Let me tell you all a story. It’s a very human story and, in the current environment in the West, a very important one. Stick with me, to the end and maybe, just maybe we can turn this Robbers Cave Game on its head.
In 1954, 22 boys were picked up by bus in two groups and transported to a 200 acre Boy Scouts of America camp in Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. They were 12 years old. They came from similar, Protestant, lower middle-class backgrounds and all were well adjusted, of normal physical development for their age and from intact homes. They were divided into two groups before being brought to the camp with organizers doing their best to balance the strengths and weaknesses evenly. The existence of each of the groups was kept secret from the other.
For the first five or six days, the “initial phase”, the boys in each group were encouraged to bond with one another. They were given goals the achieve that required co-operation, planning and execution. Each group gave itself a name – the Eagles and the Rattlers and each created its own flag to represent the group. Slowly, over the course of the initial phase, each group became aware of the existence of the other. Each group began to express concerns over their group’s ability to “enjoy” camp facilities while the other group “abused” those facilities. They also began to change the way they participated in the goals they were given – paying more attention to activities that might become competitive in future. They began teaching each other to swim well because they saw the possibility of a swimming competition with the other group, even though swimming had been an activity that each group had to that point shared only among the group. And finally, they began to encourage the counselors (who were really psychology researchers from the University of Oklahoma) to set up competitions.
With the presence of the other group known, the boys each became more attached to and protective of their own group. Let’s call that the in-group (because that is what it was called then). They also became more determined to strengthen the in-group vis-à-vis the other group. This was so even though during the initial phase the boys knew little or nothing about the boys in the other group (the out-group).
Once the boys were sufficiently bonded within the in-group, the second phase began. Friction was facilitated between the two groups over the next 6 days or so. A series of competitions were set up. There would be prizes! Yay for the 12 year-old boys. But wait… each activity within the competition would achieve points. Only the group that attained the most cumulative points over the days of competition would win a trophy. There would be no trophy for second place. There would also be individual prizes too – a medal and a pocket knife (the cool kind with multiple blades) but only the boys in the winning group would get these. No matter how well any individual boy performed in any competitive activity, if his group did not win overall, there would be no prize for him. No consolation prizes for any of them. The prizes (resources) were strictly limited. Though they were worth little in actual value, the fact that the prizes were so limited made them worth everything to the boys.
The Rattlers began the competition confident in their victory. They took over the ball field and talked about putting a “Keep Off” sign on it. They settled on planting their group flag on the back stop. In an attempt to enforce their ‘capture’ of the ball field, they threatened about what they would do if anyone disturbed their flag. [Aside: this behaviour reminds me of an Eddie Izzard bit about imperialism. If you haven’t seen it, it’s amazing and you can view a great Lego animation of it here: Do You Have A Flag?]
The groups were brought together for the first time in the dining hall. Immediately, they began to call each other names and each group even sang derogatory songs about the other. Some of the Eagles even expressed to the researchers that they did not want to eat again with the Rattlers. They defaced each other’s flags and raided each other’s cabins during this second phase of competition.
The researchers subtly controlled the outcome of the competition, ensuring a win by the Eagles. In retaliation, the Rattlers again raided the Eagles’ cabins, taking all the medals and pocket knives they could find. The derogatory speech became stronger, the two groups nearly came to blows and each refused to eat with the other in the mess hall at all. It was time for Stage Three.
During this stage, efforts were made to reconcile the two groups through shared activity and contact. They watched films together and shared in a Fourth of July fireworks display. These contact activities did little to nothing to lessen the tension that had built up between the two groups. In fact, many of the shared activities ended in food fights.
With no end to the tension, the researchers moved all of the boys to a new area and gave them tasks to achieve that were valuable to each group but were beyond the abilities and resources of either group to achieve alone.
The researchers shut down the water supply in the camp and blamed it on a mysterious third group of ‘vandals’. Each group investigated separately but both found that a big sack had been stuffed into the water main. The boys in both groups, thirsty, worked together to solve the problem and celebrated together when they finally got the water going again. The Rattlers even let the Eagles drink first since they had no canteens of water and were thirstier.
Next, they were asked to agree on a movie together. The boys chose Treasure Island and even agreed, when presented with the problem of paying for the movie, that each group would pay $3.50. This agreement was easy even though a few of the boys from the Eagles had gone home so their per capita contribution would be higher. By supper time that day, the boys were eating together in the dining hall with only some mild hi-jinx going on between them.
