On Groups, Individuals, Brains, and Politics

One of the many things I have been puzzling over lately is the psychological phenomenon in which people have trouble remembering that groups are made up of individuals.

Examples include stories such as this one, about a town where people are shocked to discover that their vote to summarily expel all undocumented immigrants means a great friend and pillar of the community is getting deported, or this one, about people who are stunned that their vote to repeal the law that gave millions of people access to health care might result in the removal of their friends’ and neighbors’ access to health care.

My most acute awareness of this phenomenon has been when I have lived in countries in which many people were prone to anti-American jokes, statements, or even rants, which they would follow with, “but not you” or “you don’t seem like an American.” Probably most of us have experienced something like that after someone made a joke or a sweeping generalization about our ethnicity or gender or some other group to which we belong.

It makes sense for our brains to categorize things. It’s part of the pattern recognition processes that allow us to function as human beings. I don’t think it’s possible, or even desirable, for us to stop doing it, but I do think we need to be aware of it, and use that awareness to help us make decisions.

One group I might have a tendency to de-individualize in this way is Trump supporters. I do get exasperated with people like those in the stories mentioned above, and yes, in private, I sometimes (okay, frequently) make sweeping generalizations that may be unfair.

The thing is, I am aware, when I am doing that, that I am doing that. I understand that many people’s experiences in life have been very different from mine, and that those experiences have led them to draw very different conclusions. I have plenty of sympathy for them, and for their suffering.

Therefore, when I come across individuals who are Trump supporters, but who are also nice, hardworking, decent, even kind human beings, I am not particularly surprised. I am deeply, deeply frustrated, but not surprised.

I am frustrated because, long before the election, Donald Trump made it excruciatingly clear that he lies constantly, feels no loyalty to anyone, cares about no one but himself, is incompetent in almost every conceivable arena except self-promotion, and is in almost all respects abominable. All of these conclusions can reasonably be drawn solely from evidence gleaned from his own statements, both spoken and tweeted. I am frustrated not because I don’t understand people’s reasons, but because none of those reasons is good enough. They seem to see him so much as a member of their group that they ignore the fact that he is a particularly terrible individual.

Of course this is not true of all Trump supporters. Some are fully conscious of how horrible he is and like him all the more because of it, and some are confused or misguided for other reasons, but many have succumbed to this tendency to think in terms of groups instead of individual human beings. How do I know this is true of a number of people I have never even met? I know because when they discover that someone who entered the country illegally, or who can’t afford healthcare, is a nice, hardworking, decent, even kind human being, they are surprised.

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A Few Things I Recommend Reading

I find it difficult to write blogposts these days, mainly because every time I form a coherent thought I want to express, something else crazy happens and makes whatever I was about to say seem suddenly irrelevant. I frequently find the current state of my country and the world infuriating and/or terrifying, although I am still optimistic about the future, at least most of the time.

Since I can’t seem to write anything of much use, I thought I would just link to a few things other people have written that I have found most informative, explanatory, and otherwise helpful.

First on the list has to be Timothy Snyder’s indispensable, pocket-sized book, On Tyranny. I’m glad to see it is a bestseller right now. Everyone should read it.

Next would be the work of Sarah Kendzior. She knows authoritarianism very well, and she analyzes, explains, and predicts clearly and accurately.

The third that comes to mind is an article I read last week that has stayed with me. It is by Adam Gopnik, published in the New Yorker on May 25th, and called Emmanuel Macron’s French Lessons for Donald Trump. Here is a brief excerpt:

“What’s needed against Trump now is what has been found in France — not an ideologically narrow, politically focussed opposition but the widest possible coalition of people who genuinely value the tenets of democracy, meaning no more than the passionate desire to settle differences by debate and argument, rather than by power and cruelty and clan.”

I am hoping to remain optimistic.

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Just for Today: Puppies

I’ve been pretty good about keeping up with developments in the news, and I will get back to thinking about all the terrible and ridiculous things that are happening, but just for today, I need a break.

So, because puppies are the best thing in the world, here’s a puppy video compilation, and because I especially love boxers, here’s a boxer puppy video compilation, and because I like big dogs better than small dogs (sorry, teacup breed lovers – I am not one of you), here is a video about the 10 biggest dog breeds.

Enjoy!

 

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An Exercise in Civic Responsibility

I recently served on a jury. It was my second time doing so. I served on a criminal case once many years ago. This one was a civil case.

