Us and Them
post # 200 — September 26, 2006 — a General post
The September 4 issue of The New Yorker contains an article about a researcher, Spelke, who studies babies and infants to try and detect whether or not there are gender differences in how our minds really work.
What I found most stimulating of all in the piece was the following Spelke quote: â€œNobody should be troubled by our research, whatever we come to find. Everyone should be troubled by the phenomena that motivate it: the pervasive tendency of people all over the world to categorize others into social groups, despite our common humanity, and to endow these groups with social and economic significance that fuels ethnic conflict and can even lead to war and genocide.â€
Indeed I AM troubled by this tendency to define ourselves and others by the group we belong to.
- My team versus your team
- My nationality versus your nationality
- My religion versus your religion
- My race versus your race
- My gender versus your gender
- Management versus employees
- Our company versus its customers
- My generation versus your generation
- We true believers versus the bad guys
Ever since I read Ayn Rand as a teenager, I have been an individualist. I am uncomfortable with deriving my identity from the various â€œgroupsâ€ I belong to —gender, nationality, race, etc. For better or for worse, I am defined by my own characteristics, not by generalities based on my group identification — and I prefer it when others think this way.
As Spelke points out, mostly they do not. Most people derive their primary identification from their group.
Even when it is motivated by an honorable desire to rectify past discrimination, it is nevertheless â€œgroup thinkâ€ to base oneâ€™s arguments on group identification. For example, a female blogger sent me an email, very gently asking why there were no female bloggers on my blogroll. The thought had never occurred to me to contemplate the question — you might just as well have asked whether or not there were any African American or Muslim bloggers on my blogroll (I donâ€™t know.)
Do you care whether your group is represented? Should you?
As Spelke points out, isnâ€™t group think â€œOur side versus their sideâ€ the cause of the worldâ€™s problems. Shouldnâ€™t we stop fighting for our side, and demonizing the other team?
Canâ€™t we derive our pride from our own accomplishments, not those of the team we are on.
ann michael said:
David – I have thought about this for years – as the person that wasn’t in any high school clique, didn’t fit in any of the “normal departments” in a corporation, has never been the “classic” mom, shies away from “women’s” groups, etc.
While I’m certainly no expert, I have found that most people feel comfortable with categories – they like to have boxes to put things in. It seems to be a tool used to store information in our brains for easy retrieval.
When applied to rourtine situations, this tendency can actually be an advantage. But when applied to people, it’s often a disaster!
The problem is that “we humans” often tend to apply tools indiscriminately. It’s why every new management revelation is taken by many as the silver bullet that will solve all that ails them!. We can be really horrible at using the right tool for the right job – and categorization is not the right tool when dealing with people!
posted on September 27, 2006