Remembering Our Common Ground

Infrahumanization occurs when we, as a member of a group, begin to deny some essential human characteristic to an out-group member. Often, this characteristic is intelligence or some other moral or emotional factor. My ‘tribe’ is considered to be the ideal, the standard of being fully human. Thus, almost by definition, the out-group must lack some quality that marks the fully human standard.

Richard Beck
Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality

Pointing the finger at others seems to be a universal human impulse – and an incredibly tough habit to break, even when we’re aware of it. Whenever I’m complaining about how intolerant or bigoted other people are, I’m also actively assigning them labels and stereotypes in the same breath, dismissing them in the same fashion that they are dismissing me. It’s a vicious cycle that goes nowhere – and we all work to keep this cycle intact, day after day.

It’s so easy to feel self-righteous. Too easy.

When I picked up Unclean last weekend, I didn’t realize it would be such a timely read for the election season. (Let it be known upfront that I do not consider myself a Republican or a Democrat. Right! Now that’s out of the way…) In the book, psychologist and part-time theologian Dr. Richard Beck introduced me to a fancy word that summarizes the tendency I’ve been describing above: infrahumanization. When we feel strongly about a certain (ideological, political, or religious) subject and we encounter someone who disagrees – someone who is outside of our ‘moral circle’ – we tend to perceive them not only as less enlightened and less intelligent than ourselves, but also as less human than us.

Now, this is a subconscious impulse. Most people circumvent it once they become aware of it. (Thankfully.) But the problem is that we so rarely are aware of it. We frequently allow this tendency to reign in our daily lives without checking it. The current political climate in America is a perfect example. If you have chosen a side, it’s incredibly easy to demonize members of the other party, promoting the perception of them as awful people who have somehow failed the ideal human standard.

In our haste to infrahumanize, we forget that people are not simple enough to fit our pre-defined labels and categories. Those who think differently from us (or behave differently from us) too often become part of a generalized Borg-Mind in our eyes, a mechanical member of The System that we fight and rail against. We forget that this Borg-Mind contains people: messy, unfailingly complex human beings with faults and virtues, just like us. They cannot be dismissed so easily. And yet we insist on doing so, sectioning them off in our minds in a fundamentally unhealthy way – isolating ourselves from others by denying them basic human traits.

We act like we’re not all in the same sinking boat.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South contains one of my favorite sociopolitical depictions of this problem. The novel’s hero, Mr. Thornton, is a cotton mill owner in England’s industrial North during the 1800s. Boiled down to his essence and stripped of his character quirks, Thornton could be construed as the Republican ideal: a businessman who worked his way up from poor beginnings, owning his success every step of the way. Although he goes to great lengths to reduce the mill’s harsh working conditions, he doesn’t concern himself with his worker’s lives outside of the mill because he feels it’s none of his business. His employees do with their money as they please; they’re responsible for their own lives. As Thornton tells Margaret Hale, the heroine: “Here in the North, we value our independence.”

Nicholas Higgins is a character on the opposite end of the spectrum. A poor mill worker with a strong liberal spirit, he is angered by the fact that the mill workers must give their health (and their children’s health) for the sake of such meager pay, while the Masters continue to grow richer. He forms a union and organizes a strike to demand higher pay, prompting the mill Masters to label him a ‘firebrand’. When the strike fails, all of the mills in the town refuse to give him work.

Near the end of the story, Thornton is slowly losing the mill due to financial factors outside of his control, and Higgins is desperately trying to find work to feed the children of a man who killed himself during the strike. At their lowest points, the two men form an unexpected bond. For the first time, the antagonistic, infrahuman nature of the Master-worker relationship is set aside in favor of a more personal relationship.

Instead of seeing each other as part of a socially or morally inferior group, Thornton and Higgins meet on the same level for the first time: as people, full stop. Both men quickly discover that they share a common ground. Thornton enters the workers’ world, which is entirely new to him. He visits the poor district, spends time with the orphan children, and comes to sympathize with their plight. Likewise, Higgins recognizes and respects Thornton’s honesty and noble spirit, realizing that he does not fit the stereotype of the rich, soulless Master that he has been fighting against. They end up sharing ideas and finding new ways to care for the hungry workers, enabling them to stay healthy and strengthening the micro-economy that all of their lives revolve around.

By giving each other the time of day as people, and not dismissing each other based on perceived irreconcilable differences, Higgins and Thornton are able to enact positive change within their community.

And it all started with the following exchange:

Higgins: You’ve called me impudent, a liar, a mischief-maker.  But for the sake of these children, do you think we could get along?

Thornton:  Well, it’s not my proposal that we get on well together.

If only more people were willing to concede this point.

This is what I have come to realize: positive change always starts at the individual level, and it always begins when one person chooses to acknowledge the common ground they have with their opponent. Sometimes, the only common ground two people have is their humanity – but that should be more than enough. It’s when we deny a person’s humanity that we feel dangerously justified in denigrating them, and that can quickly snowball into worse things. This very same impulse is the bedrock of all war, cultural hatred, and genocide.

The System cannot be dismantled from the outside-in, with arguments, anger, and targeted attacks. It can only be dismantled from the inside-out – when enough people on both sides choose to swim against the tide, rejecting the oversimplified, black-and-white generalizations that the System depends on. The world is far from black-and-white, and we all know it. So why do we insist on pretending otherwise?

Marilynne Robinson once said: “You must forgive in order to understand. Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding.” I think this applies in all areas of life. Sometimes, we need to forgive people not only for their slights against us, but for holding a worldview that opposes ours on some level. I want to tread lightly here, because I know many people have been personally hurt by organized groups before (whether political or religious in nature), and their generalized anger towards that group is justified in many ways.

But as election season draws to a close, I would simply ask this: guard against assuming that everyone in the group you disparage thinks exactly the same way. (They almost certainly don’t.) In your anger, try not to make the situation worse by practicing intolerance and bigotry at the same time you decry another person’s intolerance and bigotry. This will blind you to people as they are.

Opposing voices are absolutely necessary in order to create friction and promote growth in a society. But don’t get so caught up in the argument that you lose sight of the basic kinship you share with your fellow human beings.

Because what can argument and anger really accomplish, in the end? Very little. Meanwhile, love can change everything.

Especially if we choose to love our enemies.

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