We all know the money that has been poured into fostering this merciless division. We all know the bigotry that has been employed. But do we really understand the depth of the primal instinct being accessed in our brains, through our television sets and radios?
A million years ago, when you saw a face peering through the jungle, you had to determine, ‘Is that MY tribe – or a foreign tribe?’ You did this by visual cues: skin color, hair texture, width/length of nose. Yes, this is racism, and it is perfectly natural and normal. The trick is not to deny it, but to recognize it in ourselves and overcome it.
During breaks in the filming of Planet of the Apes, it had been said that actors made up as different ape species tended to hang out together: gorillas with gorillas, orangutans with orangutans, chimps with chimps. It wasn’t required, it just naturally happened. We are wired to conform to tribe; it is no surprise that most people adopt the religion and political views of their parents, or community.
One way we were divided, intentional or not, were by the red/blue election maps. Those maps activated the ancient hard-wiring that discriminates between tribes.
Consider this psychology experiment carried out by a major university: College students were invited to a classroom, and upon entering were randomly handed a T-shirt to wear, either red or blue, in equal numbers. They were then each asked to perform a challenging individual task while the others watched. From the outset, the results were clear: As a red-shirted student performed his task, students also wearing red coalesced into a separate group and cheered him on. The same result emerged as a student wearing a blue shirt next performed her task. The individual students, based merely upon the common color they wore, had divided themselves into competing groups.
How much more so Democrats and Republicans, with the constant outside reinforcement of the strangeness, and separation?
Even within like groups, there is discrimination. If, during the 2012 election, you were a progressive who chose to vote for a more progressive third party, rather than Barack Obama, you were castigated by those who went the other way. Conformity is desired, required, and hard-wired.
Consider another experiment: A group of monkeys was placed in a room with a ladder in the center. Above the ladder, dangling from the ceiling, was an attractive bunch of bananas. Each time a monkey would attempt to climb the ladder, the entire group was viciously sprayed with a water hose. Soon the monkeys were conditioned not to approach the bananas.
Researchers then replaced one of the monkeys with a new monkey that had not been subject to this conditioning. When the new monkey attempted to climb the ladder, it was viciously attacked by the other monkeys, which had now been conditioned to fear the water hose whenever the ladder was climbed. Researchers then gradually replaced the old monkeys, one by one, with new subjects. Each time a new monkey approached the ladder, it was attacked and repelled by the group. The water hose was no longer used.
Eventually, all of the monkeys had been replaced. None of the monkeys present in the room had experienced the dreaded water hose. Yet when the final monkey was replaced, and the new monkey attempted to climb the ladder, it too was brutally attacked by the group, for no other reason but that they had been conditioned to attack any monkey approaching what should have been their natural food source.
Can we begin to see how we’ve been divided? Can we learn why, when one of us approaches the sacred cow – perhaps daring to challenge the status quo – we are beaten into submission by the conditioned, divided groups of blue and red?
Sean Shealy is a progressive activist and author of the novel Killing Limbaugh (from which some of this column has been condensed). Check out the book or contact the author at killinglimbaugh.com