We are all in this together

‘We are all in this together’ has become a worldwide slogan for the fight against COVID-19. The slogan attempts to unify peoples and countries by indicating that anyone can get the virus, that the virus knows no borders and that the world is interconnected and we can ‘all do our bit to flatten the curve’. A good message. But who are the ‘we’ in this formulation and how might different groups identify with such a ‘we’?

We are all in this together – Between Basic Assumption Me and Basic Assumption Oneness

‘We are all in this together’ has become a worldwide slogan for the fight against COVID-19. The slogan attempts to unify peoples and countries by indicating that anyone can get the virus, that the virus knows no borders and that the world is interconnected and we can ‘all do our bit to flatten the curve’. A good message. But who are the ‘we’ in this formulation and how might different groups identify with such a ‘we’?

This can be looked at from both rational conscious and covert and unconscious perspectives.

First consider, at the conscious level, what ‘we’ are hearing on the news. According to the statistics, yes, the virus is a global pandemic affecting people in 210 countries and territories (updated April 15th on https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/countries-where-coronavirus-has-spread/). ‘We’ if we count this as the world’s population, are all in it.

Nonetheless, within those countries ‘the virus is already disproportionately impacting the poor in wealthy countries, where the most known cases are concentrated’ (https://www.globalcitizen.org/). It is expected that poorer third-world countries will be affected severely. So, no, many of the wealthier segments of society with robust medical systems and a capacity for citizens to self-isolate are not ‘in it’ in the same way as the poor, the homeless, the overcrowded and the unemployed; not to forget the front-line workers in health and other roles that expose workers disproportionately to the virus.

If the slogan means that we should all be ‘doing our bit’ to help slow the spread of the virus, then perhaps, yes, the ‘we’ might be more inclusive. Those who can continue to work in a reasonably safe environment, or from home or at a distance can help. But again, there are many who are unable to stay home, or stay at a distance from others (for instance the crowded cities of India), or who have cultural or religious beliefs that prevent them taking such measures, let alone the deniers, who are not part of the ‘we’ in the attempts to slow the curve; not necessarily by choice but more by circumstance.

Does the ‘in this together’ mean economically? Country economies are facing the biggest recessions since the great depression, and may well suffer far beyond that grim milestone. Households are being affected by unemployment. Many small businesses are closed. Larger industries also affected. And, yes, government economic packages across the globe are to be distributed to many. But there are limits and once more the wealth divide shows disproportionate effects. In Australia, for one small example, many casual and itinerate workers will miss out on government job-keeper support. Countries will sustain large debts and the ‘we’ who must pay may refer more to the younger working generation in years to come, than current mature workers.

Consequently the ‘we’ refers to different groups in different circumstances. My argument here seems to lead to the idea that there are many different ’wes’ and that the divide now is as big, if not bigger, than any division into ‘them’ and ‘us’ apparent before COVID-19 came. In light of this, in an interconnected and inter-dependent world shouldn’t ‘we’ attempt to dissolve any ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitudes? The scenes of applause for health workers in the UK, or singing on the balconies in Italy demonstrate a community where ‘we’ is inclusive and supportive: all of us together. Or are they just a small sign from some localities?

But let me now come to a consideration of some more unconscious dynamics amongst groups.

‘We’, that is those who study unconscious dynamics in groups and societies, attempt to discern the unconscious basic assumptions that groups hold. These are collective ideas that guide thinking, behaviour and emotion in groups; those ideas that are part of the culture, not really closely examined taken-for-granteds. Two such assumptions that are of interest here are Basic Assumption Me (BAMe) and Basic Assumption Oneness (BAOneness), both described well in the group relations literature. The former assumes that a group is simply a collection of individuals, each out to satisfy their own needs, joined by a common interest but basically from a narcissistic stance. The latter assumes that a group is a unity with little differentiation between members – all caught together in a common need and with common responses. Perhaps these, in extreme, underlie capitalism and communism respectively. What then is the ‘we’ in BAMe and in BA Oneness? This is a question that has implications for moral responsibility – an issue at the heart of the emotional message in ‘we are all in this together’.

In BAMe ‘we’ means a collection brought together in the interests of personal survival, growth or gain. We are all in this together means if we each individually want to survive with our health and wealth we had better collaborate. Basically, in this form of ‘we’, personal responsibility is primary as well as individual gain. Shared responsibility is the result of agreements more or less loosely held. In the long run, the individual will look after his or her interests above those interests of the group as a whole. Fear and terror may instigate this basic assumption. I applaud the decision of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern’s Government to reduce the wages for politicians and senior government officials at this time when many are losing their jobs. This shows a leadership not caught in BAMe.

In BAOneness, ‘we’ means the group itself with little differentiation between individuals. The group holds together for the protection and benefit of the whole and its identity – sometimes this is at the expense of the individual. Collective responsibility as a whole is foremost, implying that the group itself is a moral agent – an idea with many difficulties, especially in terms of the law. Often, though the collective responsibility is such that a whole collective may be seen to be blameworthy, such as is seen in racism. The message that President Trump of the US gives his country in withdrawing funding from the World Health Organisation indicates his mindset of the US being in a oneness against others – those to blame.

A position between BAMe and BAOneness is needed: one where ‘we’ is contingent on the work needed to be done by the group. On the one hand, differentiation between individuals and their roles is needed: different sub-groups have different responsibilities and authority, ‘Them’ and ‘us’ need to be distinguished. Not in a destructive and blaming way, but in a creative and task-oriented way: an appropriate division of labour. ‘Them’ and ‘us’ has taken on a bad name. On the other hand, Individuals need to collaborate, make agreements and at times personal sacrifices. My concern is that the growing interdict to avoid any distinction – any talk of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – may become the new political correctness; likely to deny the fact that ‘we are all in this’ in different ways.

The position in between BAMe and BAOneness is said to be the work group – perhaps the good- enough work group: Basic Assumption Collaboration with distinct differences between different groupings that can work across the boundaries, not dissolve and deny them. ‘We are all in this together’ but let’s not forget that we are in this in different ways and they need recognition.

Prof Susan Long
Director of Research & Scholarship, NIODA

16 April 2020

We are all in this together – Between Basic Assumption Me and Basic Assumption Oneness

ps Are you a leader or manager and would like to learn more about both rational conscious and covert and unconscious perspectives? Have a look at the NIODA Master of Leadership and Management (Organisation Dynamics) course.

We are all in this together – Between Basic Assumption Me and Basic Assumption Oneness by Prof Susan Long

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