The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, July 19, 2007

"Us-Them" and the 80-20 rule

There are certain things I consider a big warning sign of a rigid and wounded psyche, and one of them is a powerful “Us-Them” attitude along the lines of
1) Male Chauvinism.
2) Women who believe men are responsible for the evils of the world
3) Homophobia
4) Liberals who believe Conservatives are all racist war-mongers
5) Conservatives who talk about “The Liberals” controlling all media or hating America.
6) Whites convinced of Black inferiority.
7) Blacks convinced all Whites are racists

And so on. It’s that 80-20 thing: if you think that more than 80% of what is Good is found exclusively in your group, that’s an automatic red light. Between 50 and 80%, I’m watching carefully to hear how you describe Group X in spontaneous discourse.

This is another version of the “disastrous relationship history,” “financial nightmare” or “obesity” red lights: the strong suspicion that there is perceptual distortion.

Again, I’m not saying that I’m correct, just talking about the way I sort stuff out. I START with the assumption that people are pretty much just people, and modify from there. There are simply too many people who start with the assumption that the “other group” has completely different values and capacities. Most of the time, I don’t see it.

And most of the people I’ve met who are successful in all three major categories seem to see the world in full color rather than black-and-white.

If there was a religion that really had “The Truth,” I would expect its members to pretty much walk on water. Absent that, I have to think that the measure would be the percentage of adherents who are healthy, successful, and capable of deep and abiding love. This doesn’t seem to vary hugely from religion to religion, so I assume they’re all pretty much heading in the same direction, and people who think religion X or Y is demonic pretty much fit into the “distortion” category.

The same is true of Politics. When people get to the “We’re Right, You’re Wrong” pretty much across the board, I begin to assume that they are selecting and deleting reality, while believing they’re oh-so-logical. Almost any of the Radio personalities talking politics seem to be in this category, probably because they thrive on controversy. None of them seem capable of seeing two sides of an issue. Fine. But while I suspect cynicism on their part, when private citizens promote the same perspective I have to ask a couple of questions:
1) Are members of group X FAR more successful than members of group Y in health, finances, or relationship stability?
2) If not, upon what objective criteria do they base their apparent belief that they are smarter and better than the other group?

If there is no vast difference, then my default position is that the apparent difference in perspective is caused by a perceptual filter (fear, early childhood programming, existential/religious belief) that is operating below the level of logic. This is the kind of person who takes the “if they disagree, they must be knaves or fools” approach. They virtually NEVER seem to wonder if there is more than one legitimate way to view an issue.

Because I’ve seen this behavior in people of all persuasions, religions, political leanings and levels of intelligence (as well as detected it in myself) I tend to assume that when people of apparently equal intelligence, education and moral strength have, as groups, very different attitudes about basic life questions, the answer lies not in logic but in basic assumptions about the ultimate working of the universe.

Although this assumption doesn’t always prove out, it works often enough to be quite useful.

In the same way, assuming that Anger is just a mask over Fear has enabled me to deal with and defused angry, aggressive people on three continents, and makes sense of the most bigoted, narrow-minded folks I’ve ever encountered. Human behavior just makes sense viewed this way. Not only does it make sense, but it points to the most efficient path for my own growth, or the growth of my students: see where you’re blocked in one of the Big Three, assume you are dealing with a fear. If the underlying emotion or belief is something that is rational from an adult perspective, then maybe you keep it.

But if you wouldn’t have programmed yourself with that belief, or engrained that fear, as an adult, then you have to deal with the emotion. Pain and Fear are there to call your attention to a problem. But once you have actually absorbed the lesson, you don’t need the negative charge or emotion any longer.
Again, for me to believe that either Conservatives or Liberals “know” the truth to the exclusion of the other side would mean that the other side is deluded. That delusion should show up in their daily lives, in some measurable fashion. I think that a healthy person has a constellation of beliefs about life and the world, selected from both sides of the political spectrum. The more their attitudes are from one side or the other, the more I question. And when they demonize the other side, use words like “Hate” or obsess about personalities, the brighter that red light flashes in my head. If they literally dehumanize the other side, I suspect that they are projecting their own fear and weakness onto their “opponents.”

Liberals who think Right-wingers hate nature. Conservatives who think Moslems don’t value human life.

In both cases, I think that they have lost the capacity to project themselves into other lives, ask themselves: “under what circumstances would an ordinarily reasonable, good person behave in this way?”

I think that the reason this doesn’t happen much is that when you have to fight, you might have to kill. Most people can’t fight or kill someone they respect. They have to trash-talk, propagandize, dehumanize or they’ll freeze when it’s time to pull the trigger or drop the bomb. So when we are threatened, I think that it is a natural human tendency to assume the “other” is less than us. In fact, I think it’s almost impossible for most people to function in any other way. And that’s a shame.

You CAN simultaneously defend yourself and respect your attacker. This, however, requires a higher level of emotional/spiritual preparation than to demonize. Hell, they do it at the level of High School football—turning the opposing team into 2-dimensional figures to crush, stomp and humiliate. The question of their humanity barely comes up.

And both sides do this, although I believe the Right does it too much, and just perhaps the Left doesn’t do it enough (excessive hierarchicalism as opposed to excessive egalitarianism). But I hear it from both, and find it equally regrettable.

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