People are constantly at each other’s throats. Some of the reasons are new, such as social media echo chambers. Some of them are as old as humanity. We have a tendency to divide the world into “us” and “them.” “We” are good, intelligent, and noble; “they” are stupid and nasty. This was sometimes a useful adaptation when people lived in caves. It made people cautious of strangers. It helped them to unite under a leader, so they’d be better defended against invading tribes. At the same time, it led to the very tribal hostility and warfare which made the defenses necessary.
Today we’re less likely to face serious threats from people we don’t know. Most of us can go out in public with a very low risk of being assaulted or robbed. However, the feeling of division between the in-group and the out-group persists. Differences of color, accent, religion, or cultural practices provide enough of an excuse. People draw sweeping conclusions from insufficient data and act on them.
You are all individuals! (I’m not!)
The problem is collectivist thinking. People don’t see each other as individuals, but as instances of an archetype. They assume that everyone who fits the surface characteristics matches a preconceived idea.
They don’t do this just with the out-group, but with the in-group as well. They expect everyone who belongs to “us” to fit into the same mold. People feel pressure to conform in order to remain an “us,” feeling that any disagreement will get them expelled from the Borg collective. They join in denouncing heretics to prove that they are purely “us” and won’t tolerate any deviation.
The truth is that no two people are exactly alike. Reminding people of this can be frustrating. In the movie Life of Brian, Brian tells his audience, “You are all individuals! You are all different! You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves!” To his frustration, the crowd echoes his words back like a litany. Worse yet, one person in the crowd denies being an individual.
Breaking the pattern
It’s not easy to withstand tribalist pressures and consistently see others as unique individuals, but it is rewarding. It lets you discover more variety among people, and it gives you a better chance of learning from others. There are a few mental tricks that help with building the habit.
- Listen to what people are saying, not what you think they should be saying. Agreement with a group on one point doesn’t mean agreement on everything. Defending a person doesn’t mean uncritical endorsement, and criticism doesn’t mean blanket condemnation. Well, for some people it does, and they never go outside the bounds of their group’s dogmas — but that’s part of the human variety you’ll encounter, too.
- Don’t assume you know people just because you know their group membership. Every cultural and physiological group has huge variation in the way their members think. And for the gods’ sake, don’t claim that you know someone better on the basis of “group identity” than their friends do from personal experience!
- Recognize your discomfort. Dealing with some kinds of people may be hard for you because of fears you’ve learned. That’s fine, as long as you know the fear isn’t rational and you do your best to avoid letting it affect you.
- Sometimes you’ll make missteps when dealing with people from a different culture. Apologize if you’ve committed a faux pas, but don’t grovel. The other person is probably going through the same process of working through your differences.
- If someone persistently treats you as a specimen rather than a person, there might not be anything you can do about it. Don’t waste too much time on such people. It reflects badly on them, not on you.
- Dealing with someone in authority who treats you as a specimen is very difficult. Sometimes you can reason with them. Sometimes they just want to show how tough they are. There’s no easy answer in these cases, but don’t let them demean you.
Deal with people as varied individuals, and you can learn a lot more while being more comfortable with them. When you do, you set an example for others. If enough people do likewise, our society might become a bit less hostile.