Differentophobia (by )

At the time of writing, there's been recent controversy about a fast food chain called Chick-fil-A, whose management have made statements against gay marriage, and who financially support organisations campaigning against it. I'm not going to go into detail about that, as it's just one more battle in a long war against the idea that it's OK to fail to understand that people who are different to you are still people.

There's a natural human tendency to categorise people into Us and Them. We have emotional reactions like empathy towards "Us", as we can imagine ourselves in their situations. We tend to trust "Us", and help "Us" when they are in need, and would rally to defend "Us" from harm.

"They", on the other hand, are assumed to be attempting to take something from "Us". "They" are not empathised with; we do not imagine what it is like to be "Them". We merely see that "They" are different, and therefore, we cannot imagine what "They" are thinking; and we imagine that "They" must feel the same about "Us", and therefore not have our best interest at heart; we assume that "They" will feel no compunction against causing "Us" harm if it's in "Their" interests, so we are quick to defend ourselves against "Them", including pre-emptive strikes. If "They" ask for something, it is clearly "Them" trying to take things from "Us", rather than "Them" and "Us" negotiating to find a compromise over some shared resource, and we must stand up against it or "They" will take everything and leave "Us" with nothing.

This general mechanism is behind a lot of pain and suffering in this world. Once somebody has been classified as "Them" in somebody's eyes, it's very hard to lose that classification, as all the good deeds they do and other evidence of trustworthiness are easily interpreted as deceit. Meanwhile, the criminals in the "Us" group use their implicit trustworthiness to great advantage. This simple classification into "Us" and "Them" presumably did us some good when were crouching in caves, but now we're a globally interconnected society, it's harming us.

I have suffered little from it, personally; I am white (and live in a country where that's normal), male (and live in a society where sexism has abated, but is still rife), without any visible disabilities, living in the country I grew up in, with an accent and mannerisms which can fit into most social "levels" (I come from a lower working class background, but went through elite education into a profession, so I have experience of all sorts of people), straight and cisgender. My only "minority" trait is being an unabashed nerd, which is something I can easily hide when amongst people who would be bored stiff by a thrilling discussion about logic circuit design; and I hide that in order to not bore people stiff, rather than out of a fear of discrimination.

But it still deeply irritates me, because it's just a stupid waste of happiness. The human race has enough to worry about without us being nasty to each other.

I like meeting people who are different, as it's interesting to try and find my own limitations and boundaries. How much of who I am is because of the limited range of experiences I've had, rather than inherent limitations of my human brain? I'd still really like to sit down with some gay and bisexual people of both genders, to try and really find out what the experiences of love, limerence and sexual desire are like for them; there's clearly some underlying difference because the objects of their attraction are different, but does that extend to differences in what it feels like for them? Bisexual people would be well-placed to compare, but then their experience might not be representative of what purely homosexual people feel. As I was at an all-male school when I became really interested in girls, I've never felt I've entirely understood heterosexual flirting/dating/courting protocols, and I'm quite interested in how much is purely social convention rather than fundamental parts of our evolved mating mechanisms; finding out what it's like from the perspective of homosexual people, who have been forced out of the social conventions in the first place and had to form their own in originally hidden communities, might provide me with insights into my own heterosexuality! I watch the activities of my polyamorous friends with interest!

I am not, however, immune to the fear of different people. If I suddenly find myself in an unfamiliar cultural environment, I feel a twinge of alarm. This is partly justified; in an unfamiliar culture, my social protocols may be incorrect, and might cause offence, and somebody who is not familiar with my own culture might not realise that this is unintentional. So when I find myself in such a situation, I am well advised to pause and think carefully about how I act - but purely to ensure that I present a respectful and friendly first impression; I then try to find common ground and establish an understanding that I can expand upon until I am comfortable with the new situation.

When a group of hoodie-wearing black youth rush past me in an alleyway, yes, I am mindful that they might try to mug me. But I am also just as mindful that a group of smartly-dressed white females might mug me, too. After all, if I wanted to mug somebody, I would carefully avoid mugger stereotypes in order to lull people into a false sense of security! If I ran a Fagin-esque gang of pick pockets, I would train little old ladies in martial arts and equip them with knives to be my agents! But I digress... I do not discriminate in my distrust. And yet my distrust is provisional; if I know nothing about somebody, I will assume that they might be a threat, and I will take care not to give them an opportunity to harm me or those in my care in any way; but I will not show hostility towards somebody unless they prove their bad intententions by makin a move to attack first. And on the other hand, I will extend trust towards people who have earned it, but I do so proportionally, assessing the cost of losing the thing I have entrusted them with against the benefits of trusting them.

It's also important to recognise when people are being afraid of you because you are different to them. Their initial reaction to you might be to flinch, to be defensive, or even to assume that you conform to their culture's stereotype of yours. And if you are feeling skeptical of them being one of Them, then their initially negative reaction would just needlessly reinforce your suspicion. If you then act in a way that makes you seem hostile and defensive in their eyes, then your relationship has gotten off to a probably irreparably bad start.

So, dear reader, when you feel that frisson of fear and distrust when you meet, or hear about, strange people doing strange things, recognise that feeling for what it is: a quick warning that these people might find you strange and frightening, so you must be polite and welcoming; and try to turn the other cheek if they exhibit knee-jerk defensive reactions towards you. The more you can learn from them about the amazing variety of the human experience, the better a person you will be.


  • By Oflife, Fri 3rd Aug 2012 @ 7:07 pm

    I have not read your whole post yet, but whilst I get what you're saying and agree, and we are as a species slowly moving towards the utopia you desire, reality is very different - and kidding yourself otherwise is going to get you hurt one day - and that must not happen, as you're special! I have been mugged or attacked on three occasions, (not including when I was in dispute with another party - such as a youthful 'schoolboy' fight) and on each occasion, it was black or Asian youth who had NO concern for my well being at all, and were doing all they could to rob and/or kill me- in return for material goods or gang initiation. And a good proportion of those I know have experienced the same. And when you have faced threats to your life, you are scarred with this for a long time and will most definitely be very careful in how you behave when walking down the street or a 'dark alley'. A few tips, NEVER make eye contact. At night, always walk down the MIDDLE of any road in a dodgy area (not on the pavement, else you are invisible to 50% of people looking out of the window from up high), do not carry anything expensive looking (obvious!), do not run into a place where you will be trapped (IE, knock on door of house that may be empty, leaving you exposed) etc. DO run towards areas where there are a lot of people.

    Anyway, back to the matter at hand, good communication, social interaction (sports, drinks at the pub, real-world special interest groups/meetups etc) are the best way to realise that everyone is the same (even elephants, dolphins and some species of monkey) and the majority of hate comes from misunderstanding, naivety and gossip (which exists mainly in the Middle East and Nazi concepts). So, get out, mix it up and be nice.


  • By Mungojelly, Mon 6th Aug 2012 @ 4:52 pm

    You can't heal those divides by saying "OK, I'm fine with this Other now, we're all cool," that's still the same division. It has to be "WE used to have a problem where we were divided, but now WE are healing the hurt and thinking through the dysfunction it caused on both sides of the former divide."

    I hope our small human family can soon heal all of those divisions so that we can survive long enough to encounter other Others!

  • By Sasha, Fri 2nd Aug 2013 @ 9:40 pm

    Oflofe said >And when you have faced threats to your life, you are scarred with this for a long time and will most definitely be very careful in how you behave when walking down the street or a 'dark alley'.

    Well, that rather depends on how it panned out.

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