What is generally accepted as being part of a “cultural” group and the gap between your culture and another is not as clear as one may think. Culture is one of many groupings we may align ourselves to voluntarily or be assigned to by others.
In Our Search For Belonging: How Our Need to Connect is Tearing Us Apart (2018) by Howard J. Ross with Jon Robert Tartaglione, Ross seeks to explore the “inherently social” qualities of human beings and why we want to bond deeply with some people and not others. His self-identified purpose in writing the book was not to provide definitive answers to such a question but to “provoke inquiry.” He addresses the question of why we feel more comfortable with people in groups to which we belong and answers it by saying that “it creates a kind of bond that has us feeling safer and knowing what to expect, what is considered normal, and how to relate.”
Ross attempts to find out why human beings are so intent to live in and be shaped by the groups they identify with. This concerted introspection results in us living in differing realities, drawing us further and further into the group web, which forces us away from contact, understanding of, and identification with, individuals voluntarily associated or assigned to other groups.
Ross argues that the reason why we are so willing to be sucked into this group web revolves around a “need for belonging.” It is a need so strong that it is embedded in our DNA and drives us towards a goal of belonging even at the risk of intentional separation from others viewed as different. This demands a further question of how you then create bridges across such bonded groups that are so apparently biologically wired? Is it even worth the effort? Ross provides a note of caution here when he states that for “those hoping to promote untethered connectedness (across) racial, ethnic, and geographic barriers, it is crucial to understand that such a goal is, in many ways, counter to our biological predispositions. We have not evolved to facilitate unconditional connection between any and all groups.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a foreword to The Origin of Others (2017) by Toni Morrison, a book about themes of race, borders, vast movements of people, the wish to belong, what motivates people to construct Others and talks about our use of words such as racial divide, racial chasm, racial profiling or racial diversity— “as though each of these ideas is grounded in something beyond our own making.”
We create such categories of race, then underpin our labels with layers of declared knowledge, facts and theories designed to confirm the humanity and worth of the creators of such alleged knowledge at the expense of those allocated to the labels.
Coates argues that the creation of differences between ourselves as human beings has a purpose, a theory developed further by Morrison in her 2017 book. One can begin to see how difficult it is to create bridges across social groupings, because in addition to being biologically wired to be drawn to those who look like us and make us feel safe, there is the added element—some would argue the most influential—of the dominant societal packaging of such social groups that selects one over the other and provides and maintains the infrastructure for its continuing hegemony.
So how can we realistically create bridges to belonging over the bonded groupings termed cultural?
The first task is to understand how we have behaved in order to get to this point of living in bonded groups and feeling comfortable enough to remain there at the cost of alienating others seen as different. The second is to re-imagine oneself transforming the way we think and act. This demands an act of courage and making a choice: remain with the flow or disrupt the current to change direction of the flow.
I was reminded of the word courage and associated words, such as making choices at the risk that the choice made may not achieve the desired goal, when I reviewed the 2018 book Why Young Men: Rage, Race and the Crisis of Identity by Jamil Jivani, a first time best-selling Canadian author. (1)
In the book, he chronicles his journey through childhood, growing up in a “mostly immigrant community” in Toronto, coupled with extensive travels in Europe and wider afield in an attempt to explore the challenges youth face and what influences youth in life to pursue one pathway instead of another.
The book is based on research and is partly autobiographical. It is, however, weakened by the uncritical use of assigned group memberships of youth with headings such as “mostly immigrant” communities or “racial and religious minority communities” without any depth of understanding of what such headings meant to the youth concerned. There is copious coverage of the allure of peer pressure, rewards in a world of crime, drugs, uninhibited sex, money from illicit activities; all seemingly attracting the approval from all around. The group headings invite the text underneath to be written by assumptions, prejudice and systemic racism, confirming the views of those in more dominant groups who have already allocated the groups Jivani is talking about, to “Others.” They are so different as to be kept distant with no intention or need to forge bridges with them to make contact, create understanding, share perceptions, or encourage belonging.
Ross proposes that there are certain pathways to belonging that rest upon the belief that it is possible to create breakthroughs in human understanding that can increase our chances of belonging to others. This relies upon an acceptance of the reality of human behaviour, the biological and societal pressures outlined earlier, and the desire to work with it and alter the impact. That does not mean we accept the biological and societal pressures but that we recognize them as a starting point and then work out how they can be addressed. We need firstly to have a clear vision about what we wish to belong to and why we are together.
Speaking personally, my vision aligns with that of Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from Birmingham Jail (April 1963): “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
- We need to be aware that when people come together at our request, we are operating within a network of agreed understandings—some explicit and some implicit. The object must be to make the understandings as explicit as possible as this network of ideas is the “container” in which we belong. We need to know all the contours of that container as it defines us as a group and how we operate.
- There needs to be personal connection, evidence of vulnerability and consciousness. Feeling that you belong is personal. It is an awareness that you are welcomed as you are. Your authentic self is acknowledged. There is no need to “cover” or mask aspects of you to “fit in” to the majority/dominant group (2). But you need to know and acknowledge yourself first. Connection with someone else demands a level of vulnerability—a willingness to be upfront about who you are. This also necessitates courage. Risk is involved.
- There needs to be diversity in the group membership—meaning differing races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientation, ages, abilities and political orientations are included; all designed to increase cross fertilization of ideas, practices and beliefs.
- Cultivate being open-minded in thinking about issues that allow the prospect of new learning.
- Telling stories about our experiences and sharing them with other people can alter their past and current experience and yours.
- The entire group experience takes place in a safe space where ground rules have been clearly laid out and agreed upon and arrangements made for addressing potential conflict.
In conclusion, as the title of the article indicates, because we are biologically wired for selecting some people to bond with and others not to—with societal pressures underpinning such choices—creating bridges to connect with those others is a precarious task. Take a risk, have courage, trust your authentic self and reach out when all else fails to encourage you to do so.
1. Nature or Nurture or something far more complicated, unpredictable and worth knowing about.
Blog article, Feb. 20, 2019, www.daviddivine.co
2. In a 2018 research project titled, Uncovering Talent: A new model of inclusion, Deloitte discovered that the pressures within businesses to conform are so intense that employees devise strategies to “cover” their differences. Stemming from the sociologist Erving Goffman in 1963, “covering” described individuals with visible differences that attracted stigmatized values, making “a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large.” They sacrificed their authentic selves to be more acceptable to and less distinct from the others in the group.