As I contemplate the deep divide between the American people and how to re-unite the country – or Britain, for that matter, after the divisive Brexit vote – I think of the work of Don Beck. A former professor of social psychology at University of North Texas, Beck, a florid 75-year-old Texan, is most known for a system he has developed called Spiral Dynamics, which identifies the fine gradations of belief systems and their level of complexity of any given society.
As a political consultant on resolving societal conflict, Beck calls himself a human “heat-seeking missile,” drawn to the world’s hot spots: South Africa, Palestine, Afghanistan, Israel. His current work attempts to break up the thinking that fuels us-versus-them prejudice by showing people on one side that those on the other side are not all the same.
In Beck’s experience, what often polarizes people or pulls societies apart is a simple lack of appreciation of the spectrum of different beliefs that exist in cultures outside their own.
“We don’t have the language of difference, so we tend to stereotype,” he says.
Lessons from South Africa
During his sixty-three trips to South Africa in the 1980s, Beck became known as a bridge builder between the country’s black and white populations; as a consequence, he played a behind-the-scenes role in helping to smooth the country’s transition from apartheid to democracy.
In his dealings with the business community, he began to realize that many of the pro-apartheid Afrikaners, the dominant white group, were unable to differentiate between various black tribes, while members of the African National Congress, the party led by Nelson Mandela, also had difficulty distinguishing between different types of Afrikaners.
Beck began delivering presentations all over South Africa to educate whites and blacks in the fine distinctions between the many different Zulu tribes and white groups.
“I was able to break up,” he says, “the definitional systems that fueled prejudice.”
It was Beck who first came up with the idea of using South Africa’s entry into the World Cup rugby play-offs in 1995, depicted in the film Invictus, as a means of creating nation-building euphoria, in order to unify a country emerging from apartheid. Beck had a special fascination with the psychology of premier-league games, and through his experiences working with the Dallas Cowboys and the New Orleans Saints, he had developed a belief in the power of sports as a peacemaker.
This was a bold idea, given that the Springboks, the South African rugby team, were the very symbol of apartheid. Rugby was considered a white man’s sport. Virtually all players were Afrikaners, the white pro-apartheid minority; rugby coaches even shouted out plays in Afrikaans. English-speaking or black players seldom made the team, and consequently, the black population in South Africa actively boycotted the sport.
The unifying power of games
In 1995, Beck presented Kitch Christie, the Springboks coach, with a paper entitled Six Games to Glory, which detailed a series of psychological strategies that would help transform the team from underdog to world-class contender in the games leading up to the World Cup. Besides the strategies for winning the game, Beck’s paper included ways that the Springboks could stand as a focal point of pride for the fledgling country and connect the township blacks with the Afrikaners.
Psychologists call this a superordinate goal – a goal only achieved by large cooperative teamwork of two or more people. Engaging in sharing and teamwork tends to transcend differences, because it emphasizes the very heart of humanity — we are all in this together. And if we are all in this together we are no longer competing for scarce resources.
Beck’s document offe
rs many strategies that can be used to create superordinate goals in other areas. He suggested that the Springboks adopt a collaborative or common identity — the green and gold colors of the team shirts, and a sports crowd song, with a Zulu drum to lead the team and arouse the crowd.
Beck arranged for the team to visit Mandela’s tiny prison cell at Robben Island, in order to emphasize their larger role in their country’s destiny. Above all, his exercises were to help develop a sense that each member of the team faced a life-defining moment requiring that they pull together as one.
As the games progressed, Beck’s superordinate goal began to infect the country; young blacks from the township tore down anti-rugby signs and hung photos of their Springbok heroes. During the World Cup, which the Springboks went on to win, Mandela was persuaded to appear in a Springbok green and gold shirt — the colors that had always symbolized his oppressors — as a tangible sign of unity and forgiveness.
We’re all in this together
To Beck, creating a superordinate goal is one of the best ways to achieve peace in areas of political conflict. In his work, Beck often meets with both sides in an area of conflict and shows them a positive vision of future possibility, but one that requires that both sides work together and use their common geography and resources to create a solution for all who live there.
Recently, he presented the Arabs and Israelis with a plan to make occupied Palestine “the Hong Kong of the Middle East,” an affluent society with both sides sharing resources for services such as education and health care.
Once you begin to see the whole, you can see past your own assumptions and beyond differences to our Bond and the common humanity that binds us all together.
What we need is not to make America or Britain great again. We need to make each country whole again, and to do that we need a goal we all share that can only be achieved by all of us pulling together as one.Â