Thursday, May 29, 2014

Differently Similar

By the time I was in my mid-to-late teens, I began to understand a curious paradox. When people, White or Black, sought to elevate themselves over others by invoking famous names, everyone was the same. They, and everyone that they identified with, were the same as the famous people whose names they would recite. The qualities that made the famous people famous and well respected were present in everyone who shared the "same" color skin. And everyone who wasn't like them was the same in being utterly different from the famous people. The qualities of the famous people were absent, because the skin color was different. Likewise, when they sought to denigrate others by invoking infamous names, the qualities that made people reviled and hated were also transmitted through skin color. But when it was pointed out that there were infamous people who shared a skin tone with them, then everyone was different, and the the failings that made their infamous people bad were limited to the infamous, and did not spread around to anyone else. People, I find, hold this particular brand of Doublethink in their heads quite easily.

I was reminded of this in the context of reactions to three rather sad episodes that have come to pass recently. The shootings perpetrated by Elliot Rodger in California, the revelation from Pakistan that a man whose pregnant wife was murdered by her family had in fact been married before - and had slain her so that he could re-marry and the gang-rape and murder of a pair of Indian girls from from the "untouchable" caste. The latter two stories both brought out internet commentators who made a show of wringing their hands before labeling the cases as proof that Pakistanis and Indians, respectively are all something less than human, and for one particularly spiteful person, less than animals. Yet they also maintained (because it was quickly brought up) that to tar all of America with the Elliot Rodger brush was to wrongly smear upstanding Americans. Because things are different here.

Humans, it has been said, do not scale well. We form into cliques and tribes, and once we have done so, seek to use that tribal identity as a means of proving our legitimacy to ourselves and others at the expense of those from other tribes. Even when we're supposedly fighting for our very existence against outside forces, we find it difficult to impossible to temper this habit. Of course, we are not all like this. But when we are different, sometimes we're still like everyone else.

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