Back when my son still liked reading together at bedtime (those were the days!), we read the Divergent series. It was enjoyable but we moved on and it became yet another series taking up room in our bookshelves. In deciding to declutter the house, I found myself trying to decide which books would stay and — because procrastination is always more fun than work — ended up re-reading the series. As I did, it struck me just how relevant it is to us today.
The Divergent trilogy takes place in a dystopian world — the city of Chicago — in which most people belong to one of five “factions” (groups) based on their philosophy about what causes war. It’s an interesting set-up but what is most fascinating to me is how many people appeared to miss the heart of the series.
In most summaries of the plot (including in the previews and promotional materials for the movie franchise), the factions are described in simplistic terms. Dauntless are brave, Erudite are smart, Abnegation are selfless, Candor are honest and Amity are peaceful. As some reviewers hilariously pointed out, the factions seem similar to the houses at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter world. While this may seem true at first, it misses the point the author was trying to make.
In the world of Divergent, the factions are much more complex than mere adjectives. They have a purpose: “They divided into factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world’s disarray.” In other words, people have divided themselves into world-views. This is indeed an interesting point and one which has modern-day relevance. If you take some of our groups into consideration — Religion, Race, Class, Gender, Conservatives, Liberals — they start sounding pretty faction-like.
In general, human beings tend to divide into groups. Just ask any adolescent to tell you the different cliques at their school and most adults can list the group divisions at their work, religious organization or large social interactions. Humans just seem to group ourselves together automatically. Even people who feel separate from larger cultural groups appear to find or develop their own. That’s one of the reasons for inner city gangs or for communities like furries. Yet one of the big critiques of Divergent is that people don’t fit neatly into one box. Umm….yes, that’s the point!
That exact fact is not only in the book’s title (the word divergent means tending to develop in different directions) but it’s also apparent in the very first chapter when each 16 year old gets to choose her or his own faction. For some (like our heroine Tris), this means they’re raised in one faction but choose another. It also is shown in how some of the older citizens display other faction characteristics because, as older adults will tell you, developing in different directions frequently happens with age.
The idea of divergence is implied more subtly in the rigid rules of the factions. In this society, one can automatically tell who belongs to which faction because of the obvious differences in behavior, appearance and employment. Shouldn’t that tell us all we need to know? In groups in which differences are discouraged (usually out of fear that people will decide otherwise), group norms are strictly enforced. One of the reasons the factions got so out of hand was that people were trying too hard to fit in where they thought they should. Instead of celebrating divergence, they doubled down on their own group characteristics.
Thus, while their philosophies started out benign, they quickly became toxic. And isn’t that where we are now in our society? Some of our groups (like gender and race) have put us into boxes for a long time but now the political designations are fast becoming rigid boxes of their own. They used to be about the way you look at the world but now political groups influence everything from friendships and identity to dating and education. Our groups impact where we shop, live, interact with others and even where we go on vacation. All we’d need to do is shrink our numbers, place us all in Chicago and you pretty much have the world of Divergent.
So how do we avoid the grim fate of dystopian worlds like that of Divergent? How do we learn to live together despite our tendency to form groups? If only we had an area of study in which we analyze human behavior. Oh wait, we do! Psychology to the rescue! Many psychological experiments on prejudice (like the famous Robber’s Cave experiment) discovered that it’s vital to give groups common goals that must be achieved together. Thus, the faction solution is not so crazy. In Divergent, each faction has a different type of job and all are essential to a successful society. Thus, they had in place part of the answer.
Where the Divergent society went wrong was in ignoring the other piece of advice: integrating members. Instead of allowing people from other factions to participate in all job opportunities and holding larger societal gatherings which include everyone milling together, they segregated themselves. Faction members do interact but only in a limited fashion and mere contact is not enough to limit prejudice. For a great depiction of a failed attempt at group-mixing, watch the dance scene at the beginning of West Side Story. Both warring groups are there together but they’re at each other’s throats.
In order to avoid the ugliness and conflict that strict division creates, people from differing groups must know each other. We must have friendships with outside group members. Our leaders must not only work together but be seen positively interacting as well. Our society must have and enforce norms encouraging positive cooperation and discouraging hostility between groups. In Remember the Titans, the head coach gave a master class in how to integrate two antagonistic groups.
Unfortunately, we’re more West Side Story than Remember the Titans right now. I mean, when’s the last time you saw Democrats and Republicans interacting positively? There’s entirely too much Us versus Them sentiment and if we don’t watch out, we’ll end up fighting on the street instead of winning the game. If we are to turn this around, the segregation of groups and beliefs must change.
I am seeing some signs of hope though. I’ve read several articles discussing how female leaders are the ones having the most success battling the Covid-19 pandemic. Others point out that most of the frontline healthcare workers are women as are most of the essential workers, like grocery store employees. It’s almost as if people are realizing that women possess many of the skills and traits needed to transform our world into something we can live in with hope, health and happiness. If this trend continues, if women as a group can achieve more cultural divergence, then perhaps we’re on the right track, at least in that area.
But what about the other groups, like race, income, religion and political belief? We need to work on them too. In that respect, the pandemic may actually be helpful. If nothing else, Covid-19 has shown quite clearly that we’re all in this together. Germs don’t respect borders or group membership; anyone can get sick. And the people who’re helping us survive this — from healthcare professionals, teachers and restaurant employees to IT workers, police officers and janitors — are from all different groups. We’ve even seen the pandemic force some politicians to cross the aisle to work with each other to keep their communities and constituents safe.
Maybe, just maybe, the silver lining to this deadly outbreak is that it will make clear the need for us, all of us, to work together for the public good. We just need to keep remembering that once Covid-19 is a distant memory. If we can, then perhaps we won’t find ourselves in the dystopian landscape like the one in the Divergent trilogy. Because while that makes for fun reading, it would be a terrible way to live.