Neither here nor there

I don’t think I’m very good at handling conflicts -I hate confrontation; I prefer the view from the top of the Bell Curve where I can safely watch the goings-on of the extremophiles in their respective antipodes. I suppose that’s why I gravitate to boundaries where, if I’m careful, I’m neither here nor there.

This is probably not a recipe for success, let alone conquest, but nevertheless it is a position well suited to observe the vagaries of both sides. After all, the victors should not always be the arbiters of history -not even history lasts forever…

But what, exactly, constitutes an ‘us’ and ‘them’? I realize we all seem to fit into categories -much like we all belong to families- and yet, exclusion from one list doesn’t necessitate exclusion from another. The allotment often seems quite arbitrary in fact. Random. If a member of another sports team is injured, say, should I rejoice? Their loss might confer an undeserved advantage to our ‘side’, but surely it means less than if we’d won with both sides playing their best.

I know this sounds naïve, especially when applied to teams and competitions -it’s what games are all about isn’t it? You’re supposed to pick a side… But does the choice imply that you are therefore expected to dislike the other team? Hate them, even? I think not. And what about victory? Is it for all times, or given that it is a competition, does the other side have a chance at the next encounter? After all, if the results were always a foregone conclusion, it wouldn’t be much of a contest, would it?

With this consideration in mind, I thought it might be valuable to canvass various opinions as to the origin and value of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ thing. It turns out that there seem to be as many opinions as there are conflicting groups, so in a bid for compromise, I settled on a rather lengthy essay by the journalist Marek Kohn entitled, appropriately enough, Us and Them: https://aeon.co/essays/if-we-love-our-friends-does-that-make-us-hate-our-enemies

‘We come into the world with open minds, ready to tune in to whatever language or culture surrounds us. But as we lock on to the strongest signals, the others become less distinct. As our sense of ‘us’ develops, our sense of ‘them’ degrades… New-born babies gaze with equal attention at faces regardless of ethnic appearance, but by three months they prefer looking at faces from their own ethnic group… These findings are unsettling. They suggest that a sense of ‘us and them’, with its accompanying biases, can emerge from vital processes that are not directly concerned with sorting people into in-groups and out-groups… During its first nine months, an infant seems to refine its models by narrowing its focus. In the process, it loses its ability to recognise less familiar-looking people as individuals.’ Unless, that is, they possess some feature that appeals to it.

Kohn sites innumerable examples of studies that suggest, much like William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, that we search for features with which we can identify -shirt colours, fashions, opinions, talents, and so on- and join the groups that serve our purposes. ‘Humans are not simply social beings but political ones. From playgrounds to corridors of power, they are constantly forming, modifying, ending and generally complicating alliances. Stable cues that signal alliance, such as speech traits or styles of dress, offer regularities that help people orient themselves.’

But, what should we do with them? Is it ever a justification for discrimination? Mistreatment? Kohn is disappointingly coy in his ultimate conclusions: ‘Perhaps we simply have to accept that the relationship between us and them is always a work in progress.’

I was thinking about this when I met some friends for our still physically-distanced meetings outside the local coffee shop. The four of us were an elderly eclectic bunch: Harjit with his turban, Arthur with his accustomed woolen sports jacket and tie, and Jeremy with his long, snow-white Santa Claus beard. I, alone amongst them, was appropriately attired in my grey long-sleeved sweat shirt and contrasting black sweat pants -you don’t overdress for coffee. All of us, according to the custom of the day, had our face masks hanging from an ear, or tucked into a handy pocket however -each of us was ready for a nearby sneeze or cough.

But Arthur was already complaining by the time we’d found a sufficiently large patio table that overlooked the grassy meadow of the adjacent park. “Look at them,” he hissed, pointing at a group of twenty-somethings walking through the grass towards some trees close to us. We all turned our heads to see who he was pointing at. “No masks,” he continued when he was sure he had our attention. “Not one of them…” he added with disgust evident on his face.

