Wary of unity

It’s true that I appreciate a somewhat calmer political/media cycle, in part because I sense slightly lower levels of anxiety from my friends. I love my friends and feel sad when they express fear and exhaustion. The social and environmental messes we humans have made continue, however, as the pandemic stretches on (my region is still in “extremely high risk” covid territory, though most of the people I know personally have been vaccinated). Many of us continue to endure losses of all sorts. Even if the losses are small ones, cumulatively they aggregate, intensified by the spectre of climate change and virus spread and whatever local bogeymen trawl through people’s lives.

In response to the current difficulties, we keep hearing calls for “unity.” One way politicians and community advocates of all stripes and ideologies endeavor to “make nice” is through the concept of unifying people. It sounds like a good thing, to invoke our similarities and our common human bond in order to achieve…[insert goal here].

I’m wary of calls for unity. It’s not that I’m cynical (maybe a little), and I’ve certainly been idealistic in my time; but long experience and lots of stories and histories and my father’s background in how people behave in groups have led to feeling circumspect about unity. It works with people, yes, but it also leads to the worst aspects of tribalism. To the fostering of rigid ideologies. To acts against outliers, to the construct of evil Others. I’ve recently re-read Reinhold Niebuhr’s prescient and insightful Moral Man and Immoral Society, and his analysis of how humans behave individually versus in groups strikes me as relevant today as it was in 1932. My dad studied with Niebuhr during the latter’s last years at Union Theological Seminary and, reading this book, I find I’m reflecting on the ways this philosopher/theologian influenced my then-young father’s views on humanity.

My dad was an optimist, a Pollyanna, a great believer that God loved each human equally and that there exists in each person the promise of Good (because his God is Good). As my dad matured and experienced more of life and a lot of death, injury, backbiting, illness, pain, misery, in-fighting, and scapegoating–even in the Church–he examined more closely the dynamics of people in groups. Here’s where Niebuhr gets it right, as far as I can tell: people in groups suck.

No, he never says that, and perhaps I overstate. People in groups tend toward tribalism, shunning those who differ in opinion, perspective, or other ways. People in groups lean inexorably toward immoral behavior, even when the group is made up of individually moral people. Again and again, under differing social perspectives, Niebuhr demonstrates that unity thwarts diversity even when group intentions are moral. And, all too often, with immoral results.

My dad never really gave up on the idea that people could successfully deal with different perspectives and goals even in the same group, that there were approaches to group dynamics that would produce win-win outcomes or compromises without sore feelings. In this respect, he was an Enlightenment thinker like Locke. Optimistic, as I’ve said, though I suppose there were times he despaired; indeed, I know there were. Perhaps he recited the Serenity Prayer* to himself when he felt powerless to make a difference. Perhaps the way people in groups behave is one of those things we cannot change and must somehow accept.

For myself, I choose diversity. The earth manages its diversity wonderfully, even when human beings thwart it. Milkweed seeds and thistle find their ways into monoculture cornfields. Plants and insects gradually populate the rubble we make.

When circumstances keep me in a tribe-like bubble, I read books and poems that show me other perspectives, other climes, other social cultures, cities, classes, geographies–other histories than my own. I find ways to explore, in person or virtually, artwork and film work, drama, music, and dances from places I may never visit but without which I would be less attuned to the World. To its wonders, which are many. Insert here, instead of a unified goal all people “should” achieve, Whitman’s “Kosmos” or Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” with its line “All things counter, original, spare, strange;” or, more contemporary, Vievee Francis’ glorious “Another Antipastoral” that states:

Don’t you see? I am shedding my skins. I am a paper hive, a wolf spider,
the creeping ivy, the ache of a birch, a heifer, a doc.


The World, that great unity. That global balancing act. That paradox: Outliers and Others being necessary, and Beloved.

Happy Earth Day, a day late.


* You may be familiar with the Serenity Prayer, which Niebuhr composed.

8 comments on “Wary of unity

  1. marmcc says:

    Very interesting about Niebuhr’s perspective. Yet the whole history of the success of the species is one of the ability to cooperate (Harari, among others, talks about this in Sapiens). Is a group different from a community? Are there limits to our ability to cooperate? Can we only stand each other for so long? Maybe all groups should have an end date built in.


    • “An end date” makes me think of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAdam series (see Oryx & Crake). Or perhaps the androids in Mad Max. Geez, God, didn’t that idea occur to You?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ren Powell says:

      So interesting! –
      When does the ability to cooperate become the ability to coerce and subjugate?


      • marmcc says:

        What makes any biological entity cooperate versus coerce? Even if all choices are based on survival, in any given situation there may be more than one route to survival, one that fosters others and one that may harm. In a forest, some stumps continue to be fed energy as part of the forest network, and some are left to rot. Why? Life is perplexing.


      • “Naked apes” = humans had to form communities in order to thrive. There was no other way to escape predation. It’s paradoxical that these bonds (of unity for survival) led to the disunity of warfare and shunning. Yet that seems to have been the outcome.


  2. Lou Faber says:

    Forced unity it seems to me, results in a sort of group think. And in the business world the assumption of group think is that it resolves around the lowest common denominator of thought (and I would add, morality).

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Yeah, my dad had issues with Groupthink–and so do I. Though it can “make things happen.” Not always good things, though… alas.


  4. JosieHolford says:

    Always wise to be wary of calls for “unity’ that pull us toward what is actually unacceptable. It’s often the cry of the loser who wants so desperately to hold on to some discriminatory position.


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