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We Are All Different and the Fear of the Unknown

Elections and personalities.

The trouble is that people are all different. They, or we, are also all the same: human. But we tend to divide ourselves, categorize, differentiate. We are all taxonomists now.

“We murder to dissect,” wrote Blake. He meant it metaphorically, as did Keats: ”Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings/Conquer all mysteries by rule and line…” But dissection of beliefs, conflicts, and elections is necessary; it is not murder.

Here we will explore the same and the different in the context of two elections, the 2019 election in the UK and the 2020 election in the U.S., and the four men who fought them.

Differentism (or differenceism) is the concept and common denominator that underlines and fuels so many of our social problems and pathologies. The principal fault line in the U.S. is race, in the U.K., it is class, and in Canada, it is language. But all three fault lines persist in all three countries, either reinforcing or cross-cutting each other.

Other fault lines affirm more pathologies: not just race, class, and language, but also politics, sexism, ableism, ageism (from Boomers to Zoomers), classism, colorism, and looksism. Add anti-Semitism (a major issue in the UK election), Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and misandry, and nationalism, and the matters of difference become more diffuse and complex—oh yes, and truth is an issue in both the U.S. and UK elections. In the U.S., the culture wars persist around abortion, guns, free speech, climate change, science, and policing. Immigration was an issue in both countries.

Citizens' groups have emerged concerned with specific differentisms. The Occupy movement protested inequality and the 1 percent. The Black Lives Matter movement went global to protest white racism and police violence. The #MeToo movement protested sexism and male sexual abuse. Extinction Rebellion rebels against the failures of government and corporations to address the climate crisis. White supremacist and militia movements have emerged in the U.S. to protest diversity, immigration, and the decline of white power. Fathers for Justice (F4J) rose in the UK and is now global to protest the injustices accorded to men in divorces, particularly with respect to custodial and visitation rights. Recently protests have been launched in many countries against lockdowns and masking. The protests themselves generate counter-protests.

All these pathologies have the same root: the dislike, hatred, or fear of those who disagree with, and are therefore different from, “me” or “us,” and threaten personal or tribal interests of race, class, gender, politics, or some other identity.

The UK election returned the Conservatives with a landslide victory for Boris Johnson—he with the tousled yellow hair, a reputation as a womanizer, and widely and often accused of lying. He was opposed by Jeremy Corbyn, widely and often accused of anti-Semitism and a convinced Marxist, much liked by the young. Apart from other commonalities, both Johnson and Trump are nationalists, with the former intent on withdrawing from the EU (but facing nationalist challenges in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland) and the latter having withdrawn or intent on doing so from NATO, the WHO, the WTO, the Paris Accord, and the UN.

In contrast, the U.S. election was, and for some still is, a squeaker, fought by two septuagenarians, long past the usual retirement age. As in the UK, the two leaders differed on every imaginable policy: the virus, the environment, the climate crisis, immigration and the border, the economy (lives versus livelihoods were seen as the polar options). Seventy-four million voted Democrat and 70 million voted Republican: Both were record turnouts and exemplify huge differences of beliefs, opinions, and values. This 52 percent to 48 percent divide is the same as the vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK, though, by 2019, a consensus was emerging.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump were chalk and cheese. Trump was adored by his cheering, red-capped base but dismissed by his opposition with a long list of unrepeatable adjectives. Biden in turn was dismissed by Trump as “Sleepy Joe,” but described by his supporters as empathetic and compassionate. They indicated huge differences in style and substance, personality, and politics. No center. No common ground.

The UK has seven tribes, according to a recent report from More in Common, a think tank, ranging from “progressive activists” to “backbone Conservatives,” but more of a kaleidoscope of clusters than a continuum, depending on the salient issues. The country has a solid center. Eighty-five percent agree that the climate crisis is a problem, 79 percent say that gender equality is progress, 73 percent believe that hate speech is a problem, and 72 percent think that political correctness is too. Sixty percent think that people take race too seriously, but 60 percent also recognize that white privilege is problematic [hence, perhaps, the overturned statues and the re-naming of institutions].