I have never been one to try to avoid jury service. I have always believed in the importance of civic duty, that our rights come with responsibilities, and that our system doesn’t work unless we participate in it. In the current political climate, however, all of those things take on an extra resonance. I was glad to have the opportunity to do my part.

Many of my fellow jurors, as well as both the plaintiff and the defendant in the case, were immigrants. The array of accents would have seemed appropriate at the U.N. Any previous year, I would have noticed this fact, thought, “How American!”, smiled to myself, and thought no more about it. This year, I wondered if any of them were afraid, if they had friends or family members they were worried might be deported, or were considering canceling vacations for fear they might not be able to return home.

I didn’t mention any of those things, though. In fact, although many of us did let slip unflattering comments about the current president from time to time, the tone of conversation throughout the trial was light. No one would be going to jail as a result of our deliberations. We just had to decide if someone should pay someone else money, and if so, how much.

It was really a fairly interesting process. We had to determine how much of the responsibility for an injury that had occurred lay with the defendant, and how much with the plaintiff. We had to quantify it in specific numbers, assign actual percentages of blame to each side.

Deciding on those numbers was surprisingly easy to do. Our whole group took our task seriously, examined the evidence, followed the instructions from the judge, and ended up with very little disagreement about how much each person was to blame.

It turns out that when reasonable people without a personal agenda look at actual facts, even if they come from wildly different backgrounds and have varied perspectives, they can agree fairly easily on where the truth lies. I found that to be true the first time I was on a jury, too.

The difference was, the first time, I just thought, “Hey, the system may need improvement, but it seems it can work. Isn’t that interesting?” This time, I thought, “Elements of the system definitely need improvement, but it can work. I need to do whatever I can to protect it from being dismantled, and I need to encourage everyone I know to stand up for individual rights, and due process, and fair trials, and civic responsibility, and evidence and facts, so that this isn’t the last year a jury like this one is possible in America.”

I know how we got here. It was little by little, through apathy, and taking things for granted, and not bothering to make the effort to protect the liberties that so many have fought so hard to obtain for us. It won’t be easy to get back what we have let slide, but it can be done, if we each do our part.

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Realities

I just returned from an incredible vacation, one I’d planned for over a year. It was a cruise from Los Angeles to Tahiti, via Hawaii and numerous islands of French Polynesia. If you ever have a chance to do something like that, take it. I can’t come up with superlatives strong enough to describe it.

I did have some access to news, but not enough to ruin the experience. On 20 January 2017, when the abomination was being inaugurated, I was on the beautiful island of Fakarava, where the water, even on a cloudy day, looks like this:

lagoon

Fakarava is an atoll, a very old volcanic island in which the original volcano part has sunk, and the land that is left is on the reef that once surrounded it, which means Fakarava is essentially a big lagoon protected by a reef with some land on it where people live.

On the lagoon side, the inside of the circle, the water is calm and perfectly clear. It is incredibly quiet, and the water just laps gently against the beach, like this:

calm

On the ocean side, though, just a short walk away, the wind blows like this:

wind

And waves crash against the edge of the reef, like this:

waves

It’s so loud you have to shout to be heard. It seems like a completely different island.

I’m back home in L.A. now, readjusting, and everything seems pretty much the way I left it, but a little bit surreal. It struck me today that I’m metaphorically still on Fakarava. The circumstances of my life keep me fairly well protected, on the lagoon side. Nothing the new administration has done has affected me personally yet, except in terms of the empathy I have for others and the fear I have of what’s to come. Just a short distance away, though, wind is blowing and waves are crashing and it feels like a big storm is already approaching.

I’m so glad to see all the protesting and resistance of various kinds, and I’m going to join in however I can. I’m also going to keep the image of Fakarava in mind. If you have access to a protected lagoon, it’s easy to underestimate the size of the storm that’s coming, and I don’t want to let that happen to me. This is a hell of a storm. It could destroy the whole island. It will take all of us, especially those of us who aren’t facing the brunt of the wind, to keep that from happening, and there’s no time to lose.

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2016: Disaster and Hope

Last year at this time I was in Thailand. I celebrated the New Year with people I had met there when we were all teenagers, exchange students from many different countries who spent a year immersed in a culture that, for most of us, was radically different from our own. We orchestrated a reunion for ourselves, I hope the first of many.

