I recently spent two weeks in my grandfather’s presence. As an urbanite in my twenties, I don’t often get to discuss the events of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Civil Rights Movement with a person who has living memories of that era; and in reminiscing about the rarity of such an occurrence, I came to the realization that- from the time we are a baby to our seniority- our interactions tend to be insular and homogeneous.
As humans, we like to group and organize. It eases our chaotic minds to classify not only things but other people and place their particular characteristics into categories. This is evident in the myriad professional personality tests available (such as the Myers Briggs (MBTI) and the Big Five personality tests), in our fascination with horoscopes and astrology, in our propensity to typify psychological disorders, and in the way we judge others within the backdrop of their external characteristics. But due to our history with objectification and discrimination, humans have acquired a reasonable reluctance towards discussing the power of classification and have failed to adequately inquire into why this trait has triggered some of humanity’s most notable atrocities.
I hope that this essay will spark a conversation about how our propensity to form like-minded groups reinforces our unconscious biases. But in order to do this, it is important that we first reassess how human social structures are formed.
Age is perhaps the most common manner in which we congregate, as our daily lives revolve around our capacity to retain information and interact with our surroundings. Babies and toddlers hang out together in the form of playdates and in daycare facilities, where they learn how to communicate with others and understand the discrepancy between their internal and external worlds. In primary school, interactions are often limited to a singular grade and- moreover- twenty or so classmates. In this stage, abstract thinking and a firm sense of individuality develops, which continues until middle school. In high school- if not beforehand- friendships begin to expand as students are no longer confined to one classroom and one teacher for nine months. It is possible to form cliques within a four-year age range, resulting from regular interaction through extracurriculars, sporting events, parties, and organizations; effectively broadening the abstract understanding that began to develop in primary school, especially if friendships are made with people outside[i] of the natal community. However, blending within groups is limited: jocks hang out with other jocks, theatre nerds hang out with other theatre nerds, band geeks hang out with other band geeks, nerds hang out with other nerds, popular kids with other popular kids, and the typical, undefined students with other typical, undefined students.
This stringent social structure gains some elasticity as we enter university or our working years. Age is still a major component in our groupings, but it begins to lose its restrictive barrier and the majority of us learn to be more accepting of our peers. Yet we continue to befriend those who are studying similar majors, who are employed in similar professions, or who participate in similar past-times. Furthermore, the culture of our university, college, profession, or town changes our beliefs and ideals. This is where we can shun the formative teachings of our parents and the area we grew up in and choose our own ideology and belief structure: a person from a ‘conservative’ area might become ‘liberal’ or a person with traditionally employed, conformist parents might gravitate towards the artist crowd[ii].
We then mature into what many consider ‘adult’ territory, where the tendency to form groups within our age range and particular lifestyle continues. Coupled people hang out with other coupled people. Parents with other parents. Graduates with other graduates. Artists with other artists. Professionals with other professionals. Travelers with other travelers. Entrepreneurs with other entrepreneurs.[iii]
And this trend continues until we die.
As a species whose success is contingent upon our social intelligence, our ability to work with others is a biological trait ingrained into us for survival. So we search out those with similar traits to us, as we can easily form a supportive network with these like-minded individuals. However, if we only converse with people whose ideas and ideals mirror our own, we often generate a rigid, one-dimensional personality that is biased, ornery, and judgmental. Moreover, we fail to understand the myriad perspectives of an issue and classify those who hold opposing viewpoints as bad, stupid, biased, uneducated, uncivilized, uncouth, and a list of other derogatory words.
Whether we define ourselves as emotional or logical, liberal or conservative, open-minded or closed-minded, an explorer or an agoraphobe[iv], we all have bias ingrained in us from the society we grew up in, the schooling we received, and the communities that influenced us in our formative years. It is in understanding this fact- and learning how to set personal bias aside- that allows one to experience a caring, yet objective, approach to one’s preferences and traits and the preferences and traits of others.
It is okay to be different and to notice others differences. We are different. All of us. And our inclinations, upbringing, and inner and outer manifestations help to make that so. But what isn’t okay is the assumption that people of other genders, races, ethnicities, nationalities, political ideologies, or temperaments[v] are something other than us; because when we view an object or living being as an entity apart from ourselves, we treat the object with ill respect and care. This is the reason societies in which men and women are viewed as separate have high instances of sexual harassment, domestic abuse, rape, mariticide, and uxoricide.[vi] This is the reason members of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei[vii] could engender a holocaust. This is the reason the roots of slavery are still manifest in the United States via racism. This is the reason for the large discrepancy between the rich and poor. This is the reason liberals and conservatives/democrats and republicans are at such passionate odds with each other. This is the reason we can treat immigrants and individuals from other countries so callously. This is the reason a military can go into foreign country and destabilize it into civil war without emotion. This is the reason we can be aware of the appalling conditions of our farm animals and still perpetuate the cycle by disregarding, intellectualizing, or dissociating ourselves from their suffering when purchasing, cooking and eating their flesh. This is the reason we can feel intensely when a family member, loved one, friend, neighbor, community member, group member, or someone from our own country dies, and rather numb when a mass of people from across the world- with whom we cannot relate to- are tragically killed.
In all the above cases, the individual or group targeted is viewed as other.
In all the above cases, the targeted group (if they didn’t beforehand) begins to view the targeting group as other.
Instead of separating ourselves into societal sections, we should continuously remind ourselves that we are all just living beings struggling to adequately react to our experiences and circumstances, despite what those may be. And instead of continuing our obsession with classification, let us remember that none of us are truly one thing or another. We aren’t solely an INFP or an ESTJ, a Caner or a Capricorn, a Psychopath or an Empath.
So let’s broaden the box we put ourselves and others in, evaluate the reasons for our own internal biases, and do our best to understand why our opponents have garnered their own particular viewpoints, however right or wrong we may believe them to be.[viii] And perhaps then we could learn to operate in a world where we are not shunned because of our gender, race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, profession, ideology, and so forth, and are accepted for the way in which we positively interact with ourselves, our surroundings, and other living beings.
[i] Both literally and figuratively.
[ii] (and vice versa, and so on and so forth, …)
[iii] (and so on and so forth, …)
[vi] (and unfulfilling romantic relationships).
[vii] Or, colloquially, Nazis.
[viii] It should be noted that understanding polarizing viewpoints does not mean welcoming or passively interacting with discrimination and targeted acts of violence (verbal or physical).