Anthro Mini-Lecture: Why We Can’t Just All Get Along

It’s the holiday season and if nothing else, the message we’re all supposed to be embracing is something along the lines of peace and goodwill towards all people. It’s a nice sentiment, of course, but one we generally don’t spend too much time attempting to live up to the rest of the year. But why is that?

“Why can’t people just get along?” is probably the most cliché question out there, but it is one that is so often asked genuinely. As in, there are a great many people out there who openly and honestly wonder why humans regularly treat each other poorly. They wonder why we choose cruelty, when we don’t have to.

Well, there are many reasons.

The equally cliché answer would be to parrot any number of self-help websites and to tell you that meanness, as a trait, has more to do with the person behaving badly than it does with you. That’s also true, to some extent. Treating another person poorly begins with a choice and that choice is often rooted in the experiences and background of the bully regardless of who their target is. But there is also a fair amount of evidence to suggest that cruelty is situational. Harkening back to Milgram’s famous conformity experiments some 50 years ago, we know that a significant percentage of the population is perfectly capable of rationalizing harm when blame can be easily externalized to an outside authority. “I was just following orders,” indeed.

But I think it is even more important to note, especially given the current nature of American political discourse, that meanness is often rewarded. In other words, people are mean because it works. Let me give you a (very) brief overview of why:

1.) Many people hold the base assumption that their personal experiences are impartial, good, and right. When a person fundamentally presumes that their beliefs (as organized religions often teach), their ways of life, or their experiences are objectively correct they tend to then also think that other people should be made to live their lives in the same ways. Very few people honestly look critically at their own ways of being and think, “this is what works for me specifically.” No. They think, “this is the way it is/should be.” In short, that their individual experiences and perspectives are universal. Interestingly, this also plays into issues of “immortality.” Parents often think of their children as extensions of themselves and their children’s and family’s lives as, therefore, evidence of the permanence of their culture/beliefs/ambitions, etc. When said child or other family member then fails to live up to that ideal by, in essence, simply being their own person; that conceptualization of immortality is threatened. And if there is one thing people fear more than death, it is irrelevance.

Being “mean” therefore ensures one’s own and one’s group’s longevity and meaningfulness through pressures to conform and repeat.

2.) Exploiting others is a path to power. Rooted in deep insecurities about our place in the world, our place in society, or our own mortality, the most common path to a psychological sense of control or a sense of certainty, is to place ourselves comparatively above others. Ideally, others who can be made to contain, via cognitive projection, all of the things we dislike or hate in ourselves. Bullying finds its origin point here as well. Being unkind to another person becomes a recognized method for elevating ourselves emotionally, socially, and existentially; especially for those who feel powerless in other aspects of their lives or who define their worth through who and/or what they can control.

Being “mean” here, therefore provides empowerment.

3.) The idealized, individualistic, Self generally defines itself in relation to an Other. Meaning; it is not uncommon for people to know who they are by rejecting what they are not. This particular ‘us vs. them’ style of thinking plays out in numerous ways: Toxic masculinity defining itself through the subjugation and domination of all that is feminine. Hate infiltrating pop-culture fandoms; where one particular kind of fan reflexively tries to act as a gate-keeper for other kinds of fans, thus establishing themselves as an authority in the hierarchy of “people who identify with a thing.” Racism. Casteism. Ageism. Ableism. Homophobia and Transphobia. It’s all there. The purity of the “me” is threatened with pollution and corruption by all things that are “not me.” Just as the purity of “my world” is threatened with downfall and disintegration by the “other worlds” of people who look, think, act, and believe differently than I do.

This is also due to the fact that many people define the value of their experiences, ideologies, or identities by the number of other people who share them. This is a tricky one but bear with me. Though we, as a largely Euro-American culture, see ourselves as particularly individualistic and independent, we are desperately beholden to collective validation. We need “our people.” We need those “like us.” We need group support. Ultimately, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as sociality is a feature of the human experience generally, but the problem lies in the ways in which a lot of people associate majority opinion with worth. I.e., the more people who agree with me, the more value my idea has, and the more validation my idea has, the better I am as a person.

The downside of this kind of mentality is, of course, relatively obvious. Disagreement equals an attack on someone’s sense of personhood rather than on the utility of the actual idea. This is where we get the deep, underlying, assumption that only “bad people” think “bad things” and any criticism of an idea or of an action is a wound inflicted on our very selves. It’s visceral. It hurts when it happens. I get it. But it’s one of the reasons why kindness is so rarely the default. Because kindness is a radical empathy that requires the suspension of Self in ways few of us ever learn.

So, to that, being “mean” is a protector that rewards us with a personal identity.

There are more reasons than what I’ve outlined here, of course, but it’s a start. Within the nuance of this problem lies all sorts of grey areas: unintentional meanness versus malice, lack of awareness or insight into a particular situation, miscommunications and misunderstandings, misdirection, attention-seeking, emotional complications, and so on. Overall, however, one can generally conclude that “meanness” starts with some kind of character flaw or distorted thinking on the part of the person being mean. And furthermore, that “meanness” tends to flourish in situations where it is rewarded, especially against other people with contextually less power than the one harming them.

So, there you have it. A starting point to begin the conversations we, as humanity, have long needed to have about the very personal roots of inequality, indifference, and injustice. And if, like me, you are generally barred from political discussions at holiday family gatherings, you can take this as your angle of attack when your least favorite relative steals the last of the pie.

Because the answer to the question, “can’t we all just get along?” Is no.

Happy Holidays

Want some further reading? Sure you do.

Why Are People Mean? (Psychology Today)

Why Are People Mean to Each Other? (The Examiner)

The Queen Bee in the Corner Office (The Atlantic)

Why Is Everyone on the Internet So Angry? (Scientific American)

How People Relate to Each Other (Princeton News)

Do We Prefer People Who Are Similar to Us? (Yale)

The Root of All Cruelty (The New Yorker)

Are You Hardwired for Compassion or Cruelty? (NPR)

Human Kindness and Cruelty (Book available on Amazon)