Rehumanize 101 – How Excluding Others Slowly Kills You Both
We have never been more polarized as a society.
It’s not just South Africa, it’s the DSA (Divided States of America), it’s the whole world. Whipped up emotions and more vocal than ever, we all tend to be part of the problem. And social media allows each of us to vent our views and frustrations. We attack not just positions but actual people and their group – without any apparent kick-back. But there is one: each group’s animosity towards the other heats up a notch with each exposure to yet another cold, cutting online voice.
I write this post to share how Julie and I are trying to navigate this societal polarization as adults, as well as how we’re trying to help our kids live better in it. I also hope to help others, which is why I try to deal with the subject comprehensively here. However, feel free to scan. This is how the post is arranged:
- 2 Reasons we exclude the other
- How we’re all exclusive, even those who have been excluded
- 5 Ways we exclude
- A much better way – and 4 examples of it
2 Reasons we exclude other groups
There will always be an ‘other’ – someone who is not part of your ideological/relational/cultural/racial tribe. And how we relate to the other says far more about us than it does about them.
So why do we exclude and look down upon others?
1. We exclude the other to make ourselves feel included.
When we see ‘the other’ as the bad or inferior group, it bolsters the worthiness of our group. By excluding them, we elevate us. By demonizing the other, we highlight our group’s (and my) significance and legitimacy. By putting them on the outside, we find ourselves on the inside.
In fact, much philosophy, sociology, and literary theory recognizes this propensity in human nature. It was Zygmunt Bauman, in his seminal work, ‘Modernity and Ambivalence’ who argued 25 years ago that identity in society depends on creating dichotomies: we, on the inside, only make sense of ourselves because we are not those on the outside. This is, Bauman says, always an exercise of power. It’s a power that disguises itself by denouncing the other.
At school, we learn this intuitively: if I am part of this group – which is so much better than that group – I have secured my place not only in a group, but in life as a whole.
And we have a special self-deceptive strategy to mitigate this evil…
2. We exclude the other because we embrace negative stereotypes of them.
Instead of individualizing people, we lump them into a group in our minds, reducing the whole to a one-sided, superficial and exaggerated stereotype rather than perceiving their real variety, depth and complexity.
Then we contrast the best things we have done with the worst things they have done. We see ourselves as a fully human 3-D nuanced tribe of people, and we caricaturize them as a subhuman and sub-moral 2-D group.
The self-deceiving mental propensity of ‘confirmation bias’ causes us to look for and see behaviours in people that confirm our stereotype of all in their group.
I wish we weren’t like this. But we are. This is the way the world is. It’s the reason for all the wars – especially when both groups exclude the other.
All of us tend to exclude – even those in victimized groups
I think – and am willing to be corrected – that all of us have a bent for excluding. All of us. Even those of us who are defined in part by having been excluded.
In his essay, ‘The strange persistence of guilt’, Wilfred McClay points out that ‘claiming victim status is the sole sure means left of absolving oneself and securing one’s sense of fundamental moral innocence. If one wishes to be accounted innocent, one must find a way to make the claim that one cannot be held morally responsible. This is precisely what the status of victimhood accomplishes.’
There are real victims in this world. They deserve our compassion. We should work towards justice on their behalf.
But reflecting on McClay’s point, I think an interesting thing has happened on social media in the last few years – and I am not just thinking of South Africa. It’s this: all kinds of people are now quick to play the victim card, not only to express pain, or to request compassion (which are valid reasons to confess victimhoom) – but now to secure the power-base of the moral upper ground, which carries a perceived innocence with it (in the world of social media at least).
In contradiction to this trend, I think of Russian novelist, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who, after years of imprisonment for criticizing communism, reflected both on communism’s simplistic worldview, and his own propensity to demonize his oppressors…
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
In that single flash of wisdom we see how politics tends to thrive by polarizing groups into good (our party) and bad (other parties). But, we’re all – oppressors and victims – capable of good, and we’re all capable of evil. The moment we believe that our victim status means we are right and can do no wrong, I think we’re more susceptible to doing wrong than ever before.
That’s what concerns me about South African white people who think that because they are economically suffering under a corrupt and self-serving regime, they can speak out against that regime however they please. Is it really okay to attack Zuma’s level of education, mathematical ability, perceived cultural or moral inferiority? Maybe what Zuma means when he calls white protestors ‘racists’ is that they don’t only disagree with his decisions, but that we despise him as a person, from our self-proclaimed moral, intellectual or cultural superiority?
It’s also what concerns me about many of the black voices that I encounter online: the refusal to admit, based on their legitimate and heartbreaking victimhood, that there might even be a seed of racial prejudice or bitterness (more than just anger) in their own psyche. Where any kind of prejudice and emotional poison is left unnamed and unchecked it will grow to dehumanize not only the other, but the bearer too.
