On tragedies and social solidarity: Blessing or a curse?

When times are tough, we come together. We unite.

The recent eruption of the coronavirus has been no exception. Viral videos on YouTube depict people across Italy singing from their balconies trying to keep up morale. Extraordinary acts of generosity surface every day on the Internet. Health-care workers hang tough in the face of danger and exhaustion to help others. The list goes on.

This unity during and after tragedy is otherwise known as social solidarity: when people in a community provide each other with support and compassion. After school shootings, for example, social solidarity is at its peak within the school and its surrounding community. Also, tragedy on the national level may be able to help diminish political partisanship.

Social solidarity produces beneficial effects for communities rebuilding after tragedy. According to Scott Bledsoe, a professor of graduate psychology at Azusa Pacific University, the support that group members provide to each other after tragic events restore a sense of togetherness. He refers to an on-campus study conducted in 2012 which revealed that people who take part in social solidarity after tragedies display significantly fewer symptoms of depression and much higher levels of both short- and long-term well-being. Research from the RAND Corporation relates this to school shootings and post-tragedy community resilience, which helps overcome PTSD and anxiety in children.

For these reasons, the common narrative seems to be that unity after tragedy is good.

One such tragedy — perhaps the American tragedy — captures this exact narrative. 

In the eyes of many, the time after the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks marked a period of unity. We joined together, tougher than before. Once and for all, we ignored our differences of race, class, and politics. Pridefully, we raised our American flags higher than ever. America was one, strong, and promised to defeat hate of any kind. But these were lofty claims and harsh promises — some with unimaginable consequences. 

This pro-September 12th narrative, exhibited below, supports that George W. Bush’s approval rating went up from 50% to 90% in a matter of two weeks — otherwise known as the rally-’round-the-flag effect. Or that Congress passed bipartisan measures to create a Department of Homeland Security, which was, quite uniquely, unanimously supported across the ideological spectrum.

But underneath the surface, the nation wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows — it wasn’t, in fact, “united” at all. To understand this, we must look at the cause of social solidarity in the first place. It has its basis in social psychology and brings attention to several encouraging — and some not-so-encouraging — aspects of human nature. 

To begin with, research makes it clear that humans are built with a natural incentive for altruism, as helping others triggers the parts of the brain associated with pleasure and reward. By the same token, neuroscientist Erman Misirlisoy agrees that solidarity is fueled by human empathy — that is, when we feel connected to people, their pain is also our pain. 

Emma Seppala, the Director at Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, says that unity after tragedy is based in the human response to stress (a one-time stressful experience, as opposed to “chronic” stress, which is enduring): greater cooperative, social, and friendly behavior. She adds that human beings are social animals; it’s the very protective nature of our social and community relationships that has allowed our species to thrive.

The most striking cause of social solidarity, however, is a human defense mechanism that psychologists know as “splitting.” This is when we simplify situations to good versus evil — or us versus them — feeling amplified love, compassion, and unity on one side, and animosity towards the other. Joseph Burgo, the instructor of the “International Psychoanalytic Association,” argues that splitting is most prevalent after tragedy because of our need for emotional comfort. Its massive emotional appeal, he says, lies in the reduction of an overwhelmingly complex reality, as we translate ambiguity to black and white. This can be seen in Hollywood and works of fiction: we cheer on the hero, and we boo the villain. Cut and dried.

During his press conference following the Boston Marathon bombings, President Obama deemed the perpetrators “evil” and “cowardly,” contrasting their actions and behavior with the heroic first responders. That language echoes George W. Bush’s rhetoric after 9/11: “we are good, while “theyare evil. 

This is also known as “in-group/out-group behavior” in psychology: when we arrange ourselves into two groups, enhancing the status of our in-group and diminishing that of the out-group. Tragic events, therefore, expand and strengthen our larger in-groups because bigger issues supersede the ones that would usually divide us.

So what was the in-group after 9/11 that convinced us all of America was united, and what was the out-group?

The former: white Americans. The latter: Muslim Americans

Discussing the matter, Amy Kaplan, president of the “American Studies Association,” noted how easily the terrorist — or more often the suspected terrorist — was excluded from the category of “human” after 9/11 due to our promise to eradicate “hate” within the country. She likens the treatment to that of Native Americans, slaves, and Japanese Americans during World War II.

In fact, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in the months after 9/11, there was a record-high amount of harassment and hate crimes toward Muslim Americans, shown by the graph below. 

FBI data collected on crimes motivated by anti-Muslim bias

Thus, those who yearn for the America of 9/12 are blinded to this reality: that while a part of the country was united, by no means was the whole. White America’s unity hinged on the oppression of the out-group. But if bringing up the “happiness” for the in-group is at the expense of and not inclusive of the out-group, is there really any unity at all? Is there any justice?

Post-tragedy unity is almost always founded on the blame and discrimination of other people. Mentally, we have an easier time coming together when we can collectively conceive the other as responsible for a single and deliberate attack.

Understandably, it’s difficult to bear in mind that the kid who shot up a school had the potential for good, or that the Boston Marathon bombers were disoriented young men escaping alienation and shame, more so products of their environment than inherently evil. Those are hard pills to swallow, especially when dealing with insurmountable pain. Still, does that mean we should huddle up in circles of intolerance and prejudice to point our fingers in one direction? To then pretend like we’ve entered some peaceful and ideal state of “unity,” and eventually look back on it as something we wish to restore? 

Because if you hope for an America of 9/12, you’re really reminiscing a time of trauma that was exacerbated one thousand times over for those believed to be the enemy. You’re reminiscing a watershed moment in the history of Muslim Americans — one that shaped and influenced their public lives and perception forever.

If you were alive during September 11th, 2001, and the next day, and the weeks and months that came after, it’s your job to dismiss the idealistic, toxic narrative of everyone “coming together.” All it does is mask the problems that persisted and now haunt us from within.

Because there was fear, and there was anger, provoking the jingoistic nightmare from which we have yet to awaken —  Islamophobia. 

And what about the coronavirus? 

Over the last few weeks, after the global virus originated in China, numerous Asian Americans have shared stories of racism and prejudice.“It’s you people who brought the disease,” a 30-year-old Chinese man was told in a grocery store in New York last week.

“I feel like I’m being invaded by this hatred,” added the man. “It’s everywhere. It’s silent. It’s as deadly as this disease.”

So the next time you hear somebody say that they’re nostalgic for September 12th, 2001 — or, more feasibly, the next time you hear that “the coronavirus is bringing out the best in humanity” — ask yourself how, and ask yourself why. Because such circumstances may be simultaneously bringing out the worst in it, and the narrative might need some adjusting.

Perhaps then our president would think about how consequential calling corona “the Chinese virus” might just be.

Max Algas is a student from Chicago at Jones College Prep.

Photo Credit.

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