They also, as one group, used to a tug-of-war rope to take down a dangerous, nearly falling tree and to get a truck bearing food for all of them out of the mud. By the end of this third phase, the boys were eating together in the dining hall without sitting in their own groups. On the last day of camp, they asked to go back to Oklahoma City together on one bus. The Rattlers still had $5 which they had won earlier from a bean counting contest and they used the $5 to buy malted milk drinks for all the boys from both groups during a refreshment stop, leaving each boy to buy his own sandwich and other snacks.
My word, Himmat! That was such a good story with conflict, ethical dilemmas, a climax, a happy ending and all! But what does that have to do with anything? Well…
This experiment was conducted by Muzafer Sherif (oh no, that name sounds a little… Muslim… why didn’t you tell me that from the beginning? Because it matters and it doesn’t. Just chill and read on.) and other researchers and formed the basis for his Realistic Conflict Theory. You can read the whole book about the experiment at a York University psychology reference database here: Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment.
Politicians (and other ‘leaders’) have used Realistic Conflict Theory to their advantage, the fulfill their own agendas forever. In my recent memory, in the West, no two politicians have tried harder to use this theory to their advantage as Stephen Harper and Donald Trump. Their use of this theory has resulted in some troubling, phase two behaviour on a large scale. That is why this story, and really understanding this story, is so important.
Harper was the Canadian premier for almost ten years (from 2006 – 2015). With support for the Conservative Party and particularly, Harper waning in 2015 (a federal election year in Canada) Harper and other conservatives began a campaign against out-groups. They attempted to build up, in the minds of Canadian voters a perceived threat of this decade’s favourite out-group, the Muslim.
In response to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015, Harper stated that the “international jihadist movement has declared war” on the values of “freedom, openness and tolerance”, ascribing to them a hatred toward “anyone who does not think and act exactly as they wish they would think and act.” Oh the irony when only a week later, Harper’s Conservatives launch a poll asking people to agree that “harmful and violent cultural practices found elsewhere [i.e. the out-group] in the world will not be tolerated in Canada.” Then barely two weeks later, he attempted to link the 2014 Ottawa shooting of Cpl. Nathan Castillo to the Hebdo massacre and ISIS, telling Canadians that they should fear attacks from such people who despise modernity and therefore want violence. The whole time, shifting focus away from a decade of performance by his party to the out-group. He begins to single out mosques as places of “radicalization” of teens.
In February, he created another out-group. Of Canadians… by publishing a poll asking people to agree that First Nations’ governments should be more transparent, despite having earlier passed a transparency act. This behaviour deflected from the Conservatives’ failure to take seriously the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada by making those same people the out-group. The out-grouping is beginning to work as this poll and the sites it is published on are overrun with racist commentary from supporters. Suddenly, in Canada, the racists who had previously remained hidden under their rocks, it was okay to use derogatory language against whatever out-group the Conservatives were pointing at.
Less than a month after Harper professes the values of freedom, openness and tolerance, he announced that his government will appeal a decision that allowed a woman to wear a niqab while taking her Oath of Citizenship.
“I believe, and I think most Canadians believe that it is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family. This is a society that is transparent, open, and where people are equal.”
Because that stance somehow is supposed to be free, open and tolerant. (No, no. Don’t look at our closed, intolerant position, look there’s a woman in a veil, clearly a threatening member of the out-group. Look. Over there.) It didn’t end there though, because a Conservative fundraising letter then appear which condemned the use of both the nijab (with the veil) and the hijab (no veil) at citizenship ceremonies, stating that the garments do not reflect our values and our traditions.
In March, a Conservative MP complained that the Temporary Foreign Workers program was giving “brown” people jobs over whites. Also in March, Conservative Defence Minister Jason Kenney begins tweeting misleading photos of child brides and women in burqas to stir up further emotion against the out-group. More racists start appearing out of the woodwork, with attacks on Muslim and Sikh communities in Canada rising. The following day, residents in Winnipeg receive the following from the local conservative candidate:
Bizarrely, and really stretching the out-group now, the Public Safety Minister tried to conjure up images of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide to generate support for the broad, sweeping powers police and others should have under Bill C-51, supposedly all about fighting terrorism. That out-group is now getting bigger and bigger and what? Terrorists were responsible for what now? I’m almost certain they had nothing to do with the Holocaust in Europe… but hey in-grouper! You’re supposed to be ignoring the truth here! Blindly support the in-group leaders! Don’t think! The truth has nothing to do with the politics of fear! Get with it!
