What a Thai cave and Manchester United fans tell us about who ‘we’ are
Millenia ago, Plato used his allegory of the cave as a reflection on truth and knowledge. The way that the world looks on the inside is rudely disabused on the outside.
And so today, the view from inside a Thai cave — where the whole world was in thrall to the fate of 12 children and their coach, where love and care and concern trumped any thoughts of danger or expense, and where even to mention the fact that some are stateless, some are from disparaged ethnic minorities would seem an obscene distraction — is very much at odds with the state of the world outside.
In our everyday world, the world pays scant attention as millions of Rohingya people are ethnically cleansed and now face death as the monsoons sweep away their refugee camps.
Thousands of migrants drown in the Mediterranean as countries close their ports to the sinking ships. A dying refugee on Nauru is denied entry to Australia for palliative care. How can we be so humane and yet so inhumane at the same time?
What do we have to learn from this new allegory of the cave?
Who is in the group?
A while back, one of us ran a simple study, along with our colleague Mark Levine.
Manchester United fans watched someone fall over and hurt themselves while wearing a United, Liverpool or plain red T-shirt. They helped the first and ignored the other two. Proof that we help ingroup members. But that wasn't the point of the study.
For, in another variant, we again took Manchester United fans, but encouraged them to think of themselves not in terms of their club, but as football fans.
And this time, confronted with the victim in need, they gave help when he was wearing a Liverpool shirt as well as a Manchester United shirt.
The real point of the study is that the way we view our groups — who is "us" and who is "them" — varies. And the more inclusively we define the group, the wider the ambit of our care and concern.
Another study on nationhood reinforces the point. A young girl with Chinese features but wearing a Scotland football shirt stumbles, her possessions scatter.
Do people help her? When we encouraged young Scottish onlookers to think of their nationhood in "ethnic" terms — a matter of lineage — the girl was not seen as "one of us" and ignored.
But when Scottishness was defined in civic terms — a matter of commitment — she was included as Scottish and was helped. Again, the way we define the groups to which we belong proves critical to the scope of our humanity.
Making 'them' part of 'us'
Such small experiments may seem weak foundations for such a big claim about the wider world. So let us turn to a big real world example.
Amid the horrors of the Holocaust, there are a few shining examples of decency and solidarity. None are greater than the so-called miracle of Bulgaria. Twice the Nazis tried to deport the Jews of Bulgaria to the death camps. Twice the population was mobilised to stop them. Not a single Jew was deported. At the end of the war there were more Jews living in the country than before.
But if you look closely at the mobilisation, you see something strange. The word "Jew" is hardly ever mentioned. The talk is of a national minority under attack. And when you do find a mention it is to insist that Jews sing the same songs, revere the same heroes as the rest of us. So the Nazis are not attacking "them". They are attacking "us". And so the Bulgarian nation rose in response.
Contrast this to what happened in the rest of the world. July marks the 80th anniversary of the Evian conference. It was called to address the plight of German and Austrian Jews. If each country present had taken a mere 17,000 people all would have been saved.
But they didn't. Why? Because even though these countries didn't kill Jewish people, they still viewed Jews as alien and with distaste. The Australian representative at Evian, TH White, notoriously announced: "As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one".
Hitler took solace from Evian.
To him it confirmed that those who publicly condemned his policies privately shared his antipathies. We all know the consequences.
It's a matter of life and death
So the question of how we define our group memberships is not some abstruse matter of mere academic concern. It is not a matter of a little more or a little less assistance given to others. It is, quite literally, a matter of life or death.
Those who have the power to shape our understanding of who is "us" and who is not bear a very great responsibility to exercise this power with care. Nowhere is this more pertinent than in contemporary debates over immigration.
The very use of the word "immigrant" is problematic.
Why define people in terms of their difference from ourselves (they are coming here from elsewhere) rather than as fellow workers, fellow parents or whatever.
Moreover, by being defined in terms of movement rather than place, immigrants are not only outside "our" nation, but outside the very system of nation states. It is not a coincidence that the most pathologised of groups are those associated with displacement rather than place: the "gypsy", the "wandering Jew" and now, the immigrant.
But the problem doesn't stop there. Immigrants are not just those who are not of us, they are those who endanger us. Thatcher's talk of "swamping", more recently, Trump's talk of "infestation" suggest that those who come are akin to vermin and who represent pollution.
The Nazis represented Jews as rats and lice, the Hutu extremists represented the Tutsis as cockroaches. In the same way as we talk of "pre-cancerous" cells, we could consider escalating anti-immigrant discourse as pre-genocidal.
Thing don't have to be this way
Little of this will come as news to the politicians. They well appreciate the power of group representation to skew our sense of solidarity. But far too often they use it to limit the expression of humanity.
A case in point is narrated in David Marr and Marion Wilkinson's book Dark Victory. As migrant children fell into the water from their sinking ship, the Howard government falsely accused their parents of throwing them overboard — thus further pathologising those in such desperate straights and, ironically turning our attention away from the children themselves.
Perhaps the real lesson of the Thai cave is that things do not have to be that way.
We have the imaginative capacity to include others in an extended self of self and hence to incorporate them into our universe of moral obligation.
But that must be our own choice. The same politicians and media who direct us to be inclusive are, in other times and places, directing us to be exclusive. We must become wiser to their ways. We must conduct our own conversations about who we are and who is of us.
For Plato, the cave world was a world of illusion, but it need not be. Indeed, if we understand better how it was produced, perhaps we can recreate the cave in the outside world.
Steve Reicher is a professor in the school of psychology and neuroscience at the University of St Andrews. Alex Haslam is a professor in the school of psychology at the University of Queensland.