It’s a pity it’s not easier to embody abstract concepts in ways that would make it easier to confront them. Lately, I listened to a podcast in which Brené Brown – an author with some wonderful ideas about some of the components of a fulfilling life – described the concept of “common enemy intimacy.” This is the idea that because of people’s tendencies to bond over the things they have in common, there are also contexts in which they will bond over commonly held dislikes.
Bonding by defining an “outgroup” is a powerful, but silly, way to provide group cohesion and mobilize people, often and unfortunately against each other. History books are filled with the consequences of common enemy intimacy, and it’s a shame this energy can’t be put to better use than the name-calling to the point of eventual violence for which it is usually employed.
I mean, wouldn’t it be great (along with stating the obvious, I also like to understate) if we could turn this energy towards mobilizing against some actual common enemy like, say, climate change? One complication here – which brings us back to the strange, vague lament that introduced this Vocal Local – is that it’s difficult to embody a vast issue like climate change in a way that gives us a common enemy to face.
Reaching into the garbage can to pick out that errant recyclable would be much easier if - when we turned and left it - we were unable to do so without having the terrible, mocking laughter of climate change pummel our ears. Envision being unable to leave a light on without remembering that gleeful little demons would soon alight upon it to begin a raucous celebration of the waste it represented. Or, imagine sitting in your living room pondering absently whether to fly for your winter vacation, or stay closer to home; and feeling in this exercise the steady, soulless gaze of some Hieronymus Bosch nightmare pierce you from a dark corner of the room as it tapped its fingertips together in malicious delight, muttering to itself, “Goood, good…”
We might begin making choices in a different way!
We might also begin living in constant, overwhelming terror (be careful googling “hieronymous”) but this would be a small price to pay for the benefit of a physical reminder – in this case an outgroup of climate-change demons – to keep us mindful of the part we all play in keeping our earth livable, and to bring us together in our efforts to do so. If only it were this easy! And it is, in a strange sense.
This is one way in which medieval inhabitants were superior to us: their imaginations helped them fabricate outgroups to explain the abstract. Eventually, it took greater imagination in the form of technological innovations to actually address these issues, but the stories they weaved helped to keep them on their toes and unite them. We could use a measure of this imagination in facing our presentsituation.