The Man in the Mirror


“I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods. When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind. I shall neither supplicate, threaten, nor cajole my country or her people. With humility but with pride I shall offer one small life, whether in a foxhole or in wheatfield, for whatever it is worth, to fulfill the prophesy that all men are created equal.”

 -Pauli Murray[1]

We live in an age of identity politics. It is a time where people’s beliefs and interests are assumed to be determined by their membership in groups, particularly their sex, race, sexual orientation, and disability status.

The impact of these preconceived notions is intensified by the behavior of many of these groups that have tightened the expectations around homogeneity of beliefs and attitudes within each group and punished those who step outside the group with exclusion, shunning and often public ridicule and attack.

So, to be a Republican today has meant, to many, to experience pressure to be against abortion, support of the NRA and be for restricting immigration. Any deviation from this orthodoxy of thought can be punished by exclusion from the group.

This happens across all political parties and groups. There are similar expectations if one identifies as lgbt, a democrat, a feminist, a Zionist or an Evangelical Christian.

There is nothing wrong with belonging to any one of these groups – the problem is created when membership or identification with a particular group requires strict adherence to a set of beliefs without the ability to question or critically think for oneself about which beliefs are consistent with your life experiences, education and personal philosophy.

The other problem created by group identity is the distortion it creates of reality. The more we value our membership in a particular group the more vulnerable we to biases in our perceptions. Specifically, we tend to overemphasize the similarities within our group and the positive characteristics associated with our group. At the same time, we will also demonstrate a heightened sensitivity to the differences between our perception of our group and “other” who are not group members. We will also more readily notice (confirmation bias) the negative aspects of any person that is not a member of our group.

Social comparison theory has been widely used to explain group polarization. The desire to be accepted by members of our group can lead to polarization or the drift to more extreme opinions over time. This occurs as a result of individuals’ desire to gain acceptance and be perceived in a favorable way by their group. People first compare their own ideas with those held by the rest of the group; they observe and evaluate what the group values and prefers. In order to gain acceptance, people then take a position that is similar to everyone else’s but slightly more extreme. In doing so, individuals support the group’s beliefs while still presenting themselves as admirable group “leaders”.  In this way, a form of competition can occur among those who wish to be perceived as group leaders to be the most zealous or “pure” in representing the values of the group which pushes their beliefs more and more to the extreme.

If the group punishes individuals who are not “pure” in their beliefs though lower status, etc. then the likelihood of members exposing themselves to other points of view or socializing with people with opposing views is diminished. The internet is a powerful tool, but it also represents a danger because it allows us to select highly curated experiences through membership in more and more tightly defined groups. Within these echo chambers we are rarely exposed to a belief or idea that is different from our own so that when we finally do see or hear evidence that may not support our belief it seems aberrant and we are more likely to dismiss it as unfound or untrue.

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

― Audre Lorde, Our Dead Behind Us: Poems[2]

[1] Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray (1910 – 1985) was an American civil rights activist, women’s rights activist, lawyer, Episcopal priest, and author.

[2] Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992) was an American writer, feminist, womanist, librarian, and civil rights activist and poet.

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