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Insurgent: An analogy for racial and political tensions and appropriation

The Divergent series is about a girl who falls between the cracks of a heavily divided society with a deeply ingrained faction system. There are five groups into which all people are classified when they turn 16, based on a psychological profile and inherent personality traits. The premise is that this faction system saved them from the annihilation of war, but it has become a tyranny from which outcasts who can belong to several groups, or none at all, want to free themselves.

The story glorifies the gifts of the unique, of people who are not easily classified. It deals well with the struggle to understand where we fit in and the feeling that we don’t truly fit in anywhere. This ideology plays well with young adults and even not-so-young adults, because the feeling of not belonging and the crisis of identity exploration is ubiquitous in youth.



Is this faction system realistic, and could the dynamic save a civilization?  Can this movie be an analogy for our lives, and what lessons can we learn from it? How can such a deeply segregated society continue?

Each faction in Insurgent (and each group in real life)  is programmed to look after the interests and health of the group. The presence of the other factions and their differing values (just as with the groups in real life) helps each group to clarify the identity, societal roles, and values of its members.

It is part of human nature to want to belong to groups. I remember when I was in high school in the early period of goth and punk. I remember watching a small and tightly packed group of people, always together and looking exactly alike, who called themselves non-conformists.  Even people who identity themselves as separate look for a group to which they can belong, and they make rules for that group to follow to help them feel they belong. They did this, we do this so we can have an overt measure of belonging to a group or a tribe.


There is an evolutionary role for stereotyping and prejudice. Millennia ago, when we lived in tribes or clans or whatever specific type of group, we often competed for resources. Other tribes, they actually might take our food, rape our women, and eat us. We tribes that were suspicious or hostile toward outsiders were more likely to avoid interference from unwanted groups, the spread of germs or disease they didn’t have any immunity for. Life was considerably more dangerous, and most of our weird and seemingly inexplicable social quirks and fears are leftovers from that harsh existence.

So, when you hear Donald Trump say that Mexico is “sending” their worst people, people who will take our jobs and rape our women, and you want to call him a Cro-Magnon or a caveman, you’re spot on. He is speaking from an instinct that would have kept us vigilant against actual threats hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Between the psychological and deeply personal desire to take part in group dynamics and the tendency to use stereotypes as short hand for getting to know people and the evolutionary programming of prejudice, it’s obvious that racism and classism and sexism are real and potent things and not the shrugged-off bad habits some people would like you to believe. This is why there are constant schisms between religions, and within religions. This is why our political parties are as powerful as they are and our political discourse is as unhealthy as it is.

The problem is, as with so many of our antiquated, knee-jerk reactions, sterotyping and prejudice are of no real use to us anymore. Just like fear, prejudice and stereotypes warp our realistic appraisal of things and prevents us from professional and emotional growth.

Cognitive Dissonance and in-group bias.

What I’ve been talking about is a cognitive distortion called in-group bias. It is similar to 1984‘s groupthink and the logical fallacy of the bandwagon appeal. Picture your mother saying, “if your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge too?”

In-group bias is the tendency for members of a group to favor that group, to separate from other groups and consider other groups inferior. It’s the tendency to shortcut thinking and decision-making based on the values and goals of the group. Meaning, you pay attention to the rules and values of the group, often at the expense of your own. You might not even reflect on what your personal values might be because of the risk that they differ from the group. The idea of differing from our groups creates anxiety.

In-group bias discourages the individual from challenging the groups beliefs.  It is the job of the members of the organism to maintain the integrity of the organism. That is why the five factions in Divergent remain so strong and unquestioned for so long.

Cognitive dissonance is the attempt to hold conflicting beliefs or to claim one value but act in a way that contradicts that value. When we connect it to in-group bias, it looks something like this: We know that smoking is unhealthy, but the smoking is a big part of our culture. We know that it’s not right to bully others, but we take part in it because our friends tend to do it and reward our involvement with high faves and validation. We get a sense that it’s wrong to treat the poor badly, but our political affiliation makes a habit of arguing in a half dozen different ways that people who are poor have character defects that make them poor. If you differ from republican values, you’re a RINO.

We know that there are flaws in the system, in our groups, but we ignore them. We don’t want to think too much about these troubling things because it would provoke hostility and possible expulsion from the group.  And when do think about it, and the dissonance happens we rationalize, we become confused and forget what we were thinking about. Subconsciously, we do whatever we can to protect our identity–which is partly formed by the groups we are a part of.

We don’t want to rock the boat because we don’t want to risk being kicked out of it and losing our identity.

Sex and Race

Society does it’s best to normalize by pidgeonholing people according to group identities. When women are too strong and aggressive, they are considered to be too masculine and are often ostracized for it, even by those closest to them. When men are too sensitive, they get called names and ridiculed, even by those closest to them.

When John Boehner cries, it’s seen as being too emotional, and people joke about it and ridicule him. When Hillary Clinton cried once it was seen as evidence of why women shouldn’t have political power because they are too emotional.

We have ideas about the opposite sex and about different races and ethnicities, and we look for evidence to validate those ideas. It doesn’t matter how much of a minority that is. If we think that women are duplicitious, we’ll find validating examples and simultaneously dismiss  anything that challenges that idea.

The only time that we successfully combat this is when we abandon the ideas of what characteristics should and shouldn’t apply to groups. We should appreciate people for what makes classification and easy appraisal difficult. We need to appreciate and celebrate the novel and unique, the divergent.

