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The election is over, so let’s stop demonizing and generalizing

Posted by / November 9, 2018

I love this Tweet, so thanks @SamOduche. It cuts right to the heart of this article. And let’s not bury the lede: generalizing and demonizing people who disagree with you is natural human behavior, but for the sake of our country we have to stop doing it.

Point one: everybody generalizes, everybody demonizes

The following is reductionist, but stick with me. Humans inhabit a chaotic world. Proto- and early humans inhabited an especially chaotic world. Pretty much everything could kill them, and at seemingly random times. As a result, our brains evolved to divide the world into two basic categories: order and chaos. That which we know, and that which we don’t. And we were––and still are––excellent at making those divisions. Humans are categorizing machines. In pre-contact Hawaii, for example, Hawaiians had a thorough understanding of their environment––the plants, the rocks, the ocean, the land, everything. They had lists of hundreds of types of rocks or plants memorized, and these lists were organized in useful ways. They had a mastery over their environment that we might find difficult to imagine today, and that enabled them to survive in a world without medicine, metal, or mass communication––not to mention allowing them to navigate their complicated social world.

But we live in an even more complicated society, and we’re facing a more complicated physical and social environment than any people in history. Even in simpler times, humans needed to divide themselves into “us” and “them”––those who could safely coexist within community and those who couldn’t or shouldn’t be trusted. Now that our society is so interconnected and globalized, we feel that need even more. Saying that we’re “tribal” can be a bad term, and that’s not exactly what I’m suggesting. Instead, it’s best to say that we’re Othering, because that’s the crux of the problem. We don’t necessarily know who our community is anymore, instead we’re defining who we’re not. We’re defining the Other.

Point two: we need to cut it out

Othering people, as should go without saying, is bad. It leads to things like pipe bombs in the mail. We have to learn to fight our natural urge. We need to learn how to talk about politics, not just with our coworkers (which apparently is a problem), but with everyone––including ourselves. That can be hard, considering we get a special high from being angry about politics. Othering those who disagree with us is easier than trying to understand them or trying to make progress amidst disagreement––but it does nothing but make it harder for the country to function.

Exercise: watch yourself

Spend the next week thinking about how you engage with politics. Are you Othering? Who are you Othering? Once you identify that habit, start breaking it. Start doing the opposite. Engage with people who believe the opposite of you. Ask them what they believe and try to understand them––really understand them. See the world through their eyes.

More about politics.

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