It’s useful knowing what team you’re on. Red vs Blue, Shirts vs Skins, Us vs Them: In game design, we try to make that difference obvious on first glance, we make the shapes different, tall and thin vs short and bulky, add distinctive hats, make everyone on one team red and everyone on the other team blue. It’s convenient, a visual short hand, telling us who is a friend and who’s an enemy.
Convenient shorthands can be dangerous. Our friends aren’t always our friends, our enemies aren’t always our enemies, and very seldom is the division clearly demarcated. And yet, many people want to believe that that isn’t the case.
Many people still see the world in black and white.
I don’t want to trivialize real-world violence by making a video game analogy here, but the same kind of convenient shorthand we use in game design to denote friend and foe is easily harnessed towards darker ends. It’s so easy to frame a worldview in us vs them, and even easier to draw that line along racial boundaries, leaving the heroes and villains color-coded for our convenience. It’s utterly stupid and evil, but I can still understand the appeal.
I don’t think the thought process is as simple as “they look different, therefore they are an enemy”. There’s a sophisticated dance of explanation as to how everything is someone else’s fault, carefully musical-chaired around until the blame falls on the desired group of undesired people. I don’t think it’s a simple problem, but I do think that it exploits a simple hole in the mental defenses of the average human being: We hate being confused. We hate nuance, and complexity, because it means we don’t know what to do. It means we’re lost.
It’s so much easier to believe that we’re a soldier in a war. It seems so simple. And for there to be a war, there needs to be an enemy – and for there to be an enemy, there needs to be a line of division, some clear point of difference between One Of Us and One Of Them. There are lots of lines people like to use, sexual orientation, gender expression, religion, nation… but race is the most convenient, the most easy, the most popular, because it means the enemy comes color-coded. Red vs blue, black and white, and like chess pieces we each have our role to play, like chess there is a strategy, a master plan.
Once we recognize that, though, once we understand that there are many people who see those of other races as an enemy and will resort to violence to win their war, what do we do next? Can we wage war against them ourselves? Who would we even be fighting against? Obviously something must be done, but to frame it as a war is to doubly inflict the logic of violence, domination, and supremacy upon ourselves. The war can’t be waged on those we see as separate from ourselves, but on the lines that divides us.
We’re not playing a war game, here. We’re playing war solitaire. And we’re losing.