Who are we, really?

Posted on February 14, 2008. Filed under: Music, Musings, Science |

If you’re looking for a romantic Valentine’s Day post, you’ve come to the wrong place! Granted, I am wont to post about the pagan origins of this or that secular or religious holiday, but others are doing that today better than I would, so I’ll just share my views on another form of love.
It’s an old, theme, really: being judged by who we are, not how we look. Many have gone through some approximation of the following four stages in attempting to overcome prejudice:

1. “They are different” (Read: less worthy) than the group I belong to.

2. I want to be able to feel differently. I see the illogic of discrimination, but it’s uncomfortable and difficult to get past many years of programming about stereotypes.

3. I make many efforts to believe and treat people as if we are all equal.

4. We are all one, or equal, and I do not discriminate based on age, gender, sexual preference, or race.

I would say that I’ve been with conclusion #4 for many years, if not most of my life. A fascinating new study, though, tells us we behave in response to many clues known only by our subconscious. We may intellectually, logically, consciously–even spiritually–agree with the statement made in conclusion #4, yet subtle cultural conditioning may still be in place.

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In these times of political campaigning here in my country, USA, I am distressed (when I allow that) to hear news reports on the radio after every state primary or caucus vote. On the heels of “Super Tuesday” and “Potomac” election days, when voters in many states chose their favorite Democrat or Republican, I hear “news analysts” comment on how candidate “A” got “x” percentage of the “white” vote, while “B” got “y” percentage of the “Hispanic” vote. The “male” vote went primarily to “C”, but the “young” voted for “D”. And then there are the multiple results, something like: “Gay, black, female voters who eat noodles on Thursdays voted overwhelmingly for _____.”

Perhaps the pollsters and politicians find all this useful, but segmenting society this way does not help us to value each other, in my opinion. I would hope I’d be able to pick a candidate I thought could do the job decently; not based on my, or their, belonging to “this” race or “that” age group. Every election I’ve ever experienced in my country has had this sort of reporting, but it is of course intensified this time by, for the first time in US history, having a prominent candidate who is black, and one who is female.

Which brings me back to the study. Well, in a minute it will. I’ve heard people say that Mr. Obama isn’t “black enough” or that Ms. Clinton isn’t “feminist enough”. Good Heavens, what’s a person to do? In the study reported on in the wonderful book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, we’re told that the subconscious clues we harbor will influence our choices no matter what we consciously decide. The author reports on perhaps the “worst president in US history”, Warren G. Harding (1921-23). How did such a person get elected? There are many circumstances including being in the right place at the right time, but, people were quoted as saying he “looks presidential”. I leave you to speculate upon what kind of person would have been considered to “look presidential” in 1920, but I’ll bet that many of those qualities would not have applied to either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Beyond this though, there is also the tendency of the press to refer to Ms. Clinton as “Hillary” whereas Mr. Obama is “Obama”. There is still a reluctance to call a female by her last name, without a title. It’s somehow disrespectful, although, it seems to me using her first name only while calling every other (male) candidate by their last names is demeaning to her.

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So, while I will state with great conviction that race and gender do not come into my choice of a presidential candidate, or a job applicant, or a tenant, Mr. Gladwell’s book will say I may be fooling myself. What I find particularly fascinating about the book is that while he commends anti-discrimination and affirmative action efforts as helpful with educating people who don’t even believe in equality, yet, he says they really don’t fix the problem, or at least won’t, for several generations. He cites hiring practices of major European and American symphony orchestras as examples of this. Before a certain procedure was instituted, less than 5% of major orchestra members were female. A lot of this could be put down to overt discrimination, of course. He reports a common belief at the time that females’ lungs were not strong enough to play a trombone (or several other instruments) with good tone for long periods of time. Female writers have long been familiar with this sort of thinking. Many, including the Brontë sisters wrote under male pseudonyms for that reason. Read this for more on that.

While educational efforts could be put into place: “Gee, it’s the 21st century. C’mon, give the poor women and minorities a chance!”, …another orchestral audition method was tried. Potential players auditioned from behind a screen. The hiring committee could not see them, their gender, race, physical stature or how they were dressed—any of a variety of things enabling them to pre-judge the musician. All they could do was listen, and all they could hear was the music itself. Guess what happened?

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6 Responses to “Who are we, really?”

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They chose women 100% LOL! 😉

Oh, I dunno on the Hillary/Obama name thing… I kinda think the reason is because there’s another highly prominent “Clinton” in her family. Well, that was my first thought, and then came a thought about how women spur thoughts/feelings of being personal and men, impersonal. Like, I feel “warm” when I say “Hillary” and a tad cold when saying “Obama.” Not that warm or cold is better than the other, depending on where ya’ live (ha), just the nature of the unadulterated male/female “energy.” 😉

Well, you’ll have to read the book to know for sure, but your guess is close!

I too am bothered by the media’s penchant for breaking us down into subgroups. Personally, I think this is an artifact of the mechanistic worldview that began with the Enlightenment and has become doctrine not only in science but the world in general. People seem to think that the only way we can understand something is to break it down into pieces. Most have little understanding, much less appreciation for more holistic, systemic thinking, especially the media!

I think Obama has great charisma but not sure about his presidential qualities though..I am not into politics much.. Even these days we are still into stereotyped images big time..It’s a shame and I don’t think it’ll change pretty soon, unfortunately..

Great analysis, Joyfulseeker! You remind me that my favorite sentence in the Blink book is: “We have come to confuse information with understanding”.

It’s hard to know who will make the best president, CV, but many of us are ready for a change. It is a shame we’re still dealing with these issues.


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