Every faction conditions its members to think and act a certain way. And most people do it. For most people, it’s not hard to learn, to find a pattern of thought that works and stay that way. But our minds move in a dozen different directions. We can’t be confined to one way of thinking, and that terrifies our leaders. It means we can’t be controlled. And it means that no matter what they do, we will always cause trouble for them. -- Tobias, from Veronica Roth’s "Divergent" series.
At first the movie Divergent appears to be a dystopian fantasy, a story about a world where people are divided into factions and are, for the most part, content to stay within them.
The five factions -- Dauntless, Abnegation, Erudite, Amity and Candor -- each represent personality traits for which their members have tested and been found to have an aptitude. Dauntless are brave, Abnegation are selfless, Erudite are bookish and intelligent, Amity are kind and peace-loving and Candor are honest and truth seeking. The trouble is, some members of the society do not fit neatly into any one category. They are Divergent.
Though the world of Divergent is fictional, it contains obvious parallels to our own society. What is astonishing is that we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions, even volunteer for placement. We have our political factions, our racial factions, our religious factions.
We line up behind our favorite sports teams and taunt our rivals’ fans, we feel superior or inferior based on which schools we attend or in which stores we shop. Southerners aren’t as good as Northerners who aren’t as good as New Englanders who aren’t as good as Vermonters. Like amoeba we seem able to continually divide and separate ourselves. Naturally, whichever groups in which we find ourselves tend to be the better ones.
While this human tendency to divide into groups or factions or clans, whichever term applies, is damaging and limiting to us as individuals, it is devastating to our society on a political level. Once we have identified ourselves as belonging to one faction we often stop thinking about issues and allow our "leaders" to do the thinking for us.
Thus, when a Republican president runs up huge budget deficits the members of his supposedly fiscally conservative political faction are ominously silent. When Democrat president expands policies that allow American citizens to be spied upon, his normally civil liberties-loving minions see, hear and speak no evil. This is extremely helpful to those in power but ruinous to a system of government which requires an informed and engaged electorate.
Equally destructive is the tendency of politicians to take cover behind their faction of choice whenever they are questioned about their policies or actions. So someone like Eric Holder, whose stint as U.S. Attorney General has been fraught with bad decisions, cries racism when he is questioned on them. In our group-identity-driven political atmosphere people aren’t allowed to disagree with those who are different without being accused of hating the entire faction.
Divergence is extremely dangerous.
Perhaps the worst consequence of our herd mentality, though, is how we treat those who express viewpoints outside what the majority, or often a very vocal minority, considers acceptable thought. Someone like Andrew Cuomo, who is supposed to serve as governor to all New Yorkers, can actually say those he defines as "extreme conservatives," including people who are pro-life and pro-second amendment, have no place in New York State and receive little backlash from his fellow "liberals." Though we give lip-service to the glories of intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas, in reality dissenting nails are quickly hammered down when they dare to pop up.
Physical hammers are unnecessary, of course, since name-calling words like "wacko," "nut job" and "extremist" suffice.
"Divergent" makes the point that the traits that define the factions, and many traits besides, are part of human nature and no matter how much we try to isolate and extinguish them, they will remain.
We are not one dimensional.
We are all, actually, Divergent and capable of developing a myriad of character traits.
Our task is to cultivate and magnify those that contribute to morally and culturally healthy individuals and societies.
I think we’ve made a mistake ... We’ve all started to put down the virtues of the other factions in the process of bolstering our own. I don’t want to do that. I want to be brave, and selfless, and smart, and honest, and kind ...
So should we all.
Audrey Pietrucha, a regular Banner columnist, is a member of Vermonters for Liberty and a proud Divergent. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.