This kind of garbage went on and on and on in 2015 in Canada, with racist, primarily white men and women becoming more and more vocal. They shared the myths and lies that supported their bizarre beliefs over and over and over again such that my social media feeds were over-run and I had more than one disturbing encounter with blinded members of the in-group, some of whom were not at all willing to listen (can’t eat in the dining hall with the out-group after all) to any reason.
Thankfully, in Canada, most people do appreciate freedom. They are tolerant, welcoming, kind and open. We have never had such a blatant, arrogant, outright attempt to win an election based on making us afraid. Canadians are nice and we’re tolerant but we are also intelligent, educated and we’re not sheep. In October 2015, I watched with great satisfaction and so much relief as Canadian voters turned the map virtually anything but blue (the colour of the Conservatives).
During that time, I often became disappointed and saddened by the seeming silence of people in Canada. Why aren’t they speaking out against the racism, Islamophobia, the attacks on me, my friends, my family? Can they not see how rough things are getting for people who are different here? What the hell has happened to my nation? I felt often that I was fighting a very lonely battle. But that October, the quiet majority spoke and silenced the voices of the tiny, miniscule but incredibly vocal minority. They ended the Robbers Cave Game in Canada in a quiet, matter-of-fact, very Canadian way that was heard quite soundly throughout the nation. We refused to hate.
Rightly or wrongly, Harper became, instead of a leader recognized for ten years of service as the Canadian Prime Minister, an international laughing stock. The Conservatives had done serious damage to themselves and really need to take the next four years to regroup and reassess the game they tried to play.
Our young Liberal Prime Minister heard the message and has build the most inclusive cabinet that Canada has ever enjoyed. The racists, for the most part, have crawled back under their rocks and bitterly bemoan the fall of their leader. That’s fine. They can’t do a whole hell of a lot of harm there.
The same Robbers Cave game played out in Britain recently and resulted in Brexit, a move that voters almost immediately regretted and wanted reversed. The result of the Brexit vote will have serious, negative impacts for the people of the United Kingdom for many years to come and won’t be fully understood for decades.
The same game was also played by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis before World War II even broke out and we all know how that turned out. It was repeated again during the Cold War and there are countless other examples of it throughout history. (Oh that we actually learned the lessons of our history).
I learned a lot during that uncertain time in Canada and during the Brexit campaign in the U.K. – a time that could have changed the nature of my country sharply toward hate and intolerance and has forever changed the relationship of the U.K. to the rest of Europe and within their own in-group.
The most important lesson in all this is that we need to recognize every time the Robbers Cave Experiment is being played on us and then we need to call it out for the game that it is. The Robbers Cave Game (and I call it a game because that is how the conflict theory is too often used), is all about how we respond naturally to divisions and others. Politicians in particular, and others who have leadership of groups, have exploited over and over that natural inclination to compete into darker, uglier parts of ourselves that are best kept under control – hate, bigotry, racism, sexism. Whatever suits their needs in the moment. To accomplish the Game, they rely on the fact that so few ever question it.
We need to recognize the Robbers Cave Game during phase one and early in phase two. We must guard against allowing it to get to the end of phase two, when we are firmly entrenched in our in-groups and firmly opposed to the out-group, when the divide is sharp and ‘clear’. We cannot afford to just pick a side and go with it. Instead whenever phase one and two are presented to us, we need to move quickly to end the game or, when it’s too late for that because the game is fully underway, get to the joint problem solving/reconciliation phase.
The same game is being played by the Republicans and their current candidate – Donald Trump. Their number of out-groups are even larger and the impact of the game, should they win at it, are that much more dangerous and serious.
Trump is at phase two of the game – creating friction between the in-group (the group of voters sufficiently large to elect him President) and the out-group (oh so many out-groups). Let’s just review a few examples of the out-grouping/introduction of friction:
‘This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course – not even close. There’s never been anybody in the history of politics that has been so abusive to women.’…‘I’ve said some foolish things but there’s a big difference between the words and actions of other people. Bill Clinton has actually abused women and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims.’
