Henri Tajfel developed the “social identity theory” with his colleague John Turner in the early 1970s. The theory suggests that people have a range of identities — from personal through social. The social range often distinguishes itself through identifying with a particular group. Folks generally identify themselves with a group through four elements: categorization, identification, comparison, and psychological distinctiveness.
Using a range of pretty simple methods Tajfel and Turner were able to test how individuals attach themselves to groups and begin to react to perceived “outsiders”. For example, in one experiment they separated teenage boys through showing them paintings by two different artists and let the boys know that their choice would determine which groups they were in.
After this setup the boys were taken to a separate room and were asked to distribute money to other members of both groups. The only information they had was a code number for each boy and which group they were in. There was a clear bias towards their own group over the other. This type of experiment has been replicated in numerous settings, with even less obvious group distinctions.
“Us” vs. “Them” is a powerful, powerful motivator in human behavior. If you’re a hockey fan — look at the Olympic hockey tournament where players represented their country (a very powerful, patriotic group distinction) and played against individuals that they actually played with on their NHL team for a large portion of the year. Quickly friendships, and even roommates in some cases, were dropped in favor of group distinguishment.
We see it in schoolyards, we see it on Parliament Hill (similar forums, mind you…), and sometimes even at dinner parties, and sadly — and quite powerfully — we see it in discussions of how we look after wild salmon.
The group identity, group dynamics, and group discrimination in wild salmon politics are often debilitating and approaching discriminatory. Worse yet — government organizations continually propagate these group distinctions through holding various forums, meetings, discussions — and providing separate funding, departmental support, and sometimes even access to politicians.
I don’t think it’s necessarily always on purpose; however, in wild salmon discussions if the Departments of Fisheries and Oceans continues to host separate meetings and discussions with individual groups (and provides separate funding) — “Us” vs. “Them” will only continue to dominate.
If educational institutions continue to host salmon-related events that are largely geared towards one group (e.g. scientists and researchers) over another — “Us” vs. “Them” will only continue to dominate.
If “groups” within the salmon-related discussions continue to identify themselves with one group over another — for example: ‘we can’t meet with those a**holes, that’ll just be a fight…’ — “Us” vs. “Them” will only continue to dominate.
The more polarized, conflict-ridden, and groups staking their position we all become in these discussions of how we look after salmon — the more the discussion become dominated by folks professing their rights.
It seems, though, that organizations and individuals that focus more on their responsibilities and less on their rights tend to outperform.
You’re responsible to your community, to your customers, to your employees and to your art. Serve them and the rights thing tends to take care of itself.
What we all decide to do — i.e. action, right now — for wild salmon is a responsibility. If somehow we can all rise above the politics of group-think, above group-identity, and in many cases job-protection — maybe, just maybe, we’ll start to see a different relationship evolve; with each other, and with wild salmon.
(I attached the classic image of the three monkeys — “hear no evil, see no evil, say no evil” — as it is often associated with two quite different interpretations. In Asian cultures the image is considered three wise monkeys and is often associated with proverbs suggesting: be of good mind, speech, and action. In Western cultures it is the opposite, often associated with suggesting some individuals deal with impropriety by looking the other way, not saying anything, and pretending to see nothing).