“But they’re outside, Art,” Harjit said. “Not everybody wears a mask outside. And besides, they’ve obviously just come from a baseball game -look at their uniforms. We were like that when we were their age… Immortal,” he added with a wistful smile.

“More like vectors,” Arthur grumbled and had a sip of his coffee.

“Except for age, they’re not so very different from us,” Jeremy said, brushing some doughnut crumbs out of his beard as he spoke.

Arthur rolled his eyes theatrically, and put his coffee down carefully on the rickety table. “Come on, Jer,” he said, shaking his head slowly. “The youth nowadays are all the same. Look at them. They’re crowded together, and patting each other on the back… very irresponsible if you ask me.” Nobody did, however -Arthur was very sure about things. Too sure, sometimes.

The crowd must have won their game, because they seemed in a jovial mood, and gathered at a bench under the trees. Soon, a couple of members of the losing team appeared from trees on the other side of the grassy meadow. In contrast to the winners’ red, both were attired in grey uniforms, but one of them was coughing badly.

“What’s wrong with him?” I could hear one of the reds yelling at the two greys.

“Don’t know,” the healthier grey answered back. “He suddenly got worse after the game. I’m trying to get him home,” he explained.

“Was he okay before…?” the red asked.

The healthy grey that was helping his friend shrugged. “He said he was a bit tired, but he’d been out partying last night, so…”

“I told you,” Arthur said in a low voice to the rest of us. “They don’t think of anybody but themselves -no thought for the rest of us in the community…”

Suddenly the grey collapsed, gasping onto the grass, and everybody on the red team stood around in a wide circle as one red ran to help the coughing man. “We’ve got to get him to the hospital,” he shouted, obviously searching for a phone in his pocket.

Nobody had one, of course, so the red yelled at our table. “Can one of you phone 911 for us?”

“He’s probably got Covid,” Arthur whispered to the rest of us.

But Harjit already had his phone out, and signalled to them he was phoning. “Can we help?” he yelled at the crowd, and started across the field towards them. Two of the players ran to stop him from coming closer.

“He might have the virus,” one of them yelled at him.

“I’m a doctor,” Harjit replied. “Or at least was until I retired…”

But the two reds blocked his way as one of them looked over his shoulder at the young man lying on the grass. “Thanks, but he seems to be settling now,” he added. “We can manage till the paramedics get here.” And he gently took Harjit by his shoulder and guided him back to our table. “Thanks again,” the red said to him again, and turned to leave.

“I think the youth of today are just fine,” Harjit said when he sat down with us again.

Fortunately Arthur decided to sip quietly at his cooling cup of coffee.

“We are all ‘us’ nowadays, I think,” Jeremy said as he added a few more crumbs to his beard.

In choice, we are so oft beguiled

It’s interesting just how important categories are in our lives, isn’t it? I mean, let’s face it, often they’re just adjectives –subordinate to their nouns. Add-ons. And yet, they can frame context, colour perception, and even determine value. Some, like, say, texture or odour may be interesting but trivial; some –size, or cost, for example- may be more important although optional in a description. There are, however, categories that seem to thrust themselves upon an object and are deemed essential to its description, essential to placing it in some sort of usable context. To understanding its Gestalt. These often spring to mind as questions so quickly they are almost automatic. Gender is one such category, age, perhaps another. And depending, I suppose on the situation, the society, or even the category to which the listener belongs, there may be several others that are deemed necessary to frame the issue appropriately.

The automaticity of a category is critical, however. If the category is felt to be of such consuming importance that it needs to be established before any further consideration can be given to the object, then that object’s worth –or at least its ranking- is contingent. It is no longer being evaluated neutrally, objectively. It comes replete with those characteristics attendant upon its category –intended or not. Age, for example, wears certain qualities, incites certain expectations that might prejudice acceptance of its behaviour. Gender, too, is another category that seems to colour assumptions about behaviour. So, with the assignation of category, comes opinion and its accompanying attitude.

One might well argue about the importance of these categories, and perhaps even strategize ways of neutralizing their influence on reactions, or subsequent treatment. The problem is much more difficult if knowledge of the category is so necessary it is intuitively provided as part of what is necessary to know about, for example, a person.