I was nervous about going. I couldn’t really afford the trip, and I would be staying only a few days, and it had been many, many years since I had seen these people, but it felt like an important thing to do, so I went. I was very glad I did, and I am even more glad now.

The trip was brief and marred by jet lag, but it was filled with such warmth, and ease of communication, and real joy, that it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. I am not sure if I was just lucky enough to meet an amazing group of people all those years ago, or if our shared experience bonded us in some unbreakable way, or if it was something else entirely.

I do know one thing. The greatest lesson I learned as a high school exchange student in Thailand is that all cultures, all civilizations, have been created by human beings, and they can therefore be changed by human beings. “That’s just the way it is” is a ridiculous statement. Things are the way they are because we, the people, keep them that way. They change because we change them.

Maybe the reason that reunion with my fellow exchange students was so filled with positive feelings is that we are all people who know viscerally, experientially, that anything is possible. We learned to understand words, customs, and people that seemed incomprehensible, and that made our faith in the unexpected, and our capacity for hope, nearly indestructible.

The events of this year have sent many people veering toward despair, and I understand that, but I haven’t quite gotten there myself, because I know, deep in my core, that nothing has to be the way it is, and that we, as human beings, have to power to make things better. If we work together, and we are smart about it, and we don’t give up, 2017 may be a better year than any of us can imagine.

Don’t think I am saying things aren’t that bad. Electing this despicable con man was one of the worst things my beloved country has ever done, and the potential, even the likelihood, of disaster is enormous. I am just saying that IF we keep our priorities in order, and IF we channel all that near despair into inspired action, then we, the people who believe there is room for all of us if we just manage ourselves and our resources well, can outmaneuver the people who believe everything is a competition and privilege is necessary for survival. After all, there are more of us than there are of them, and we are a lot less afraid.

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There Is No Justification for Having Voted for Donald Trump

Hate me if you want. Troll me if you must. History has its eyes on you (thank you, Lin-Manuel Miranda), and future generations will not accept your feeble excuses. I would like to tell you some reasons why.

You claim you are not misogynist*, racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, or xenophobic, and you don’t approve of lots of things he has said, but:

1. You actually believed he would bring back manufacturing jobs.

He wouldn’t even if he could, and he can’t. Democrats and immigrants didn’t take your jobs. Technology and globalization did, and they will continue to. Also, look at his business record. He is no friend to the worker or the small business owner. He doesn’t care about you. If you did not know these things, you allowed yourself to be uninformed to a degree unacceptable in a citizen of a democracy. This falls into the category of Things You Knew Or Should Have Known, hereafter abbreviated as TYKOSHK.

2. You feel very strongly about a particular issue, such as abortion, and you voted purely based on the candidates’ current professed stances on that issue.

I sympathize. I probably don’t agree with you on that issue, but I respect your position. Nevertheless, you have chosen to prioritize that issue over the lives of your fellow citizens in the USA and civilians in other countries. If you really believe that whatever Hillary Clinton might have allowed to happen is worse than hate crimes and war crimes, both of which Donald Trump has implicitly and often explicitly supported, then I suppose you can still be proud of yourself, but history won’t be.

3. Hillary Clinton is corrupt.

Hillary Clinton is no more corrupt than the average politician, and less corrupt than many you find perfectly acceptable. You have fallen for hysterical propaganda. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is extremely corrupt, certainly more than anyone else who has ever been elected President of the United States. You did not bother to find that out, and/or did not believe it when people, including Republicans, even conservative Republicans, told you so. Again, TYKOSHK.

4. You didn’t believe he really meant those things, or you “just don’t like” Hillary Clinton.

These are just stupid. How old are you?

To my fellow liberals who are wringing their hands about our failure of empathy for the white blue-collar worker, stop it. I certainly care about them, as do the vast majority of us, but I care about other people too. I am sorry it is getting harder and harder to find decent paying jobs, and I believe we can and should do more about that than we have been doing, but their jobs are not more important than other people’s lives. President Obama has tried to help them. Hillary Clinton would have tried to help them. The fact that they do not believe that does not justify their putting this abomination into the White House. Just stop.

*I intentionally put “misogynist” first, because it is so often put last, or not included at all. Misogynists hate more people than any of the others on the list do, with the possible exception of the most extreme xenophobes. I think they deserve to be acknowledged first.

I wrote this while furious, as a stream of consciousness rant, but I have just reread it, and I stand by every word. I am posting it.

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