Wednesday, June 02, 2010


Why is it that we humans seem to want, or even need to belong? What is belonging, and how do we measure it?

The music swells at the end of the film, the young man joins his tribe, his group, his people. He finally belongs. Members of the group greet him like an equal, like a friend. He is reunited with the girl he loves, and now he can be with her. They hold hands, walking with the group towards a new future, through the ashes of the past.

This could be the end of many movies, but in particular I'm reminiscing on the end of Avatar (by James Cameron). Like many Hollywood movies before, the themes of love, hardship, and belonging carry the film about an otherwise ordinary, and perhaps uninteresting character.

I almost hate to admit it, but in that moment at the end, (sorry folks, spoiler) where he is accepted, and his soul transferred from his human body to his Na'avi body, and the music swells, and he gets up and walks away with the girl, hand in hand, in that moment tears welled up in my eyes. Now maybe I'm extra sensitive, maybe I'm more emotional than some people, but I don't think I'm the only one. It felt like an almost autonomic response. There seems to be something deep and universal about this need to belong. Something that pulls at us, that identifies deeply with the need to belong, and the relief, satisfaction, contentment that Jake Sully feels when he finally does belong.

I am fascinated with this subject because I have always been fascinated with things that are universal in human nature, and simultaneously fascinated with the things that make us different.

It seems to me that the need to belong is universal, but the act of belonging, the groups, tribes, cultures, languages, religions, political parties, to which we belong, are part of the immensely diverse manifestation of that need.

We've come up with so many solutions to belonging, we can't avoid the fact that many of them are contradictory: Religions that each proclaim to have exclusive truth, cultural and ethnic identities defined in opposition to the other. Sure some groups are non-exclusive. You can be a member of a book club, and also a member of a volleyball team. But you can't (at least technically according to both groups) be both a Muslim and a Hindu. Some of these groups are in friendly, or not-so-friendly competition. Others are at war.

I have come across many examples of this problem recently. For example, apparently India used to allow multiple citizenships. Now, it seems, they are demanding NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) who have obtained other (such as U.S.) passports to surrender their Indian passports, and pay a "processing fee". Apparently, you they are just now choosing to enforce a rule that you can't have dual citizenship in both countries. (Petition for NRIs to sign here).

Anthropologists have long examined the ways in which people define their identities, as members of various groups, frequently nested within societies. What function today as the major categories of identity were not always the most important ones. Today, it would seem broadly, that religion and nationality are the most important identifiers. At least these are the ones that divide us the most.

Within nations, there are political groups. Parties, and perhaps more strongly in many countries, the "right" and the "left". In many places, party politics depend heavily on other aspects of identity to mobilize and form their membership. Ethnicity, language, religion (or sect of a religion), these elements are all used, played like strings on a harp to make people feel like they belong.

Most world conflicts, wars, civil wars, massacres, colonizations, invasions, and battles, though they may, at their root be about money or resources, most conflicts are played out, and defined in terms of "us" and "them". Because "us" and "them" are really arbitrary terms, accidents of birth, of time and space. I think this is partly why it fascinates me so much.

Even though the categories that make up "us" and "them" are arbitrary, and in some sense illusory, they seem very real, and people act as though they are real. The same is true of international boarders, lines on the map.

To be asked to belong, might be the greatest feeling in the world. To be invited to join something, to be told you have something to contribute, that we value your presence, provokes a powerful feeling. A recent NY Times article talked about the marginalization of young Muslims, and how this relates to their radicalization. The article made this seem like rocket science, that someone had figured out, if you don't want people to join the 'enemy', you might want to ask them to join you instead.

But to me this isn't rocket science. People want and need belonging. And if they feel marginalized and pushed out by one society, they are going to seek another that accepts them, that validates their views, that gives them vindication, and perhaps even one that gives them the opportunity to retaliate. The solution? Not to marginalize them further, to accuse, to arrest, to put them in jail, but instead to offer them a place at the metaphorical table.

