Ins and Outs: The Social Identity Theory Applied to the Prince by Machiavelli and Christopher Columbus’ Journal
In social psychology, there is a well-known theory that explains why individuals show hatred for those of different races, religions, sexualities, sports teams, political parties, and other groupings. This is called the “social identity theory”. Those who share a common category, the ingroup, are more likely to bond, whereas people of the opposite or different category, the outgroup, are portrayed negatively and often stereotyped by the ingroup. In early human times, social identity theory protected humans from unknown threats. The human would see something in the woods and need to make a decision as to whether it was a friend or foe. In modern humans, social identity theory encourages unity by establishing an enemy. Peoples feel more connected to one another when there is a common outgroup. The Prince and Christopher Columbus: Extracts from Journal are excellent examples of how humans have retained their primal instincts and how such instincts can be used to benefit the nation or community. This paper will argue that having a mutual enemy, or outgroup, strengthens bonds among dissimilar peoples and helps a ruler consolidate power over his people.
In The Prince, Machiavelli argues that in order to unite people, the prince should declare and publicly condemn an enemy. Machiavelli explains that a successful prince will exaggerate the harm an enemy has inflicted upon the people and afterwards give “hope to his subjects that the ills they are enduring will not last long”. Machiavelli emphasizes the need for an outgroup, in this case the enemy. Not only is the prince supposed to create an outgroup, but he should also be encouraging “fear of the enemy’s cruelty”. Giving the people an enemy will unite them in both in spirit and in battle. Here, the prince is supposed to establish an outgroup so that the the prince himself will not become the enemy. Machiavelli warns that if the prince neglects this critical step, the people will revolt against him or simply not take arms when ordered unless he stops them, he should take “effective measures against those who are too outspoken”. Such individuals are known in the social identity theory as outgroup sympathizers. In some situations, the sympathizers can aid the nation, but here, Machiavelli argues that they can limit a nation’s growth and a prince’s power. Further, this behavior will make the prince more favorable to his people because it appears that he has the key to defeating the enemy. Once an enemy is established and the people are incited, the people are equally enraged and as a result more likely to fight as a group.
In addition to uniting as a nation, Machiavelli argues that an enemy also unites the people to and under the prince. This is a major benefit to the prince as it makes the people more willing to fight for the prince and no one else. When the enemy “of course burn and pillage” the people’s homes and cities, “so the prince has the less reason to worry”. The reason for the prince’s action is because once the people’s “enthusiasm has died down”, they may assume more power than they had before. The prince needs to keeps them focused on the people’s hatred of the outgroup. Now fighting for a common goal, the people “will identify themselves even more with their prince”. The leader of the ingroup, in Machiavelli’s opinion, not only has the right to incite the ingroup against the outgroup, but has the duty to do. He claims that once the prince gains the trust of the people, the people will be more willing to act as a group. This will make them easier to rule and more likely to blindly follow the prince. In this chapter of The Prince, Machiavelli emphasizes the need to have a common enemy by showing the reader how creating an outgroup can positively affect an ingroup. More importantly, creating a common enemy can help solidify a prince’s authority and control over his people.
To further his own assertions, Machiavelli also provides an example of when a prince does not successfully establish an enemy and how it divides the people. Machiavelli examines why Italy is not powerful and how the princes of Italy have let down their people. The first mistake the Italian princes made was dividing the nation “into several states” due to the war between the nobility, “each of these states became so small many citizens became a prince, but the townsmen had no experience in military matters” and could not establish or defeat a common enemy. Also, the nobility who were in control of the citizens were only concerned with fighting one another instead of actual external threats. This “led Italy into slavery and ignominy”. The ingroup, the Italians, became poor due to too many princes, each with their own agenda, lack of control over the citizens, and the lack of an outgroup. Machiavelli also condemns princes who incite the people against one another. He attributes the fall of the Italian empire to the “Church in order to increase its temporal authority, supported these revolts” who take the place of a prince. The Church had an ulterior motive to divide the people of Italy against one another and succeeded. However, as mentioned earlier, the citizens were not soldiers and so the Church hired foreign mercenaries to fight for them, who then created their own nations within Italy. The Church’s decision to fund rebellion within Italy led to the Church becoming less powerful and contributed to the decline of Italy’s reputation and power. Without a strong prince to lead them, the ingroup will suffer as they consume precious energy and resources fighting each other rather than a mutual, external enemy. A legitimate, foreign threat will see Italy as a collection of broken city-states that would be easily conquered by a strong enemy. The only way to reverse such intricate disorder is to choose a prince who represents all of the nations within a divided Italy. Machiavelli permits this prince to incite the people against a certain outgroup in order to protect the entirety of the nation. If a prince fails to pit the ingroup against a particular outgroup, the ingroup will suffer.
Christopher Columbus’ journal clearly shows that disparate people can be united under a banner of hatred for an outgroup, in this situation the Native American peoples. Traveling to the Americas for the first time, Columbus kept a travel log and frequently wrote about the people living on the “newly discovered” islands. His goal was to convince Ferdinand, the Spanish king, to finance and support another another expedition to America. To convince him, Columbus claimed that the native peoples “have no religion” and as a result “would very readily become Christian.” Columbus created an outgroup of godless heathens, clearly the opposite of the fervently Roman Catholic Spanish monarch. After Columbus establishes the enemy, he appeals to the king by stating his plan, “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased.” Conquering an outgroup, especially one from new lands, would not just benefit the nation financially, but also socially. Financially, Colombus’ people were at an advantage as they saw the gold and wealth the natives carried, “there is much gold, the inhabitants wearing it in bracelets upon their arms, legs, and necks, as well as in their ears and at their noses.” Columbus believes that once he returns to Spain with his ships full of gold and other treasure, the king will want to send more ships to the Americas, thereby accomplishing Columbus’ financial goal. Socially, once the land in America is conquered, the Spanish inhabitants will feel more united because they have defeated the outgroup. Columbus was well aware that having a common enemy would strengthen the group as a whole due to the wealth they carry and willingness to convert to a new religion. Columbus uses social identity theory to convince the king to send more aid and money to Columbus and his men.
The social identity theory is the basis of most disputes. It is something that we, as intelligent beings, cannot remove from our instincts. The key to overcoming it is to embrace it and understand the impact it has on our lives. Machiavelli explains how the people can be manipulated into believing an outgroup is more harmful than it truly is. Machiavelli shows that the people need an enemy in order to unite against and that having an enemy makes it easier to for a leader to govern and control his own people. Columbus argues a similar point that sometimes in order to get what you want, you need to convince the audience that you are a part of their ingroup. Columbus successfully does this when he writes the king to ask him for more aid in order to explore more of the Americas. He does this by mentioning the gold in the new land and establishing a new enemy: the native peoples. In both of the texts, the outgroup is used as a means to empower the ingroup, the result being that the ingroup will be more more willing to support their leader and fight against the enemy. The social identity theory is the key to unifying a nation.
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