The irresistible lure of group identity

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What do Brexiteers, Trump, Erdogan, Putin, Le Pen, Salvini, Duterte, Xi, Pinochet, Peron, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and Mao all have in common?

They’ve all presented themselves as saviors of their respective nations.

The people who today support Brexit and Trump are precisely the same kinds of people who eagerly embraced Hitler and Stalin: people who imagine themselves to be patriots.

So it’s worth asking: what is a patriot?

According to the dictionary, a patriot is: A person who vigorously supports their country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors.

So now we need to ask: why?

It’s hardwired human nature to defend the territory of one’s tribe. That’s basic survival instinct. Without territory, our ancestors would have lost access to food supplies and therefore perished. But why would any thoughtful person vigorously support what is essentially merely an abstract definition that happens to correspond to a (variable) geographic area?

No nation is without major flaws, internal problems, and manifest injustices. No nation is without its fair share of incompetents, foolish policies, and many weaknesses. A nation is merely an abstraction. Why would any rational person get emotionally worked up over an abstraction?

Obviously a rational person wouldn’t. But we homo sapiens are very far from being rational creatures. We’re the product of nearly 400,000 years of evolution during which time our behaviors were shaped by environmental pressures. We have a great many hardwired behaviors we can’t control, and our ways of thinking about our circumstances are likewise hardwired into us.

As we lack strength, sharp teeth and claws, aren’t very agile, and are easy prey we’ve needed to belong to a group in order to survive. Until very recently (in evolutionary terms) a solo person on the African savannah or in the primordial forests of Europe would have lasted a few days at best. Being part of a group was Job One for our ancestors.

So it is that we desperately want to belong to a strong group. That’s why we join clubs, support sports teams, and cheer for our country. Even when our country is hopelessly corrupt, fails to provide basic public services, and is dysfunctional in every possible way (yes, Pakistan, we’re talking about you, among many others).

This means we are very simple-minded creatures who are easily led by the nose by anyone who knows how to play on our hardwired responses.

Cue the blustering pompous demagogue who tells us that all our troubles are the result of some other group (Jews, Kulaks, Intelligentsia, Mexicans, Europeans, Capitalists, Patriarchists, Freemasons, Witches, Savages, Heretics, whatever).

We love this. Now we have a group we can legitimately fear and hate. We can define ourselves as not that group. We can feel warm and united under a slogan, a symbol, a sound-bite, a hat. We can feel part of something larger than ourselves (hello, group identity!) and this answers a fundamental need that modern society generally fails to answer convincingly.

Furthermore we now live in a complex and rapidly-changing world. We humans hate having change imposed on us. When it happens, it surely must be someone’s fault. So we need to find out who to blame.

The blustering demagogue tells us whose fault it is. Now we’re happy. Even better, the blustering demagogue tells us how simple it will be to fix everything that’s wrong with our lives. If only we tell those Europeans to f*ck off, if only we build a big wall to keep out those Mexicans (but…. not the ones we need to harvest our crops and look after our children and clean our homes….) then All Will Be Well. Because our group is great. Our group is the best group. Our group is Good and the other group(s) are Bad.

So it’s OK to be very bad to the Bad group, because being bad is good. So long as it’s us being bad to them. Not, of course, the other way around.

And because most of us are really very stupid, we adore this kind of message. It’s simple enough for our tiny ape-brains to encompass (more or less). So we love these demagogues, we vote for them, and we follow them having checked our tiny ape-brains at the door.

The Brits who voted for Brexit thought they were being patriotic, but in reality they were just being stupid.

The Americans who voted for Trump thought they were being patriotic, but in reality they were just being stupid.

Basically, being patriotic is to be stupid, because it’s substituting primitive hardwired desire for group membership in place of acquiring sufficient real-world information to be able to make an adequate assessment of the situation and then reasoning things through.

In short, patriotism is the abdication of thinking in favor of mindlessly cheering.

And that never, ever, ends well for anyone.

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