He never stood a chance. At first, there were two of them, and he tried to fight, but another four crept up behind him and he was surrounded. They left him there to bleed to death and eventually nearly 20 such killings took place, until there was no one left in the valley. The victor’s territory had successfully been expanded.
The protagonists in this tale are not people; they are chimpanzees in a national park in Uganda and similar attacks occur in chimp populations elsewhere. I guess it is no surprise that humans, who share more than 98 per cent of their DNA with chimps, also commit violent acts and divide the world into “us” and “them”.
Today we have a growth in nationalism bringing out the worst in all of us. Those at the margins in society are being victimised and punished, sometimes with the taking of their life. Some political leaders are encouraging people, with their words, to behave in ways most of us find disgusting.
What is being preyed upon is our brain and how we distinguish between those who are in our group and outsiders. Our brain in a fraction of a second acts automatically to identify friend or foe. These biases are unconscious and are evident very early in our life. Experience and time can change our bias as to who is “us’ and who is ‘them’ but the psychological bases for tribalism remains.
Those in leadership positions using tribalism as part of their modus operandi are using tools that are very effective. During research a white male volunteer subjected to a brain scan in under one-tenth of a second activated a part of the brain responsible for fear and aggression when shown a black man’s face. This initial response is overridden in most cases a second or two later but still the initial reaction is usually fear.
Every day we must make value decisions and deep seated ‘hard wired’ influences unconsciously influence our decisions. Through time some of us become more expert when making decisions and reduce the impact of the automatic responses the brain makes.
From an early age we migrate towards those who we feel reassured being around. This does not mean that young children are born racist but their attitudes to others are heavily influenced by their parents.
There is something called an Implicit Association Test, which I’ve taken, that is designed to reveal your prejudices. The test requires you to act very quickly when shown images and as the preferences build up the result delivers your individual preferences on subjects such as race, religion, ethnicities, age and body types.
Good practices associated with nationalism can encourage people to pay their taxes and care about the disadvantaged in society. In the multicultural melting pots today across the world using nationalism the wrong way has a dark side. I’ll not repeat the words some politicians have used in order to exploit electoral advantage.
I’m a fan of the 1957 movie Twelve Angry Men. It tells the story of a jury of twelve men as they deliberate the conviction or acquittal of a defendant based on reasonable doubt, forcing the jurors to question their morals and values.
Perhaps it is time for all of us to have a long hard look at ourselves and our values.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org