Us and Them

Stephen Fry repeated an old geek joke the other day:

“The world is divided into 10 types of people. Those who understand binary and those who don’t.” Pause to allow you to wipe the tears of helpless laughter from your weeping eyes.

I’ve been slowly making my way through Us and Them – Understanding Your Tribal Mind by David Berreby.

Berreby explores the myriad ways in which we humans like to sort each other. Black white, asian, red state, blue state, soccer mom etc etc. We do it all the time, mostly barely noticing, and with vast impact on how we experience the world. As the jacket blurb says

Everyone is a part of many groups at once, of course – you might be a woman, a parent, a Republican, an American, and a Hindu. So how do we decide which identities matter? Why to they matter so much? What makes people willing to die, or to kill, for a religion, nation, race or caste?

In the early chapters, Berreby patiently examines many of the categories we casually use today, and unravels them. We like to speak of, say, the French as a solid category that goes back down the generations. But close examination reveals that somehow it includes Sarkozy (who’s Hungarian by birth) as well as Joan of Arc.

This apparently homogenous category turns out to be wildly heterogenous, a complexity our marvellous minds delete in order to get through the day.

I was shocked and fascinated by his examination of Tutsi and Hutu, one of the most destructive categorisations in history. It appears that these “tribes” are not some ancient adversaries, but are a byproduct of a century of colonial history. He gives many examples of categories that possessed us in the past but have vanished today, and of others today that would make no sense to our forebears. These safe boxes turn out to vague and impermanent.

Here’s how he puts it:

Given that we are capable of changing classification systems all the time, why bless certain categories – like race or nation or religion – with permanent relevance?…. It’s not “good statistics” that make us do this. Quite the opposite. We don’t gather statistics and then make human kinds; we begin with human kinds and than go out and measure.

…Human kinds are convincing when others are convinced, not only because we want to conform but also because, as a practical matter, people’s beliefs organize their lives and thoughts.

We use categories as if they are based on reality, but this is sleight of mind.

We drift into essentialism, seeing as innate in people a quality that’s in reality is based on filters in our minds. (Reminds me of my favourite cognitive bias.) And when we make our problems of ones of identity we tend to become rigid and defensive. As Berreby writes,

If you want to believe you’re connected with all your fellow Hindus, or Tutsis, or Americans, dead and alive, because of a shared essence in all of you, then you might find the thought that everything was different fifty years ago to be a problem.

Our boxes shape our world in immeasurable ways, but so far Berrebey’s work ignites in me a sense of wonder and a glimpse of a unity that joins us all together.

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