5 Ways we exclude ‘the other’
Now that I have argued every group (and every person) is capable of excluding, let me show you how destructive the actions are that result from this attitude of superiority.
Theologian Miroslav Volf in his book, ‘Exclusion and Embrace’ tells us that there are 4 ways we as a group act out our excluding of another group when given the chance. (I have added a fifth.)
1. We can exclude the other by assimilating them.
We can demand that they conform completely to our own patterns and standards, refusing them the right to express any difference at all. As Volf puts it, it’s saying, ‘We will refrain from vomiting you out if you let us swallow you up.’
One disguised kind of assimilation, is relating to ‘the other’ as people that we can rescue. In so doing, we don’t realize that we unwittingly see ourselves as superior to the people we think need our help.
2. We can exclude the other by dominating them.
We will let you live among us and maintain your identity, but only if you assume an inferior place – not getting certain jobs, attaining particular levels of pay, or living in certain neighborhoods. This was the cold calculated way of Apartheid. It’s also how many countries tend to treat immigrants.
3. We can exclude the other by abandoning them.
We simply ignore or avoid you, thereby silencing your voice, taking no thought of your thoughts, feelings or needs. This is how the Indonesian government seems to treat its citizens in West Papua. It is also how society tends to treat homeless people.
It’s what the Group Areas Act of old enables still – many white people in SA thrive in white ghettos of privilege, with largely racially homogenous schools, suburbs and high-wall security estates.
If we surround ourselves with enough people like us where we live, work and play – it’s as though the other hardly exists, and neither do their needs and voices. This is not intentional for most, but it is perceived by the majority of the country as a kind of abandonment.
4. We can exclude the other by killing them (or driving them out).
History is populated by this fact. Long-held stereotypes are the fault-lines within which potential genocides breed. Think of the Spaniards who killed most of the Native Americans – seeing them as halfway between beast and man. Or the British treatment of the Afrikaners in the Anglo-Boer war – inventing concentration camps, an idea later picked up the Nazis. Or the Japanese – drunk on their cultural superiority – raped and killed whole towns in Nanking, China. Or the Nazis giving vent to centuries of widespread Germanic anti-Semitism in a spasmodic massacre of millions of Jews. Or the systemic annihilation of so many freedom fighters and weaponless protesters during Apartheid. Or the Hutus killing 800,000 Tsutsis in Rwanda in 1994 that they deemed as ‘non-Christian, untrustworthy, bent on power’. Or the xenophobic violence against African foreigners in SA. Or Isis, or Boko Haram.
In all these cases, an sense of ideological, moral-high-ground or cultural superiority preceded seemingly unthinkable atrocities. (This is one reason many people in SA, who think of themselves as good people, can feel justified in threatening, ‘We will take back the land by whatever means necessary.‘ Their moral-high-ground on the matter blinds them to their capability for wrongdoing. I’ll touch on the land issue again just now.)
5. We can exclude the other by shaming them.
The omnipresence of social media has facilitated a rise in shame culture.
Psychologically speaking, I think guilt is healthy, shame is not. Guilt says you did something bad. Shame says that you therefore are bad.
In a guilt culture, we know we’re good or bad by what our conscience feels, by the transgression of unchanging ethical standards. In a shame culture, however, we know we’re good or bad depending on what posts are going viral, and how loudly people are shouting. Here, there are no permanent standards, just the shifting judgment (which may or may not be objectively correct) of a sizable online crowd.
In a guilt culture, we’re taught to make changes based on the fact that we have done bad things. In a shame culture we’re taught that we’re hopeless because we are bad people.
Public stonings in the market square have been replaced by cyber stonings, ruining lives at the click of a button. (If I can express my personal reservation about this trend: online shaming seems to treat anyone perceived to be bigoted or intolerant in completely bigoted and destructively intolerant ways. Can’t we see the hypocrisy latent in this?)
A better way
To summarize so far, part of what will heal the divides in the world and in our country will include greater honesty and self-insight:
We need to dread the results of exclusion. When your group excludes people in other groups – it can and will eventually lead to shaming, abandoning, dominating, assimilating and/or annihilating them. It will slowly kill you both.
We need to recognize our tendency to exclude other groups. We do so, based on either ill-conceived superiority that makes it easy to look down upon others, or the masked insecurity that makes us want to or ‘need’ to look down upon them.
Solzhenitsyn calls this a true ‘education’ – one that has nothing to do with academics and everything to do with a better self-knowledge. Let me quote him: ‘It’s a universal law – intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education. An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas a truly profound education breeds humility.’
Is there a better way than exclusion? Is there a way to treat another tribe – even one that is completely opposed to your views or makes your life harder – without villainising and caricaturising them? Without excluding them?
