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Patty Kleban: Common Enemy

by on October 22, 2012 7:05 AM

Tonight is the final presidential debate. This debate, the third in the series if one doesn’t count the Vice-President dust-up, is important because it will be the last chance for most of us to see the candidates in action. For voters who remain on the fence, the demeanor and delivery of the candidates in this final debate may be the final push in making a decision on who to support.

It’s amusing after each debate to watch the reporters and analysts talk about who won. Inevitably, they see the outcomes in such a way to match their own viewpoints. In other words, depending our group alignment, human nature says “my guy won.”

This political season seems more acrimonious (if not agonizingly longer) than most although maybe it’s my increasing age and my decreasing tolerance for silliness. Whatever the reason, the opposing viewpoints in this election seem more polarized than those in the past.

If you have any questions about the divide in this country, look at the reaction to the events in Libya on September 11. One of our diplomats and three other Americans were killed and, rather than join together in outrage, the tragedy became a political opportunity for both parties. Both sides in the presidential election have used the events in Libya to further their campaigns.

Instead of slinging barbs at each other, we should be linking arms together and avowing action against those who harm seek to harm Americans. If this wasn’t an election year, maybe we would have seen our elected singing God Bless America on the steps of the Capitol like they did in 2001.

We need a common enemy to bring this country back together again.

The concept of the common enemy as a group unifier came out of early research in group dynamics that looked at the in-group, out-group phenomenon. The theory is that we value, respect and align with those who we perceive as fellow members of our in-group and distrust, devalue and demonize those who we view are members of out-groups. In a study from the 1950s, boys at a summer camp were grouped together and then placed in situations where the groups had to compete with each other for prizes or awards. The results in that study and many others since show that humans have a tendency to denigrate and dismiss those who are the others – especially if we believe they are trying to get something we need or want. Even in situations where we don’t have much in common with our in-group – or have lots in common with the people in the other group - the mere fact that we are in identified opposing groups can bring out the worst in us.

A common goal or common enemy can bring us together.

When the planes hit the towers on 9-11, who cared about political party? When the reign of Osama Bin Laden was finally terminated, was anyone a Republican or Democrat?

When those of us in one group view others outside of the group as a threat to our stuff, our self-esteem or our safety, it serves to strengthen our bonds.

The common enemy phenomenon happens in non-political groups too. How many times do employees bond together against a tyrannical administration or boss? Consider athletes against their coaches. Even kids against their parents can further bond in common enemy mode.

The common enemy theory can be manipulated to work for the positive. Managers and leaders (and parents) can use the in-group, out-group dynamic to facilitate group cohesion, morale and the esprit de corps of their team members. In the past, I’ve wanted to send a nice “You’re welcome” to my employees, my students or even groups of my friends when I threw myself under the common enemy bus and it helped to bring them closer together and work more cooperatively.

My husband and I used to smile when our kids would be collectively mad at us for a decision or group discipline. “They will thank us when they are older and have great relationships with each other.”

It’s hard to imagine that when we were fighting the Japanese after Pearl Harbor or the Nazis or the Cold War that the divide between Republicans and Democrats was as wide as it is today. When our parents and grandparents were saving their ration coupons and working together to support the boys at war, it’s hard to believe that the silliness of political elections - of the us versus them - was as evident.

War is never good but conflict is expected and can be healthy if managed properly. If our in-groups are forced to cooperate or collaborate with other groups, we become a part of a larger one. We lose that motivation for intergroup conflict. When we join together, we can be formidable against the common enemy.

The presidential election is 15 days away and I can’t wait for it to be over. I will watch the debate tonight and undoubtedly my guy will win. Tomorrow we’ll read the analysis and hear everyone say the guy who represents their group beat the other guy. Regardless of the outcome, it will be nice to go back to being Americans again.

Recent Columns:

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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