If you read my colleague Wulfie’s post about racism, you’ll get a personal perspective of it. In that article, she also talks about a story where every one suddenly has green skin. Racism disappears briefly, but then it becomes a dynamic again when people start dividing and classifying based on the different shades of green.

Time magazine once did a cover article with a picture of the imagined future reality of race, all of us will look vaguely middle eastern. In a way it is a return to our origins. Some people might think that when or if this happens, racism will be a thing of the past., but that fantasy ignores history… or, you know, the willingness to follow current news.

Appropriate Appropriation

If we want to reduce the schism of race and sex, we should share more, but we do the opposite—often for what we think are good reasons.

When white men adopt African American culture or vice versa it’s often seen as offensive appropriation. These adopted concepts are largely artificial, especially style of dress and musical tastes. Why don’t we think it’s even a little bit odd when liberal intellectuals who care about the cause of racism rhetorically punish a white person for adopting elements of that culture? (I’m not talking about the malicious or ignorant mockery that does happen.) We learn and grow through mimicry. If we truly want to see more blurring of the lines in racial politics, we should be more considerate of appropriation rather than immediately attack it. We should teach others the deeper meanings of the rather than immediately punishing them. At the very least, some of those appropriators might be encouraged to start a dialogue when they want to explore the culture.


People who want to gain and maintain power use political affiliation, religion, geographic location, and nationalism, and they manufacture boogymen. The tools that last are the are the ones that manipulate faction systems. You are often called upon to support your political affiliation, your religious denomination, your country, your bros, your sisters. Shouldn’t we make sure to take the group to task if that comraderie is destructive more than it is bonding?

You will often hear or read some enlightened intellectual talking about the dangers of patriotism, but even those people–maybe justifiably–will support a party they know to be increasingly corrupt in order to continue the work towards those policies in government.

I think most of my friends agreed that Ralph Nader was right, back in 2000, when he said that we have to stop the hegemony of the two party system, but few of us were willing to sacrifice the presidency to George Bush to do so, and most of us were really fucking pissed off when we lost anyway. (Even though we can blame the supreme court for it.) People still resent Nader for what amounts to being true to his expressed values.

People want a system that not only includes them, but has a heavy exclusionary dynamic. They want it to feel like an exclusive club. Political leaders exploit this consistently and cynically.

Public Enemy Number One and Their Tool…

There are a lot of moving parts in culture and in politics. Politicians utilize a great many tools to get the job done. And the job has to include a recipe that itself includes public good an personal ambition. I would argue that in modern life it is impossible to have any sort of effective politician who doesn’t have some degree of personal ambition. I would also argue that even someone as apparently avaricious as Donald Trump has a sliver of social conscience that he feels he is uniquely qualified to appease and see to the greater good.

By extension, the party politicians belong to has to bring to bear a mission statement that involves affective and beneficial governance and a willingness to perpetuate the health and power of the party.

There used to be a time that we would appreciate when our political leaders reached across the aisle and compromised with the opposing forces. Today, however, skewer them for even considering doing so.

In the first republican primary debate, Donald Trump was skewered for (I keep using that word. Why does it seem so appropriate.) for daring to have any sensibilities that lean left. Rand Paul, someone who formerly branded himself as unafraid to buck the trend with conservative values, gave Christ Christie shit for hugging Barack Obama, during the aftermath of hurricane Sandy. (Because not offending the party is more important than getting all the aid for his ailing state he can?)

And regardless of the motivation, the liberal democrats are doing the same thing. Obama is daily attacked for not being liberal enough (sometimes by me) even though the thing that made him famous was his we’re not red or blue but united speech.

Politicians use our own faction systems against us, and they count on our cognitive dissonance to keep ourselves in line. We do the majority of the work for them.

It doesn’t seem like there will be any “divergents” here. Not until we stop.

…Discrete Factions

Another important element of the Divergent series’ culture is the metaphorical distance between the cultures. They jealously hide their knowledge and skill sets from the other groups. Members of one group can’t learn the secrets or develop the skills of the other groups.

Watch Fox news and most other conservative media and you will see a constant mantra: Mainstream media is corrupted by liberal bias. EXCEPT US! Do not trust the media. EXCEPT US! News journalists are trying to brainwash you when they give you only part of the story, but when we do it it’s okay.

Liberal media and journalists aren’t any different. I am CONSTANTLY mocking conservative media. Sure, Fox news is a farce, but that simply isn’t true of all conservative media—no more than it’s true of liberal media. Both sides are frequently guilty of filtering news through their own expectations and values.

The less obvious problem is that many media outlets and politicians use this in even more nefarious ways like drug dealers. Only come to me for your fix. Out there is only lies and bad juju.

Let me ask you, how can you affect and change without reaching beyond party lines?

How do you ever hope to accomplish that if you aren’t willing to appropriate any of the values, habits, or discourse of the others? How are you going to win people over when you invalidate and ridicule rather than try to understand their perspective?


  1. D. Michele D. Michele August 25, 2015

    Wonderful analogy, you really make it easy to understand some of the problems we have in society.

  2. chris chris September 20, 2015

    “This is why there are constant schisms between religions, and within religions.” I think these are telling words. These [“this”] are not just constant but inevitable. They probably having to do with the mathematical nature of networks.

    I conjecture Divergent-like societies fail when fighting the nature of networks. Not because of their corruption by some added ingredient. Not to say the human spectacle does not have a host of added ingredients, pardon the pun.

    I have never watched the series and find your intro to it helpful – not the least reason is just the sheer quality fo the writing.

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