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Teamwork Makes the Nightmare Work

“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals” — Agent Kay A few years ago I heard a variation on that gem of wisdom from a silly alien movie. The variant was: Groups of people don’t behave logically, they behave predictably illogically; all a person can do is try to make good predictions. For no particular reason both of those ideas simultaneously popped into my head this morning, as I was eating my breakfast rice and eggs and idly scrolling through Twitter. Might have had something to do with the killer robots and our obvious determination to bring Skynet online. And that’s about when I stopped scrolling (and chewing). Staring off into the space of the jungle behind the house a subsequent thought was over-writing the others. About how we define ourselves. By groups. Clubs we belong to. Companies where we work. Churches we attend. Towns where we’ve settled. Countries we’ve had the accident of birth into. Teams we cheer for. Activities in which we participate. TV shows we parse out over the water cooler. Lunch tables where we sit. Like all other great apes (with the exception of the Orangutan) we are a social animal. With the rare exception of the odd hermit, we need other humans around us. This is why something like solitary confinement is treated as the ultimate possible punishment - and why there are so many opposition groups to its implementation, considering it actual torture. (If you really want to give yourself nightmares: Google “oubliette.”) Our cooperation was an evolutionary development, a defence mechanism for us as animals not categorically fast, nor strong, with no special morphological adaptations for our survival beyond thumbs and an exaggerated prefrontal cortex. It was in groups we survived ice ages and migrations through vast deserts. In groups we formed tribes, built tools, and farms, towns, cities, monuments, and empires. Specialised division of labor allowed the group to thrive against nature red in tooth and claw. We’ve “flourished” on every continent and in every ecosystem on the planet. Having seen us through a couple of tens of thousands of years it should be unsurprising that it’s a hard habit to shake. Whether it’s to which god(s) we offer prayer, to which school we pay alumni fees, to which career we felt some vocation… there’s always a hat or a bumper-sticker or some special, secret handshake or password. This is, in fact, the origin of the term “shibboleth.” Some bronze-age dispute between the Ephramites and the Gileadites recounted in the Book of Judges. The later had won the battle and held the only bridge that the former could use to make their way home. As anyone approached the passage, guards would demand to hear their word for a head of wheat, “shibboleth.” But the escaping Ephramites couldn’t pronounce the “h.” Resultantly, when they said “sibbolet” instead of “shibboleth” they were killed. (Presumably, the same would have happened if they said “swordfis.”) A vicious, but effective demonstration of in-group vs. out-group. How do you define yourself? Check your social media short-bio for such labels. How many of the terms you use are a definition of self based on your inclusion rather than of you? For me:

“Cave-diving, vegan, eco-hippie.” I’d love to pull out all the non-conformist wheel-chucks and say that each of those define behaviours rather than groups. But it isn’t exactly true. Each of those things does suggest a group - and the consequent values and predictable illogic of those groups - to which I belong. To which I belong to a greater or lesser extent, anyway. As the great Groucho once quipped, “I don't want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.” Working backwards:

— I’m not especially hippy-ish. I don’t smoke dope and I’ve always thought Phish sounded like little more than endurance syncopation.

— While I do my personal best to reduce our own carbon footprint I have a somewhat gloomy outlook on the balance of biodiversity and extinction rates, so I'm not much of an eco-warrior.

— I can never tell other vegans that I worked at an Aquarium for years and see value in limited, responsible forms of animal captivity because such a belief is antithetical to the vegan party-line.

