I started writing these thoughts before the recent tragedy in Paris; my heart grieves with all affected. I hope that we can move toward a world of love, empathy, peace, and authenticity. I dream of a world where we focus on our universal bonds as humans instead of drawing such harsh divides between our beliefs, our gods, and our political agendas.
The concept of authenticity is ever present on my mind. I recently saw online an article that was criticizing my generation with caring too much about authenticity. To me, that’s like criticizing someone’s perpetual need for water each day.
Authenticity is important because it’s the basis of genuine, human connection. As I wrote in one of my previous posts about Self Determination Theory, authenticity and belonging are two basic, psychological needs. Neurobiologically, spiritually, and physically we are hard-wired to need connection to thrive. As Brené Brown (one of favorite researchers) writes, “true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.” Thus the two are connected and both essential to thriving.
From this point of authenticity I started thinking about how the particular criticism I saw online was regarding religion and how it should be prioritized over authenticity. This got me thinking about the Latin root religare and how it means “to bind together” and how the Latin root spirare (related to the modern English word “spirituality”) means “to breathe.” I was thinking about how religion does purport to bind people’s thoughts and behaviors together and thinking of what a world would be like where we could all just breathe and be and let others breathe and be.
The reality is, we have hard time just being and breathing; we are drawn to categorize, to bind people and things together. To separate them into groups. Label them. And often generalize and stereotype them.
Henri Tajfel posits that humans have a tendency to categorize people and things in an attempt to understand our place in the universe (my wording, others would say “part of a normative cognitive process” (McLeod, 2008).
It’s less complicated and overwhelming to start grouping data together into categories. We make broad assessments about what we encounter, and then we can go back and fine comb for details.
We also want to know what our groups are. Where do we belong? We find positive self esteem and a sense of belonging by identifying with a group or a number of groups.
We also draw the boundaries of what’s acceptable or normal behavior according to the script of the groups to which we belong. It gives us a very secure sense of place and self concept to have these lines drawn (albeit artificially) of what’s possible and what we wouldn’t even consider doing.
For example, where I spent the better part of 3 years recently, Northwest Arkansas, most people who are part of the groups like “Southerner” and “Wal-Mart corporate” and “middle class” wouldn’t consider leftover bagels in a garbage bag outside of Einstein bagels edible. But my brother-in-law Shane (an intellectual, authentic person who tries to live apart from any arbitrary, categorical norms) would definitely eat those bagels with good reasons (they are perfectly edible, free, food that need not add to the extravagant wastefulness and excess that is typical in privileged societies).
After we categorize ourselves and the people and things around us, we start looking at the differences between groups and the similarities within our group. This is where we tend to exaggerate. This is where I tend to get anywhere from annoyed to outraged when I hear people doing this.
For example, the whole “Men are from Mars women are from Venus” perspective really bothers me. If we focus and perpetuate these artificial social differences between us, then yes, we will see them; they will be there. But if we, instead, choose to look at each other with empathy, respect, and as few stereotypes as possible, perhaps we can connect on a more meaningful level. Or at least we could try to understand how and why the social environment has played a very large, determining part in shaping whatever differences tend to be there between men and women.
Likewise, I saw on Facebook this morning someone arguing with my brother-in-law, Mike, about how Christianity could never be as violent as Islam based on the fundamental principles. Despite Mike’s well-articulated points on how individuals and sects of any religion can distort its texts for their own, violent agenda, this person could not concede. It’s hard for me to be empathic toward people with this level of ignorance and in-group denial (what about the Crusades? What about the Conquistador Priests who would behead indigenous people if they didn’t convert to Catholicism on the spot? What about right now and the Ugandan government trying to Biblically justify the murder of gay citizens?) but my best guess is that people are afraid. People are afraid of what is different and what they don’t understand.
But instead of perpetuating the loop of fear, stereotype, bigotry, and hatred, we should try to understand. Have empathy. Truly trying to understand from someone else’s perspective is an effective way to stop fear and hatred. Look at the lens through which you are categorizing the world; ask yourself whether your filter is one of love and a pursuit to live in peace and empathy or one of fear that would lead to a desperate reaction to squash that which is threatening and different from you.
I understand that social identity is a vital and real part of a person. I understand that categorization is a normal cognitive process. That is, it is useful and easier than thinking through every phenomenon as novel. What I wish, however, is that we would be more empathic and realistic when examining the differences across and between groups. Rather than look at how other and different out-group members are, look for similarities that bond us together in an overarching category (if we must use categories).
John Lennon’s Imagine basically sums up what I wrote here.
McLeod, S. A. (2008). Social Identity Theory. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/social-identity-theory.html