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Stories of Difference and Similarity

2021-12-26 - Part 1

Let us assume, from my last entry, that we tell stories to shape our perception and comprehension of our world as I think we do. Then these are some thoughts on the stories that we tell about who we and others are as individuals — or rather, as not-individuals.

Throughout a person’s life, they see these elements in the stories others tell. You might read a book containing a character who falls into the box of those-who-share-a-certain-attribute-with-you. (Pick an attribute, any non-personality-related attribute. I’ll use eye colour here, as it normally isn’t used like this and works as a replacement for all the attributes that are.) And they see any commonalities in the way that characters with this attribute are depicted. Perhaps characters with brown eyes are always shy, retiring, easily intimidated. Perhaps characters with green eyes are always prone to thievery and subterfuge. Perhaps those with blue eyes are violent and thoughtless. I could go on.

But what do someone’s eyes have to do with their personality? you might ask. All the more so if you don’t happen to like the assumptions made about you because of your own. But it’s all around you, even if you happen to be fortunate enough to grow up in an immediate environment where it simply isn’t considered relevant in any way. You take it in; you can’t help it entirely. And, understandably, you probably get quite annoyed, particularly if the version you like least happens to match your own eyes (though not your personality).

It would be one thing if careful research had shown that such traits were, in fact, statistically significantly linked to eye colour. But instead (to the best of my current knowledge), carefully conducted population research, after controlling for confounding factors, continues to show the opposite: that eye colour is basically irrelevant to personality and mental capacity. For the sake of this discussion, we’ll assume that you accept this to be true.

Then there are two, and only two, choices, give or take assorted subtleties in the expression of each — it will come down to one basic choice or the other.

Depending on who you talk to, there are things to be said for both approaches. One is to do what you believe to be correct, and live life as an example of the goal you are (I assume) aiming for. The other is aimed with the well-meaning intent of forcing everyone else to accept these blue-eyed people in places blue-eyed people are not, by stereotype, expected to be. And it is not without its successes: setting solid targets makes them more likely to be met, after all.

But it has a dangerous consequence. You are now telling a story in which blue-eyed people are different. You are reinforcing the subtle sense that they, these blue-eyed people, are in some way unlike the brown- grey- or green-eyed. Now the blue-eyed people need special help to succeed; if they need special help where others do not, there must be a difference about them. Your words gain a subtext: you want equality of outcome, and in giving special help to one group that you do not give to another, you reinforce the concept that there is an intrinsic inequality in the intake. That the blue-eyed are simply less suited to these positions than the brown.

Perhaps you even begin to say, let these blue-eyed people have spaces to themselves, where people with other-coloured eyes cannot go. “So that they can have a space where they can relax, and people will not look at them with fear.” Does that not make them look utterly, totally, irrevocably different? Does that not say, even scream to others in its subtext, that you, as much as you may truly seek for all people to be viewed equally, do not yourself view them equally, and that by consequence no-one else should either? Actions, after all, speak louder than words.

And there is another consequence: you give up your space. For if you treat people unequally in an attempt to overcome socially entrenched biases, then in addition to reinforcing these biases with the subtext of the story you are telling, you cede the very ground you wish to hold to those who do not actually want it, but can now use it against you. “End these targets; let everyone compete on a level field as equals” can suddenly be the cry of those who do believe the stereotype, and suddenly their true position, which you have been slowly making less socially acceptable, can be cloaked in the burnished gleam of the one you originally chose. They can point fingers: look at you, the hypocrite, treating people with different coloured eyes differently. And it’s all about stories, about what each listener understands by them, especially when the listener has a limited amount of time and care to pay to this matter they may not really otherwise ever think about.

Of course, taking the other position, you give up a wider reach. Living life as you think it should be lived affects only your immediate neighbours: those you interact with regularly; the people you live with; the children you raise. It does not change the country, or the world, so swiftly and directly, or does not feel as if it will. We like to see that we are having an effect; we like to be able to point to a statistic and say “this policy did that”, even if the full set of reasons for the change are as complex as only a set of reasons drawn from a whole population can be. And we do not, under most circumstances, like at all to see and say “here is something that is wrong” and then do “nothing” about it — and most people generally consider living their lives as they think best to be essentially doing nothing, since (one would hope) they’d be doing that anyway.

What, you thought I had an answer? I don’t have any answers, just a lot of thoughts — and, of course, my own choices.

P.S. Ban segregated toilets.