— And cave divers… we’re a funny bunch, aren’t we? Tending towards isolationism - but loving to gather around a camp-fire. Frequently surly - but atypically friendly about it. In constant pursuit of the solitude and tranquility of the deepest, darkest spaces to be found on Earth - but can’t wait to get back to the fill station to talk about it. Generally just an exercise on the duality of humankind. In our sport one must be utterly, absolutely self-reliant - though, in the vast majority of circumstances, it is arguably far safer with a team around you. This is, very probably, one of the only places where I’d say it’s a damned good thing to lean in our tribal programming. The dives themselves. To be, at all times during the dive, as conscientious about what is going on with your team-mates as with yourself is to ensure the best possible outcome of the dive. That being, first and foremost, that everyone gets home safe. With “everyone really enjoyed themselves” being not terribly far behind. What’s more, it should be noted that planning, set-up, briefing, and debriefing are included within “at all times.” Critical factors of the the dive can be overlooked during any or each of these constituent parts, presenting as actual emergencies, incidents, or even accidents.

So our useful tribalism can still serve a valuable function topside; going on to even sharing or broadcasting our experiences out into our community so that others may benefit. The subterranean, aquatic equivalent of everyone in the group using our handy bipedalism to keep an eye out for movement in the tall grass. As I continued on with my breakfast, chewing things over somewhere in the back of my mind, scrolling past videos of people bathing their pet hedgehogs, I did make it around to how as a community that tribalism starts to lose value down a very fast slope. We fraction off into our little factions. Sworn allegiances to this shop or that agency. Espousing the one true dive configuration, deviation from which rendering one a heathen. Only ever diving off a certain boat because everyone else is an asshole. In creating our social bonds, as we start to define ourselves by the groups we hold dearest… we divide into cells. Cells of our own making. Like those time-lapse photos of mitosis or embryonic development: those divisions tend to continue. Combination creating division. Cells begetting cells begetting cells. As the population increases in our vicinity, we find the couple of people around us who agree with us most. Before anyone had any time to really think it through or consider any sort of a charter a new cell is built, with the walls cemented to keep those who don’t conform out. But walls generally work both ways. They trap you in, too. All-too-often locking your mind off from the greater world.

(I know I’m jumping back and forth between metaphors here, so to be clear, this part is about biological cells) As divers, familiar with gas exchanges, we should consider our cell walls permeable rather than absolute. If you need to belong, at least be on the lookout to avoid dogmatic exclusivity. The divisions of modern society are so widely recognised that they’re cliche. Radical fundamentalists of all make and model of religion blowing shit up because their god is way more real that that phoney-ass god. Historical genocide after historical genocide. Constant racial tension in even the most “developed” nations - some whole nations drawn through strict racial lines. Children shooting at one another because they happened to be born in different points on the globe. Widespread worldwide discrimination or violence against women and LGBTQ. Passive, subtle biases affecting even the most innocuous-seeming interactions. We might be programmed to define ourselves by the in-crowd and the out-crowd. X vs Y. Us vs. a dehumanised Them. But it destroys fucking everything. Predictably illogical. Wouldn’t it be grand if we could do a little better? Drop the social posturing and the expectations of devotion and loyalty. Recognise an obligation to a greater good than to those who comply with the same conformity as you? I admit, I don’t have a hell of a lot of hope for humanity as a whole. There’s just too damned many of us. 8 billion and counting; every one of us with our own little gangs we can buy a bunch of t-shirts so we can act as a billboard for them. Obviously there are at least a handful of those 8 billion who are only really capable of thriving as part of a group, needing some sense of belonging by which they can define themselves, perhaps even lacking direction or purpose without it. And I begrudgingly admit that without them we’d lack defence. We’d lack firefighters or police. We’d lack union workers or public service staff. Educators and farmers and entertainers. We’d lack all the things that go into making a civilisation. Which is unthinkably impractical unless literally every single other person in the world was committed whole-heartedly to the common good. Which isn’t, nor will it ever be, the case. Which is why I don’t have a lot of hope. Besides, I am not much of a joiner. Since childhood, groupthink has always made me deeply uncomfortable. Seems to me that if the predictable illogic of the group, of every group, is going to consistently move it in dangerous patterns, the only logical thing to do is move out of its way. So I’ll just focus on getting my team home safe after great dives. Just trying to be a good person instead of being a good group member. And write a thing or two to encourage others to do their own version of the same.

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