It has struck me with the worldwide response to coronavirus that we have the potential to realise what makes us similar rather than different. Yet that potential is being undermined by national narratives that draw on and reinforce subconscious bias.
Of course, just like the eggs in the picture when you look closely, each of us is unique as an individual. Yet, as in the picture, our similarities are much more stark than our differences – we are all human. Right now our similarities are stark – we are all susceptible to this virus, we are all in lockdown, we are all applauding the work of our healthcare-providers. I’m not talking about this country, I’m talking about the whole world. Because we are, perhaps uniquely, in a situation where our humanity and vulnerability is similar the world over. I can’t think of a time when the whole of humanity has so starkly recognised it’s similarities rather than focused on some element of difference.
It was this notion, that the virus has the potential of bringing us together as a human race that specifically struck me. It stands in contrast to our more typical tendency to focus on differences – differences between people, differences between organisations, differences between nations, differences between cultures.
There is an opening in our current situation to continue to realise our similarities. If we realise our similarities we can deal with this together as a whole human race. Equally, there is overwhelming tendency to focus on differences – to compare “us” with “them”. For instance, listen to those in positions of power who are returning to a nationalist agenda – “we (a country) are doing it better than them (another country)” or “they aren’t telling the truth about their figures.” Yet everyone in the world is being affected by this virus – as I’ve heard many people say “we are in this together”.
This similarity vs difference agenda is appreciated as Levels of Abstraction in social identity theory and really helps all of “us” to realise where we are focusing our attention with regards to our similarities and differences. We all do it. For instance, at the individual Level of Abstraction we ask the question, am I more similar or different to someone else? For instance do I see similarity, in which case I am just as susceptible to this virus as others (and therefore self-isolate as much as possible.) Or do I see myself as different (for example, I might see my difference as being stronger or fitter than other people who I believe are more susceptible to the virus than me, and therefore perhaps the rules are for “them”, not “me”.) This is particularly interesting when trying to understand why some people in authority are still travelling to second homes – clearly they are deciding they are different from “us”. Well, they are not – they can catch and pass on the virus like anyone else.
At a national Level of Abstraction, the question escalates from “I” to “we”: “Are we more similar or different to them?” The words “we” and “them” in our current context relate to countries, governments, or healthcare systems. I am noting an increasing tendency to focus at a national level with this virus at the moment – “how “our” figures differ from “theirs” – with the unconscious bias that goes with such comparisons – of who is better than whom. This is because pragmatically, national governments are taking control of the response to the crisis. Yet other multinational organisations exist that can help bring a global Level of Abstraction to our situation. The World Health Organisation is one leading body who can take us up a level, from national to global. Global pharmaceutical companies can also bring global resources to bear for the benefit of us all too. Such organisations can help us all as a human race to recognise our similarities rather than our differences.
The enormity of our current situation requires a global Level of Abstraction to think about and tackle our (human race) response to this situation. How are you thinking about this crisis? You? Family? Community? Nation? Global?
David Kesby is author of “Extra-Dependent Teams: Realising the Power of Similarity”