As modern nations become a jumbled up mix of people migrating and immigrating from other nations, bringing their different identities, and with them, different practices, beliefs, languages, and ways of life, it seems like a growing problem of figuring out how so many different people can belong together to something greater.

In the United States of America, the solution to this problem has always been to tell immigrants that the something greater is America itself. To become a U.S. citizen, to be American was a chance to belong to something great.

But, as I've said before, it's not clear to me that the nation-state is the best solution to this problem. We unite everyone in America as Americans, and (we used to, more or less) make them feel welcome, and wanted, and to feel like they belong, but we do this in counterpoint to other nations. This is a tact that seems to me to be designed to foment and facilitate war.

In reading the news, I am faced with many different versions of apocalypse. Nuclear disarmament activists warn of the risk of impending nuclear war. Environmentalists warn of the changing climate, the rise in sea-level, extinction of animals, the total transformation (or annihilation) of earth's ecosystems. These are just a few of the ways in which I am told the world, or civilization, or everything as I know it may come to an end. And while I agree that many if not all of these causes that are news-worthy are important, and something should be done, I believe that if we are to have any chance at surviving ourselves, at avoiding nuclear holocaust, etc, we must also find a new way of belonging.

If we are not enemies, if we all belong to the same 'tribe', then we won't need nuclear weapons. If we join together, and decide to belong to something greater than religions or nations, then we have a much better change of being able to do something about climate change.

It shouldn't be to hard to see what I'm pushing at, the unification of humanity, the concept of belonging to us, to our species, to unite us above and beyond everything else.

Strangely enough, it had actually occurred to me recently (and before watching Avatar), that what Stephen Hawking said about the fact that we probably shouldn't try too hard to contact aliens, since they might just come over here to kill us, wouldn't necessarily be such a bad thing. My strange and totally flawed reasoning was that an alien threat would help to unite humanity. Maybe, if we had something truly "other" to fight against, and define ourselves in opposition to, we would learn to embrace our unity, and get over our differences.

Taken further, to its ultimate conclusion of inter-species warfare, that solution isn't really a good one either. But then I'm not the first person to think of that either. Avatar represents it, and vilifies humans for their destruction and exploitation. Even if we're fighting another species, that doesn't necessarily make us the good guys. This is a point most effectively brought home by Orson Scott Card in the book Xenocide.

So, what can I say? It is clearly human to want to belong. Perhaps it is even biologically programmed. Maybe such needs are also programmed in to other social species, dolphins, whales, parrots, wolves and primates. Maybe it would be there in alien species as well. If our species isn't the answer (or our planet), then we are stuck in an ever expanding universe of inclusive belonging, a plan that doesn't seem very tenable either.

By needing to belong, we seem to need to define the other. We need not only to belong, but to define that to which we do not belong. While this may have been an adaptive strategy for early hominids, defining the hominid social group, in juxtaposition with competitors, or predators, it's not a good working model for the future of humanity.

At some level, I love the things that are universal. I am fascinated by the things that we share. These things are probably to some extent defined by our biology, and evolution. But they are not all good. We are universally capable of hatred, and fear. We are universally inclined to belong, and in doing so, define others, against ourselves.

Even though belonging is this thing that unites us, and watching a movie about some young guy finding himself, finding that sense of belonging with an alien species tugs at some heart strings, I think we need to find a way to rise above it. Not necessarily to find bigger and bigger entities to which we can belong, but to stop feeling that need so strongly. Or at least to stop feeling it in a way that requires defining the other in opposition to the self.

1 comment:

Derek said...

Wanting to belong is a biological drive, written into our DNA. It's both terrifying and fascinating all at once, because it has such far-reaching consequences. On one side, you have the uptopian ideal, everyone living together in a unified society. On the other side, you have complete isolation, which is actually a torture (sorry, "aggressive interrogation" or whatever they're currently calling it) technique that's used to great effect. Nobody wants to be alone, and like all powerful forces, it can be used for good or for evil.

If you want a different take on the need for inclusion, I'd recommend the book Beyond Revenge (; it's a fascinating look at how inclusion helped shape our evolution.