Thursday, March 17, 2016

Categorising (or 'Us and Them')

Skimming through this blog, I noticed that almost exactly two years ago I wrote a post entitled 'Normality and Judgement'. It was about the way we tend to make generalisations and assumptions, and how important it is to be open to different cultural and generational traditions and habits, without compromising our faith and what we understand to be ethically important.

I'm currently reading an excellent book: 'Disunity in Christ' by Christina Cleveland. She's an American academic who writes in a very readable and accessible way, and I'm finding much to ponder. An early chapter discusses the way that we categorise things and people around us, and ways sociologists and psychologists describe this.

Categorisation is extremely useful in many situations: we need to know that something is (for instance) edible or not edible. A baby doesn't know this distinction and will often put non-edible items in his mouth to explore. Likewise a young toddler, seeing a four-legged object, doesn't necessarily know whether it's a chair for sitting on, or a table which should not be sat upon. Our grandson, at eighteen months, used a step-stool as a table. When one of the adults with him showed him that it could be sat on, he tried to climb on the coffee table to sit on that.

When we categorise other people, however, we can run into danger. That's not to say that it's always a bad idea: we are aware, for instance, that an elderly person might move slowly and could be somewhat hard of hearing and we make allowances for that. When we hear a certain accent, we have a good idea of where someone might come from. We assume that taxi drivers are competent in their vehicles and probably good at knowing the neighbourhood. When we want building work done on the house, and cannot (or don't want to) do it ourselves, we call a builder.

However we also make generalisations based on stereotypes and hearsay. The Japanese (we assume) eat sushi. The British (we are told) drink tea. People of one religion (it's believed) are peace-loving, people of another religion violent. Graffiti (we imagine) is probably the result of a young and disillusioned person getting hold of a can of spray paint.  And so on. In some cases there is more than a grain of truth in our assumptions.

But not always.

We are Brits who do not drink tea. Any religion is likely to attract a few violent types and some non-confrontational pacifist types, and large numbers of people who are somewhere in between. I'm sure there are some Japanese folk who loathe sushi. And I see no reason why an elderly lady in a wheelchair shouldn't be a secret graffiti artist...

Does that last sentence cause you to shake your head a little, thinking I've gone too far? And yet, why not? Why should it be assumed that young people are likely to deface their environment and old people (who were young themselves once) wouldn't do such a thing?

According to the book I'm reading, there's a tendency to align ourselves with people who are like us in some respects, while avoiding, as far as possible, those who are different. Inevitably we belong to or develop interest-related groups: that's not a bad thing in itself. An orchestra consists of people who are musical and like playing together; a gathering of philatelists isn't going to be enhanced by people who have no interest in stamps.

The problem occurs when we assume only positive things about 'us' and our 'in group', and negative things about everyone else. And we do it, the author tells us, to help us feel more comfortable about ourselves.

As I was reading about this, I felt a tension in my neck, a tightness in my chest. Surely this doesn't apply to everyone? I thought. Yes, I can see that there's a great deal of aggression around the world and negative assumptions about 'others' can certainly contribute to it. But we're not all like that. Some of us are quite able to accept anyone and everyone.

Then something was mentioned that was specifically relevant to the USA, and my shoulders relaxed as I remembered the author's nationality. Ah, I thought, she's writing about Americans here. Americans see things in extremes, in black and white, whereas we Brits...

I caught myself mid-thought. There I was, categorising 'Americans' as 'them'. Which is quite unfair as I know it's a stereotype: some of my closest friends hail from the United States and are not judgemental at all.  But still, the generalisation is in my psyche; and yes, for a moment I took comfort in being in group that didn't categorise negatively.

The good thing, apparently, is that all we need to do to overcome this tendency is to be aware of it. It may take time and effort, but so long as we stay open-minded, and realise that generalisations and categorisations are at best limited and at worst untrue, then we're moving in a less judgemental direction.

As an INFJ 'Idealist', one of my important values is knowing that everyone is a unique and valuable individual, and I don't believe it's right or helpful to judge or negatively categorise anyone at all, even those I find most difficult to relate to, or whom I understand the least...

... in other words, 'we' are those who accept everyone, and 'they' are the ones who categorise and judge....