At a social event with the Winnipeg Skeptics this week we ended up talking about religious people and the religious right among other things. We were marveling at how some of the Republicans in the U.S. can be so far off the deep-end with their beliefs. It reminded me of an article I’d read a couple months ago, for which the connection may not be immediately obvious. Hopefully I can explain.
In my personal obsession with psychology and sociology I’ve tried to understand how people think and why they do what they do. This article describes how we tend to operate by personality archetypes (specifically those relating to gender) and how they affect the way we think about ourselves; and by extension, how we think about others. The focus of this article is arguing against the idea of gender based essentialism, and that most of how we behave is according to how we think about ourselves and is passed on socially. I don’t at all want to undermine the profound revelations to be made on just this issue, but I think that these findings also have vast implications for every arena of our lives.
During that discussion with the Skeptics I was reminded a family member, which I related to the group. I explained how she identifies as a conservative and repeats many of the standard truisms that go with that, yet when I asked to explain her views she actually breaks to the left. How could this be? Most of the extended family is conservative, her local community is very conservative, and lives with a staunchly conservative partner. She even votes conservative! Why is there such a mismatch in her views versus her identity?
Like the subjects in the article above, I believe that most people adopt cookie-cutter identities in an attempt to fit in with their social circles. This is something we do in many aspects of our lives, and not just with gender or sexual identity. We do it with our politics, our jobs, in our romantic relationships, with our families and friends, and with our children. In essence, we wear many different hats. It’s a basic mechanic of social grouping and we apply it to almost everything. With it we sometimes even adopt beliefs that are not our own, though we may wear them loosely.
Now, moving further towards the point embedded in the title: we don’t just do this to ourselves. We do it to others. Often, we do it oppressively. We repeat little truisms about other groups. We make presumptions about who other people are without actually knowing, based on nothing more than a projected and/or perceived group identity. We reinforce our position within some groups by advertising how we treat other groups. Other times it’s simply and subtly implied in our choice of words or the tone of our voice. In all these ways we project on others our subliminal (or overt) message about who they are (especially in comparison to us), and what we think their value and purpose are.Side-note: Whenever harsh words like oppression or privilege are used, I think there is something embedded in our neuro-linguistic vocabulary that implies ill-intent. Let me say it explicitly: bad intentions are not required to create oppression. For us it may just be learned patterns and we may not even know the message that we are conveying! As such, sometimes all that is required is ignorance (lack of specific knowledge, not to be confused with stupidity). Language is full of traps like this.
When we operate within the world-view and norms of our social group without bad intentions, and someone comes up to us and tells us that we’re oppressing them with our words and actions, it’s easy to think of them as being deluded. After all, what they’re saying is completely outside of what we know to be normal, natural and obviously true. We know our intentions are good (or at least not intentionally malicious), so obviously they are full of it, right? I mean, it’s not hard to believe. We have so many daily examples of people complaining about things that don’t make any sense to us and some who are indeed obviously deluded.
Here is the birthplace of the concept of “Political Correctness”, where the hidden motif of that other person is to stifle our very being, and sanitize all of existence into rainbows and kittens and everything nice. The belief that their group thinks that way in comparison to ours fits well with our understanding of how things are and they just confirmed it for us. More importantly, they’re in our face telling us we’re bad, and we feel threatened! We need to make it stop, and stop now! Our emotions appeal to our little problem solver upstairs, and it gives us an answer that makes the bad feeling go away.
Millions of years of evolution have given us this handy fight-or-flight mechanism to protect us from threats, both to our body and to our carefully nurtured, albeit tenuous sense of self. But as we ought to know, evolution is not perfect. Especially when in just a few short years (historically speaking) our world has gone from small communities and tribes with similar values and identities to a global society of remarkable complexity and conflicting values. It’s no surprise that our instincts could misfire. What’s really going on is usually more complex than whatever scenario our brain comes up with in half a second and with almost no meaningful information.
We feel more than we think.
The problem is that many of our socially absorbed views and behaviours are demonstrably false and counter-productive to our proclaimed goals. On the whole, we don’t think to find the truth. We rationalize to preserve our identity. Without deliberate investigation into ourselves and our world, and decoupling from these pre-canned identities (or at least being aware of and working around them), we will continue flying blindly on autopilot, and our greater issues will never be solved.
Won’t evolution fix everything eventually?
Evolution is just the explanation of how we got here. It doesn’t magically give us what we want. It doesn’t deal with our wishes for happiness or camaraderie. It doesn’t deal with things working optimally at all. It is merely “survival of the good enough.”
However, we have a brain that is capable not only of rational thought, but also of deep introspection. We have it because it was the advantage we needed to survive. We can leave our future to the magic of death and suffering to select some better genes, or we can use the tools we have proactively and figure out how to get what we want through greater awareness. Our evolution has not yet brought us to fully rational thinking or conscious social function and as the social world continues expanding through advances in social technology, the pressure to get there will also increase.
So I ask you now, who are you? And more importantly:
Who do you want to be?
Cross-posted from Jack-in-the-Brain