If you’re a hip and trendy millennial, then you’ve almost certainly seen this months hot new meme. Crafted in the depths of the right-wing web, and denounced as dehumanising by those it was designed to attack, the NPC meme pokes fun at a mindless, media-led stereotype.
Regardless of where your political leanings lie, or whether you find this particular meme funny or not, it does actually raise a pretty valid point. As of late, our politics have become increasingly polarised around a handful of big-issues. Did you vote to remain or to leave? Are you a greedy Tory or a blind socialist? You’re not thinking of reforming the NHS, are you?
While the meme may have originated as a joke at the expense of the left-wing, it’s eerily applicable to many of us from everywhere on the political spectrum. Tribalism is an issue that transcends the boundaries of the left-right paradigm, meaning that anyone can find themselves locked-in to their chosen side’s groupthink.
This is nothing new. In fact, we humans have an almost hardwired desire to belong, something which can often translate into unbending political devotion. When something as polarising as Brexit, or a particularly charismatic and inflammatory speaker comes along, these tribal instincts are only strengthened.
Unfortunately, history has shown us just how dangerous this can be. About a year ago I wrote how so many acts of violence and genocide have begun with the tribalisation of individuals, and the polarisation of society.
All of the worst examples of a polarised society, and the horrific events that stemmed from it, have shared this common feature. All it takes is a catalyst, be it an ideological government or leader, polarised social media bubbles, or general sense of threat and danger, and the tribal beast within us escapes.
As soon as the infamous ‘us versus them’ mentality is established, people who once lived as neighbours and friends suddenly become mortal enemies once someone with a big enough group and a big enough megaphone tells them who to hate.
Did you hate the Tories this much before Brexit? How about Labour – were they so bad before Corbyn took over?
Fortunately, we humans are not fully subject to our animal instincts; we have the power of reason and rationality on our side as well. We possess the ability to overcome these drives and behave in a more civilised, informed way. We might feel a strong hatred for the ideas espoused by some people, but we also have the intelligence to ignore this hatred. We can view each person for the nuanced individuals they are, and discuss in civility.
The famous philosopher Karl Popper perhaps said this best: “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.” In ignoring our immediate emotional response to disagreement, and choosing to listen instead, we create the perfect atmosphere for both parties to find common ground and develop their ideas.
Of course, this is easier said than done. I’m almost certain that, if I started quoting Austrian philosophers to a masked rioter, I would quickly find a bike-lock upside my head. But, at an individual level, this truly is the best way to avoid falling into the trap of tribalism.
We might not convince everybody to listen to us, let alone to agree, but at the very least we can prevent ourselves from following the same path taken by many throughout history, straight before tragedy struck.
In keeping a rational, open mind, we can keep our minds truly free. No-one is inherently an NPC, as the new meme suggests. We might behave like it sometimes, sure, but we have the power the be true free-thinkers. Let’s use that power.