Reflections on the Outgroup

Posted by Beetle B. on Sun 05 June 2016

A while ago I was sent a link to I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup. I finally got around to reading it today.

I thought I’d jot down some of my thoughts as I read it. I’ll label my sections to match his.

I

He mentions a story of how people in a town wanted to forgive a noble for killing his reviled brother. The local priest is only conditionally forgiving, and the priest is criticized for being too harsh.

The town soon discovers that it is actually the reviled brother who killed the noble, and stole his identity. The town suddenly wants to exact punishment for the murder, and the priest, as before, is conditionally willing to forgive, and is again criticized, but this time for being too soft.

The priest responds:

It seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions. You forgive a conventional duel just as you forgive a conventional divorce. You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven.

The moral? Look deeper at people who appear “tolerant”. Often, they are “tolerating” what never offended them, but are attempting to win bonus points for it (if only to make themselves feel good).

True” tolerance is finding a way to tolerate that which you find disagreeable.

Tangentially, my views on patience mirror this. I have found that I have a lot of patience for certain things, and almost none for others. A great book that will help you understand why is Willpower. In general, people are patient with entities that give them “cognitive ease”, and impatient with things that give them “cognitive stress”.

I remember reflecting on individuals I knew who I once felt had a great deal of patience with things that I didn’t. I would mentally give them Patience Points. At some point, even before I read the book, I began to wonder whether the reality was that those items simply did not fundamentally bother them as they did me. They did not require much patience to put up with it. Likewise, I handled other things much better than they did. I am not a more patient person than they are. It simply does not bother me as much as it bothers them.

To earn Patience Points, one needs to be patient with things that really irritate them.

III

Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences, saying that ‘it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other’

So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences.

I can relate to this in so many ways. Years ago I mentioned to a friend that when two people are very different (resulting in very different views), there is not much conflict. But when two people are very similar, but are only slightly different, you get what looks like incomprehensible hostility.

Democrats and Republicans are the obvious examples that he highlights. Whenever this is brought up, people from each party will go to great lengths to describe how they are different. But if you’re part of a third party, this all seems amusing. They are merely very vocal about their differences, not about their similarities.

Another example are activist/volunteer groups. The more “activist” their mindset, the more they exhibit this behavior. When I was in college, I tried being part of some of these groups, being sympathetic to their goals. But it was not unusual to witness and experience what seemed like irrational animosity amongst members over trivial differences. Yet they rarely displayed this level of animosity to people not within their group (sometimes not even to those the group was openly in conflict with). A common refrain when this is pointed out was “How committed is he/she (the recipient of the abuse) to our goal if (s)he complains about these trivialities?”

As an example, if I volunteered fewer hours a week than they liked, I would be chastised. Yet people who volunteered zero hours (i.e. the general public) were never criticized. I can understand that project management has an overhead, and managing a volunteer who puts little in can be worse than not having the volunteer at all, but this was never invoked as a reason, and in some cases this was demonstrably not the problem.

As a volunteer, this was frustrating. Why was I, one who was willing to work towards a common cause, held in more contempt than one who is unwilling to help at all?

In those days, I could not understand this, and eventually withdrew from all groups, preferring to volunteer on occasion on one-off events, rather than as part of a club.

Years later, I mentioned this to a good friend, and he responded with an insightful observation:

Activist groups, if they do not guard against it, eventually became a mini-society that is obsessed with the purity of its members.

This explained much of what I saw. Members would continually refine their philosophy behind the group, and a lot of the conflicts arose because one member viewed the role of the group slightly differently from another. The strive for purity guaranteed a conflict. Even though the difference was slight, it was causing “impurity”.

This also explained the criticism of not spending enough hours vs not criticizing those who spent zero hours. The former were nominally part of the group, and must be criticized. The latter were not members of the group and that was OK. The former is making the group “impure” (by not being fully committed), and the situation needed rectification.

Of course, that does not mean the group stops its activism. However, the goal has shifted from doing some sort of “good” to forming a mini-society of people who happen to want to do that “good”. Which is why they reject help that furthers their original goal, but makes their society less pure.

Years ago I read Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X. One thing that stood out to me was his description of how The Nation of Islam treated its own members. While there was always this bluster on the evils of white people, with plenty of posturing on how violence against them may be the inevitable solution, almost all the actual violence was directed at its own members. I think if you look at those cases, they were yet again concerns of purity.

IV

(Less likely, actually. One time a Tibetan lama came to my college and gave a really nice presentation, but if a conservative tried that, people would protest and it would be canceled.)

I snickered when I read this. It reminded me of a (non-Japanese) friend who was obsessed with Japanese cinema. He once remarked on how honorable he found the concept of harakiri. Putting aside what harakiri really was, his perception of it was committing suicide upon a significant failure.

I challenged him on it, and suggested he liked it only because the culture was alien to him. He defended himself by listing the virtues he saw in it. I countered with all the drawbacks (e.g. not valuing learning from major mistakes). He confessed he had never analyzed the concept from that light.

