We live in a polarized world – a world of polarized understanding.
There’s this tendency, when we are conceiving of things, to think of them in the most extreme terms. I noticed this when considering the term cyborg – growing up in the 90’s with movies like Cyborg and Universal Soldier, I had pretty clear imagination fodder on what constitued a cyborg – a full-on man-machine; not having lost its complete humanity, but certainly no longer just ‘human.’
However, this is a form of absolutist conception, and does not adequately reflect the reality of the situation. When conceiving this way, the tendency is to set the threshold for qualification pretty far towards what should constitute an extreme case – in this case, a full-blown terminator-esque cyborg. What this overlooks is the millions of people with various degrees of ‘enhancements’ living today.
So maybe you don’t consider someone who has had to receive the new form of running legs to be a ‘cyborg,’ or maybe you don’t consider the person with a pacemaker to be there either…but how many of these little add-ons and medical enhancements does one have to go before you would start considering them to be a cyborg?
It is a gray and ambiguous area, and that’s what makes it fun! How about a full-blown robotic arm? We aren’t quite to terminator levels yet, but it should be clear that we are moving in that direction as our technology, and ability to intervene in life-threatening situations, increases. There is a spectrum of what it means to be a ‘cyborg,’ and chances are it crosses the threshold of meaning far sooner than most of us would conceive of. This is at least in part because of a splitting process that tends to occur at some points in our thought processes – determining ‘us’ vs ‘the other.’
When we are conceptualizing things, there can be a tendency to make an almost fictional character in our heads, an archetype, that we can understand, but don’t fully identify with. This perhaps allows us to examine the more objectively, however also can create some problems, as lowers our ability to relate the conception back to ourselves or the people we live with.
Many people will be comfortable theoretically talking about what makes someone a cyborg, but become less comfortable identifying their grandmother with a pacemaker or mechanical hip as one. This degree of separation interests me – the same person would most likely be more comfortable identifying an unnamed serviceman with a robotic hand as being a cyborg. I would hold this is at least strongly influenced due to degrees of separation – it is difficult for us to see our grandmother as anything less than or different from ‘human,’ because her humanity has been reinforced to us our entire lives. It is much easier to shift those definitions for a person we have significant less experience with or knowledge of.
So now let’s apply this understanding in a completely different context, perhaps a little more of a controversial one – racists! Or choose your preferred form of bigotry – boy, that sounds funny
The tendency is the same – to conceive of the term in a flagrant way, a worst-of-the-worst case. It’s a cliche at this point to hear ‘Now, I’m not a (insert your poisonous understanding here), but (insert your poisonous comment).’
Consider the person making that statement – they are clearly working with a conception of racism, or whatever, that has a pretty high bar of qualification – like, you’re not a racist unless you say racist things to the people you are being racist about, or ‘well, shit, it’s not like I’m stringing ’em up to a tree.’ Clearly there is a pretty wide-ranging behaviour that falls into that spectrum of ‘being racist.’ Enter the cognitive dissonance.
But in the same way that we tend to discount all the minor forms of cyborgs currently in existence, the same mechanism leads to us thinking of most things in such strong-form terms, causing both a polarization of our understanding and a loss of appreciation for the more subtle or nuanced versions of a thing, which must then be recalled and realized through mindfulness.
When the person who makes racist observations says ‘well, I’m not a racist’ they aren’t just lying to themselves. They have dropped the spectrum of understanding, split ‘the racist’ into ‘the other,’ and qualified it in such a way that it could not possibly apply to themselves, or their friends and family. This happens on a subconscious level, and it is likely the person making the statement is not even aware they are doing it. Call it vestiges of tribalism – we’ve identified an undesirable behaviour, and the evolved tendency is a form of ‘not my tribe!’
It is great that as a society we are starting to peel back the layers on some of these behaviours and attitudes, and our association with the less desirable parts of ‘the other’ that really represents reflections of ourselves. A willingness to have uncomfortable moments and conversations tends to be one of the strongest determinants of progress.
The important thing to takeaway here isn’t that most people are more racist (or whatever) than they typically consider themselves to be. They are. The key takeaway is in learning to view ‘the other’ as an extension of ourselves, and to be willing to have some good-hearted, uncomfortable moments and conversations in order to help everyone progress a little more.
That is how the world becomes a better place, not through the ongoing process of splitting, demonization and punishment. (Side note – It’s too bad that so much of our politics involves splitting and demonization – maybe one day’ll we’ll learn not to collectively appeal so readily to bias, and work on education more instead) A second, more personally relevant side note – pay attention to whether or not you include yourself in your conceptions by default – the quality of our conceptions directly feeds into the quality of our narratives, which directly feeds into our belief in our own abilities. Quality of conception is more a function of how well-thought out someone’s understanding is, as opposed to how naturally intelligent they are.