I suspect that in my naïveté, I had assumed that foreknowledge of many of these categories was merely curiosity-driven. Politeness oriented. Important, perhaps, so that I wouldn’t be surprised -wouldn’t embarrass the person at our initial encounter. But I am a doctor, and maybe see the world from a different perspective. A piece in the BBC, however, made me realize just how problematic this automaticity had become. How instinctive. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130423-is-race-perception-automatic?ocid

The article dealt mainly with its effects on racism, and the difficulties of countering it if we accept, as some evolutionary psychologists seem to believe, that it is basically intuitive. Evolved for a reason. Wired-in. ‘[…] if perceiving race is automatic then it lays a foundation for racism, and appears to put a limit on efforts to educate people to be “colourblind”, or put aside prejudices in other ways.’ But, as Tom Stafford, the author of the BBC article puts it, ‘Often, scientific racists claim to base their views on some jumbled version of evolutionary psychology (scientific racism is racism dressed up as science, not racisms based on science […]). So it was a delightful surprise when researchers from one of the world centres for evolutionary psychology intervened in the debate on social categorisation, by conducting an experiment they claimed showed that labelling people by race was far less automatic and inevitable than all previous research seemed to show.

‘The research used something called a “memory confusion protocol” […] When participants’ memories are tested, the errors they make reveal something about how they judged the pictures of individuals. […] If a participant more often confuses a black-haired man with a blond-haired man, it suggests that the category of hair colour is less important than the category of gender (and similarly, if people rarely confuse a man for a woman, that also shows that gender is the stronger category). Using this protocol, the researchers tested the strength of categorisation by race, something all previous efforts had shown was automatic. The twist they added was to throw in another powerful psychological force – group membership. People had to remember individuals who wore either yellow or grey basketball shirts. […] Without the shirts, the pattern of errors were clear: participants automatically categorised the individuals by their race (in this case: African American or Euro American). But with the coloured shirts, this automatic categorisation didn’t happen: people’s errors revealed that team membership had become the dominant category, not the race of the players. […] The explanation, according to the researchers, is that race is only important when it might indicate coalitional information – that is, whose team you are on. In situations where race isn’t correlated with coalition, it ceases to be important.’

I don’t know… To me, this type of experiment seems so desperate to appear to be wearing a scientific mantle, that it comes across as contrived –kludged, if you’ll permit an equally non-scientific term. But I take their point. If there is some way of diffusing the automaticity of our categorizations –or at least deflecting them into more malleable descriptors –teams, in this case- perhaps they could be used as exemplars –wedges to mitigate otherwise uncomfortable feelings. Placeboes –to put the concept into more familiar language for me.

Stopgaps, to be sure, and not permanent solutions. But sometimes, we have to ease into things less obtrusively. Less confrontationally. A still-evolving example -at least here in Canada- might be gender bias in hockey. Most Canadians have grown up exposed to hockey, and might be reasonably assumed to have an opinion on the conduct of games, players, and even rules. And yet, until relatively recently, the assumption was that hockey players –good ones, at least- were male. For us older folks, it was automatic. No thought required; no need to ask about gender. But no longer is that the case. For a variety of reasons, there is still no parity, and yet it is changing –slowly, perhaps, but not conflictually. And so, despite any initial challenges, is likely to succeed.

Am I really conflating success in the changing mores of hockey with gender equality? Or basketball teams and how we view their members, with racial equality? Am I assuming that diminishing discrimination in some fields leads to wider societal effects? Yes, I suppose I am. A blotter doesn’t care about the kind, or the colour, of the ink it absorbs; it’s just what it does. What it is. And, in the end, isn’t that what we all are, however vehemently we may protest? However much we may resist the similarities that bind us in relationship for fear of losing our own identities?

But if we step back a little, we may come to appreciate that the correlation need not be like that of a blotter -need not involve a team, or a marriage… I am reminded of the advice from one of my favourite writers, the poet, Kahlil Gibran: Love one another, but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

It’s the way I prefer to see the world, anyway…