The report notes a difference between the U.S. and the UK, for the majority (55 percent) of Britons defined themselves as centrists compared to only 33 percent of Americans. In the UK, the two main issues in 2019 were Brexit and the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, but the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish had their own nationalist parties, and the Greens had theirs. And there were others. The Conservatives won 43.6 percent of the vote, and Labour won 32.2 percent, leaving a solid 24.2 who voted for some other party. Too many conflicts and many different local or special interest parties and priorities prevent the UK from dissolving into bipolar national factions but may not prevent it from dissolving.

The U.S. on the other hand seems to have more “tribes,” for want of a better word, and be more fraught with righteous anger, as well as confusion over truth and truth-telling. Such tribes would include not only the Democrats and Republicans but also the Evangelicals, the Incels, White supremacists and militias, the Black Lives Matter supporters, the Occupy movement, the #MeToo movement, the Rust Belt, the Bible Belt, the Deep South, the East and West Coasts, all the activists for the climate crisis, for or against immigration, illegals, and a border wall, Dreamers, abortion, guns, science, and all the rights groups (women’s, men’s, animals, LGBTQ, especially Gay and Trans) combating all the phobias mentioned above. But the sides coalesced and polarized in 2020 for the vote. There was no other viable third option. The nation is deeply polarized.

Yeats got it right, writing about Ireland in 1916:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity

Canada is different again with Federal provincial relations a major cleavage, but really 13 smaller clefts cross-cutting each other since the 13 provinces and territories do not all agree and have their own differences, both between and within each other. Both Quebec and the First Nations are particularly difficult national issues, and both are fractured by internal differences. Then again Canada, like the UK, has many political parties: Liberal, Conservative, NDP (more socialist), Green, and Bloc Quebecois (Nationalist). As in the UK, the cross-cutting differences keep Canada together. Within Canada, however, differentism persists, particularly with some hostility to both Quebec and the First Nations, tempered with some sympathy for the latter, and some of the phobias and racism and sexism mentioned earlier.

This differentism chimes with power differentials. Eisenhower warned against the military-industrial complex, C.W. Mills against the power elite, and economists from Piketty to Stieglitz against increasing economic, and therefore social, inequality: gender, class, and race differences in longevity and life chances. Naom Chomsky has long warned against neo-liberalism and the triumph of corporate power, aligned with political power, over civic power.

Differentism at the national level is exemplified by so many conflicts that it is a wonder that nations stay together, and of course, sometimes they do not, as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Balkan Wars indicated. What keeps them together is adherence to the rule of law, which must be just and equitable if it is to be obeyed.

The basic differentisms are the dualisms of Me/You, Self/Other, and Us/Them, expressing the dual pursuits of both personal and collective self-interest. The personal, national, and global conflicts reflect, at a primal level, the dualisms of the Darwinian struggle for survival:

Predator Prey (Darwin)

Hammer Anvil (De Sade)

Giver Taker

Take Or Be Taken

Selfish Altruistic

Winner Loser

Creators Destroyers

Bourgeoisie Proletariat (Marx)

Superman Herd (Nietzsche)

Lover Fighter (Michael Jackson)

Differentism is the dislike or fear of the other and therefore the unknown, and the hate for those who threaten, or are believed to threaten us, our tribe, and our interests. The tendency is to demonize, stigmatize, and even terrorize the opposition. This polarization of difference is the fount and source of so many of our primal pathologies. We would need a human universalism to kill the Hydra. Which of course we already have in the Christian injunction to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” the U.S. Constitution, and the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights—not to mention our common humanity.

How has that worked out? Not perfectly, obviously, and some think that it’s all getting worse with the “deaths of despair” in the U.S. and Canada, the global rise of autocracies, the attacks on democracy, the protests (which may improve matters), the collapsing economies, the climate crisis, Russian and Chinese militarism, and the plague. Apart from that …

These differentisms and tribalisms, personal, national, and global, are about power, to keep it or to get it. But all these pathologies are not discrete problems; they all flower from the same root: differentism. In textbooks, they are usually neatly separated: sexism, racism, etc. Perhaps it would be more useful to note that essentially, they are all one. In the face of such polarizations, we need to embrace rather than demonize difference and diversity, as Joe Biden reminded us: “We have to stop treating our opponents as enemies.” We are all one.