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela urges us to take the ‘pivotal turn to perspective taking and gaining an integrated view of both the self and the other.’ This involves the hard work of embracing the full humanity of those in other groups, thinking not in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’, but in terms of ‘we.’
Along these lines, Stellenbosch University researchers have found that ‘effortful perspective taking has been shown to decrease the use of stereotypes, to increase positive evaluations and caring behaviour towards the out-group (i.e. the other), and to foster increased willingness to engage in meaningful contact with the out-group. Moreover, taking the perspective of a stigmatised individual has been shown to generalize to positive evaluations of the whole out-group.
‘Perspective taking therefore works, but it doesn’t just happen. It is a skill that needs training just like any other mental or physical ability. The more one is open to it, and therefore does it, the better one becomes at it. Perspective taking is what is necessary for us to form a uniquely individualising view of another person, as opposed to generalising.’
We’ve known this for a long time
It was Jesus who taught that we should ‘Pray for our enemies’. This is the most counter-intuitive instruction. By nature, we know how to pray against our enemies. By ‘enemies’ Jesus meant the people who make our life hard – the other. He was suggesting that as we hold people that we imagine to be beyond redemption to the light of a redeeming God, we’re afforded a glimpse of their humanity, which gives them equal membership in the circle of humanity – despite all their shortfalls and painful intrusions into our lives.
The one thing that, not just Jesus, but the most prominent, millennia-old religions teach is, ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’. In other words, learn to empathize. Put yourself in the shoes of ‘the other’. It’s the only way to fully humanize them in your minds. And to retain your humanity too.
The power of perspective taking
Let me provide 4 examples of its power:
Overcoming slavery – how perspective taking rehumanizes.
How did the 18th century slavery abolitionists begin to turn the tide on the acceptability of slavery in public consciousness? Through evoking empathy. They created an emblem of a chained man on his knees, inscribed with the words: ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ The poignant emblem challenged people to no longer see slaves as less than, or as other than, but as your own sibling, a full human.
People realized then – as we should now – that to exclude others from full membership in humanity is to forfeit some of our own.
Resolving interpersonal conflicts – how perspective taking reconciles
Recently a friend told us a better way to help our children resolve their arguments and fights. Instead of us asking each, ‘Tell me your side of the story’, ask each a better question: ‘What did you do that might have upset the other person?’ This teaches them to seek first to understand rather than to be understood, and to own their part in every conflict. Because it always, always, always takes two to tangle. After seeing how well this worked, it dawned on Julie and I that there is no good reason for us not to practice this in our own conflicts.
Discussing the land issue – how perspective taking helps us hear the pain under the protest
Nothing gets SA white people’s backs up like talk of black people wanting their land. Though this is a dizzyingly complex issue, and I honestly don’t know the way forward, the starting point must surely be perspective taking – which is what few white people have been able or willing to do.
If you’re white, maybe I can help you with a simple analogy?
Imagine you’re introduced to the game of Monopoly by 3 friends who claim to know the game. You discover that the roll of the dice moves you forward and helps you acquire a finite amount of properties, which can then draw rent from others who land on them. The more you have, the more you can get. Now imagine almost every time it’s your turn to roll the dice, the other players say, ‘No, you must skip your turn, because …’ and they give some arbitrary rule such as ‘you’re wearing slops’ or ‘you’re on the East side of the table.’
At first they ignore your protests, but a 100 minutes into the game, they start to feel conscience-stricken. ‘We’re so sorry. Please forgive us. You can now throw the dice every time.’ You’re touched by their sincerity and forgive them. For 20 minutes, you’re delighted to throw the dice, but after a few rounds you realize … it’s too late. Most of the properties have been taken, you can hardly afford the rent, and you have no collateral to borrow from the bank. So you protest again. They respond insensitively, ‘But you said you forgave us! It’s been 20 minutes already! And you’ve got the dice!’
At this point, how do you feel? Enraged by the injustice and insensitivity, right? Perhaps you even have the desire to flip the board and demand, ‘Let’s start again!’
This is just a little of what people might feel who have been left out of the game for over 100 years. Sure, they have recently been given the right to vote. They have offered their forgiveness. But 2 decades into democracy, it has dawned on them that they’re no better off – and what’s more, we seem deaf to their pain.
Making new friends in other groups – how perspective taking unites us
Last night I asked Julie how her day was. She told me the highlight was her deep conversation with a black man in an hour-long queue. He is a stalwart ANC-supporter, she isn’t. They spoke mainly about their passion and concerns for this country.
Then her eyes moistened as she told me, ‘Despite our differences of view, we both agreed on this – that we want the best for our kids. As we spoke of our love for our children and our concern for their futures, I saw myself in him, and my kids in his kids.’
Also published on Medium.