. But all complexities aside (for a moment), here are a few considerations to be had:

One. People can essentially be divided into three groups: the haves, the have-nots, and the have-a-lots. Conventional thinking typically reduces all of us to one of the two former groups, but this is misguided. The haves are not entirely responsible for the subjugation of the have-nots, nor are they able to successfully avoid all subjugation themselves. It is the have-a-lots that bear the majority of responsibility in the maintenance of extreme and expansive social hierarchies. This is done for their own benefit, of course. But without the “lot” (which is exponentially larger than the difference between the haves and the have-nots—hence the important addition of this third category), there would be no power.

Two. People may also be divided into two groups: liberal and conservative. But I suggest this division from a more internal psychological perspective than an externally motivated political one. Some of us are naturally and innately more open to new things, more diverse and creative in thought, and therefore more sensitive to others’ experiences (i.e., liberal). The rest are much more closed-minded, more rigid in thought and action, less considerate of others’ experiences, and less capable of imagining themselves standing in the shoes of unfamiliar others (i.e., conservative). Perhaps one extreme is not possible without the other. Or, perhaps one extreme is simply more humane and just.

Three. People can be quickly and comprehensively described by their membership within a single group: their nation. This is the way in which one typically distinguishes him or herself from others in a global community. I am Canadian, and this means something, or at least it’s supposed to mean something. The idea has been perpetuated that our national and cultural identities are at the core of our existence (and even health) as human beings. By maintaining this perspective, however, consider that the primary outcome is the conservation of our differences. Also consider that nationality and culture are human conventions like any other; they too may be surmounted.

People may be more broadly (but perhaps according to some, less meaningfully) described by their membership within another single group: the human race. Homo sapiens sapiens are we all, sharing a measurable degree of similarity that defines us as a species—genetically, physically, and psychologically; and which very importantly distinguishes us from other manifestations of life and consciousness.

Now let us consider the complexities. In the United States, a self-interested have-a-lot has managed to convince many conservative-minded haves and have-nots that their national identity is under attack by terrorists, immigrants, Muslims, and others. (The “lot” is again imperative, because without it there would be no power, and without power there would be no show.) This has been mirrored recently in many other parts of the world, where feelings of nationalism have been intensified by the cultivation of heightened threat perception among those who are powerless. (For another example, consider Britain’s desire to exit the European Union, which has been driven largely by escalating feelings of English nationalism.) Such efforts are possible primarily because of considerations 1 and 3. Class and income-related differences remain robust and vulnerable to exploitation (as they have historically), and they persevere due to the illusion that such differences necessarily create opportunity and stimulate growth for those without. (But what about our intrinsic motivations? Are they futile?) Additionally, people are distracted by a meaningless focus on national and cultural identity, blind to the opportunistic ways of the have-a-lots. The system works because enough of us do not readily consider the perspectives of unfamiliar others or groups of others, remaining resistant to diversity and progress while clinging to our sense of self as highly individuated and inherently (though undeservedly) special. Feelings of nationalism are therefore exacerbated by a lack of perspective-taking and further insulated by mainstream conservative media, all directed and exploited by those at the highest rung of the ladder whose primary pursuit is the preservation of their own power.

The solution? It’s difficult, but it’s possible. We must begin by relinquishing our devotion to national and cultural identities (they simply hold us back), and to traditionalism more generally. Adopting any one mode or motive simply because “that’s how it’s always been” is nonsensical and reckless. We must instead adopt an identity in which we are all conceived as members of the same group: one race, one species. Degrees of have-ness may be unavoidable at this stage of social evolution, but the gap must narrow rather than continue to widen. And we must work tirelessly to open the minds of our children; and of our neighbours who for too long have entertained the same superficial self-indulgence and sense of entitlement as now-President Donald J. Trump. The developing feelings of nationalism observed in the West are suggestive of some sort of collective identity crisis—seeded by fear and manipulated by those who hold all the power but none of the shame or remorse. It’s time to reclaim that power, and to reshape our minds and perspectives such that no one person feels the need to hold any other person back.

Today we must look ourselves in the mirror, each and every one of us—Canadians, Americans, human beings. We must better understand our place in it all, no matter how it is cut or considered, because we all play a role. And we must be accountable in every thought and action. We’re all in this, and we’re in it together, whether we like it or not.

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