Trump clearly has serious issues with his respect for half of the population he means to rule – women. This is not the first time he has displayed over-the-top, inappropriate behaviour toward women and it wasn’t the last. So to deflect from the real issue, he creates an ‘other’ – the Clintons and says in this ‘competition’ it is Clinton who has the issues, minimizing his own behaviour by suggesting that he didn’t even compete. ‘Stay in the in-group with me. It’s the out-group we’re hating on. Call them out, not me. Deflect. Deflect.’
And on his respect for and treatment of women, the truth (and one opportunity to end the Robbers Cave game) is found in Trump’s own words.
“Robert Pattinson should not take back Kristen Stewart. She cheated on him like a dog & will do it again – just watch. He can do much better!”
“Ariana Huffington is unattractive, both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man – he made a good decision.”
“You know, it really doesn’t matter what the media write as long as you’ve got a young, and beautiful, piece of ass.”
“If I were running ‘The View’, I’d fire Rosie O’Donnell. I mean, I’d look at her right in that fat, ugly face of hers, I’d say ‘Rosie, you’re fired.”
“All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me – consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected.”
“I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.”
“You’re disgusting.” To an opposing lawyer when she asked the court for a break to pump breast-milk for her infant child.
“The only card [Hillary Clinton] has is the woman’s card. She’s got nothing else to offer and frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5 percent of the vote. The only thing she’s got going is the woman’s card, and the beautiful thing is, women don’t like her.”
Trump is responsible for these words, no one else. Not the media. Not the women he was referring to. No-one but Trump. Ending the Robbers Cave Game that he plays here means leaving that responsibility with him and recognizing that women are not an out-group. Working co-operatively with women on the goal of leading America in the future is something the GOP really needs to look at.
If out-grouping half of the entire population of the United States of America is not enough, Trump goes after Mexicans:
“I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you, they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bring crime. They’re rapists… And some, I assume, are good people.”
What the hell Trump? The influx of people from Mexico immigrating to the United States, legally or illegally, is happening for a variety of reasons that include a variety of opportunities that are available there (despite Trump’s assertion that America should be made great again.)
The out-group here is obviously all of Mexico and Mexican immigrants to the United States. Without any basis in fact whatsoever, you are asked to believe that the members of this out-group are drug dealers, criminals, rapists… without any basis in fact. Whatsoever. He wants you to be afraid and says he’ll build a wall because he has no real plan to deal with illegal immigration whatsoever so don’t focus on my lack of any plan. Instead let’s just paint all of Mexico and the Mexican people with the same, scary brush and make believe that they are the problem. There now. Isn’t that better? Be afraid, be afraid. No don’t look at me… look at them and be afraid.
“Our great African-American President hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore.”
Out-group African-Americans (a particular favourite out-group for white American politicians in general) and specifically, the Black Lives Matter movement. No solutions, no effort to solve the issues that gave rise to the movement. Just declare them an out-group and try to make voters afraid of them. Declare Obama a failed leader of the African Americans while you’re at it. Because I have no plan and no plan to make a plan around this. Just vote for me, dammit! Can’t you see all the out-groups that we have to be concerned about? I promise to do something about them. Not sure what, I have no plan to speak of. But you should be afraid and vote for me because I pointed out the ‘threat’.
There’s so much more – especially around Muslims (and Trump has no idea the difference between Sikhs and Muslims even, so what can he really know about any of it if he can’t even get the basics down?)
Rather than focus on any actual platform, rather than put any effort into understanding the real and complex issues facing America, this 2016 election has evolved into a massive Robbers Cave Game. If Trump takes this election (which is looking increasingly unlikely but you never know), we should all be very, very worried about how he end of phase two and even phase three look. Very, very concerned.
It’s not too late, southern cousins. It’s not. Disengage from the game, call it out for what it is, refuse to hate, refuse to be tricked into thinking America is not already great, refuse to turn on one another just so that Trump can sit in the Oval Office. You might not like the alternative but she’ll do much less harm and you can take the next four years to demand better, to demand more unity and more focus on the actual needs of the American people – to demand that this game end and never, ever be played again.
Work on getting to know the so called out-groups better and work on cooperating with them to build a stronger, even greater nation that you already have. You won’t regret it.
Peace and love all,