Growing up, our favorite winter playground game was King of the Mountain, played on a huge snow pile behind the school. We would divide into teams: Arctic Cat and Ski-Doo. The battles were fiercely fought: Noses were bloodied, teeth were lost, and if there were no broken bones, it was only because winter parkas cushioned every fall.
To those engaged in the battle, the gulf between one side and the other was immeasurable. It seemed obvious to those of us on the Arctic Cat team that our snowmobiles were faster, more powerful, more durable, could go through deeper snow, could jump higher, looked better and had better names. To the Ski-Doo team, the comparisons seemed equally obvious and one-sided, though favoring the yellow over the black.
It never occurred to us that there were kids in states such as Florida who had never heard of either Arctic Cat or Ski-Doo, and if they had, would have thought them virtually identical.
Sigmund Freud observed that "it is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them" ("The Taboo of Virginity," 1918). He used the expression "narcissism of minor differences" to describe the way in which people exaggerate slight differences between themselves and others as a way of establishing their self-identity. The less substantial the differences actually are, the more one feels the need to aggressively defend them.
What this means is that groups are defined not so much by the actual differences that divide them but by the willingness to defend the importance of those differences. Anger is used by both sides to distract from the real substance of the differences. It's hard to discuss substantial issues when people are shouting at one another.
There is an old Star Trek episode titled "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" in which everyone on the planet Ariannus has a face that is half black and half white. The planet is engaged in a civil war: those with black on the right side of their faces against those with white on the right side of their faces. The crew of the Enterprise cannot understand why they are fighting. To Lokai, the leader of the rebels, it is as clear as the nose on his face.
When Michael Ignatieff was a journalist covering the war in Croatia in the early 1990s, he wanted to understand why the Serbs and Croats were fighting. After all, to most Americans, the two cultures were virtually identical, and they had been living peaceably together as neighbors in the same cities and villages for many years. He asked a Serbian soldier to explain the differences between them, since he himself couldn't tell them apart. "See this? These are Serbian cigarettes," the soldier said. "Over there, they smoke Croatian cigarettes."
It seems to be an intrinsic part of human nature to choose sides first and create reasons for the choice afterwards. Perhaps this is how we create an identity for ourselves, how we define who we are and what our purpose is. But it has the unfortunate consequence that our discussions of ethical issues are rarely genuine. They are nearly always constrained by the political culture.
If you don't believe me, try having a discussion about abortion or homosexuality or drug use or gambling in which you ask genuine questions about the effects of those practices on individuals and communities, and in which you insist on acknowledging both the positives and negatives of each wherever you find them.
In these politically contentious times, it is hard to have a reasonable discussion about ethical issues without it turning into a partisan power struggle. As a Bible-believing, tree-hugging, pro-life, gun-toting, peace-loving, fiscally conservative feminist, I have a hard time knowing what side I'm supposed to be on. Sometimes I feel like the unfortunate kid who tried to start a Polaris team and got beat up by everybody.
The Ethical Life is a twice-monthly series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.