Finally, I finished by asking him how he would view someone from his own culture (perhaps in his own work place) who committed suicide when failing (without using the word harakiri). I think that finally convinced him: He could not find himself viewing such a person favorably. He could view it favorably only because the whole society was alien to him.

The amusing thing about the whole anecdote: I was no different from him. I enjoy harakiri in stories, and likely only due to its exotic nature.

V

One day I realized that entirely by accident I was fulfilling all the Jewish stereotypes.

While I have not had realizations about myself as strongly as he has, this did remind me of something at work. When I was interviewing for my second job, I was a bit fussy about the values of the team I would work with. My concern was mostly on how they perceived success, failure, etc.

After joining the group, it was uncanny how similar I was to most of the team members in certain ways (including those I had not interacted with in the interview and had not played a role in hiring me). They would recognize obscure pop culture references, and had a very similar sense of humor. None of this was discussed in the hiring process.

VI

I gently pointed this out at the time, and mostly got a bunch of “yeah, so what?”, combined with links to an article claiming that “the demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous”.

Most of us (though not all) can agree, if the question is posed explicitly, that Osama was a worse person than Thatcher. But in terms of actual gut feeling? Osama provokes a snap judgment of “flawed human being”, Thatcher a snap judgment of “scum”.

In case you did not read the section, it was about the perception amongst a certain clique of Osama Bin Laden and Margaret Thatcher when each of them died.

Oh boy, I’ve seen so many of these. I want to list personal anecdotes that relate to this, but I can’t find a way to do it concisely. I’ll note that the “Yeah, so what?” is something I’ve encountered way too often.

The shortest example I can think of involves the Israel/Palestine conflict. When I was in college, there were several eruptions of violence between the two sides. We’ve all seen the script: Outrage at one side or the other, followed by campus protests and numerous letters to the school’s newspaper. The rhetoric on each side would be full of appeals to (in)justice, human rights, etc.

But I would not see this level of protest for larger conflicts, where the injustice and human rights violations were objectively higher by an order of magnitude. I would question them on this.

If there was an ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, the response would be a variant of “This is not about Israel or Palestine. This is a simple matter of justice/human rights. We do care about other societies, but right now this is the conflict that is ‘hot’, and we are focusing our efforts on it. You are trying to distract from the current conflict”. (The last sentence was almost always present).

But when there was no “hot” conflict, the same people, when asked about some other conflict that was “hot” would respond with “Yeah, so what?”.

Now since it will be brought up, I have to say up front that: Yes, of course, I could have started a protest about the other (neglected) conflict. I’m not absolving myself from this. Nor am I insisting that those who would protest during an Israel/Palestine conflict protest every single conflict out there - no one has those resources.

But their response is not “I cannot tackle all the world’s injustices. I must focus on one if I want to make progress”. It was “Yeah, so what?”. This makes it a lot clearer that while they may care about human rights, etc, this was not the primary motivator. The reality, in my experience, is that it is because they relate to one of the two sides, and have some affinity for them. Other conflicts in the world are between parties they do not care about.

It isn’t “I care about human rights”, but “I care about the rights of my group”.

VII

In this section, he points out that prejudices and biases are typically much stronger about our thoughts and philosophies than about race or other external features. The injustices are likely greater due to race than, say, party affiliation, but this is because racial biases are between two unequal sides (in terms of wealth and population), whereas philosophical biases are usually between roughly equal parties. It is a worthy read.

Although not specifically about Democrats/Republicans vs race, I have felt for many years that biases other than the racial/gender/nationality/sexuality/religion are systematically ignored. And when someone does act in a prejudiced manner against someone else, everyone wants to shoehorn it as one of the standard accepted prejudices. If you dare question the categorization, you will incur people’s wrath.

As a simple example, if someone says “I want to be with my own kind”, what thoughts materialize in your mind?

If the speaker is a white male, far too many view it as code for “I don’t want non-whites as my neighbors”.

If the speaker is a black person, the view is similar, although somehow often with a less negative perception.

I could go on.

The crazy thing about it is: I want to be with people of my own kind.

You know what? Likely so do you! Almost everyone does!

The key is in how one interprets “own kind”. I want to be with people who share my view of the world. I have been involved with 3 countries and several races. Yet, my “own kind” has nothing to do with any of these. I live with people of my race and feel very alienated. Just as I do when I live with people of other races. I am a minority, not in terms of race/nationality, but in terms of my outlook on the world. The people I meet who are like me understand me, and I want to be surrounded by them. They are as likely to be of any race or religion.

Everyone wants to be amongst their own. Many do not realize it if they are not in a “philosophical” minority.

But yet, saying “I want to be with people of my own kind”, while trivially true, is such a risky thing to say. It will always be misinterpreted. How did we get here?

There is racism, gender discrimination, and sexual identity discrimination. But while there are people who never experience any of these, I guarantee everyone experiences philosophical discrimination.

Yet we do not talk about it. This essay was the first I had seen that goes into it.

IX

And when an angry white person talks at great length about how much he hates “white dudes”, he is not being humble and self-critical.

I really enjoyed this quote. You may have to read the whole section for context.