We’re the Same and We’re Different

Part 4, The Big Sort (in Richard Beck’s series Alone, Suburban and Sorted), elaborates on the clarification in Part III between bonding and bridging relationships, and the idea that we Americans are self-sorting (bonding but not bridging) more than ever.

Politically, ‘blues’ are moving to blue locations and ‘reds’ to red locations instead of living with ‘the other’:

“In 1976, less than a quarter of Americans lived in places where the presidential election was a landslide. By 2004, nearly half of all voters lived in landslide counties. … [A]s Americans have migrated across the country they have located themselves among the like-minded. Choosing neighbors that look and think like they do. The consequence has been that, rather than Democrats and Republicans living among each other, they have been moving away from each other.”

I wonder how much a choice (conscious or not) to be with ‘people like me’ enters into this and how much the trend is a result of which jobs are available where.

Beck says that it’s not just in the political realm that we’re self-affiliating; we’re doing it socially:

“[U]noticed, people had been reshaping the way they lived. Americans were forming tribes, not only in their neighborhoods but also in churches and volunteer groups. That’s not the way people would describe what they were doing, but in every corner of society, people were creating new, more homogeneous relations. Churches were filled with people who looked alike and, more important, thought alike. So were clubs, civic organizations, and volunteer groups…What had happened over three decades wasn’t a simple increase in political partisanship, but a more fundamental kind of self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing social division.”

My question, which may be addressed later (or in Beck’s comments’ section by someone else): Is this trend a result of Americans becoming more and more unable to cope with difference? Or have we always been unable to cope with difference but now have more means for self-affiliating? Or less prohibition or inhibition against doing so?

My sense, from a Girardian perspective, is that humans have always had a hard time dealing with perceived differences among ‘others’ who are supposed to be our equals.  Not a big problem in feudal days, when the social hierarchy was really clear and really fixed, but nowadays, we’re all more or less seen (or know we are supposed to be seen) as equal in social terms. It’s felt as a threat to our being when someone whom I perceive to be ‘like me’ has an opinion (bumper sticker, yard sign, church affiliation, sense of style, gas-guzzling or hybrid car, etc.) that differs from mine, especially if it calls my opinion into question.

The tricky thing is, it’s also a threat when someone ‘like me’ is too much like me, so that I seem redundant, unoriginal, not special, just like everyone else. When there are no perceived distinctions among people, rivalry tends to be at its strongest (think of all the myths with warring twins and brothers), because, again, our being is at stake.

If I perceive you to be ‘like me’ and yet you disagree with me, implicitly or explicitly,  in ways that seem crucial to me, then I will feel threatened, because I interpret your view as something that quashes mine, and you as someone who is quashing me.  It’s as if you are saying: “You are wrong. about what you think or feel or believe. You lack value. ”  On the other hand, if I perceive that there are no distinctions between us, then who am I? What matters about my self? Am I not special? Why do I exist at all?

We walk this line all the time in relationships, and sometimes we notice it. We want to belong but we want to stand out as exceptional. It’s a human struggle, it seems to me.

The books that Beck’s reading seem to indicate that American now are more afraid of standing out, of not belonging, than of being seen as unoriginal and just like everyone else. Does being seen as different now bring more risk or less reward than at other times, in other places?

And perhaps we still find meaningful ways to stand out within our more homogeneous groups, without too much risk. In our church, we might be more traditional or more emergent; in our social groups, we may be vegan instead of vegetarian, PC instead of Mac users, our kids in soccer rather than lacrosse; in our political groups, we might volunteer more for local elections than for national ones, and so on.

We band together in groups of people who are similar to each other, whether politically, socially, economically, educationally, whatever. And, Girard would say, the more alike people are, the more likely that violence will spring up in their midst. A funny thing happens, though:  We want what people like us want, but as we strive to have what we desire and run into conflict with the other — who wants the same thing — we begin to have this feeling that the other person is very different from us.  Perhaps in our homogeneous groups we still feel that we are all so differentiated and distinct from each other, because we humans seem to be able to create a sense of ‘other’ from the flimsiest material.

From a Girardian perspective, one might ask: What will happen as we more and more associate only with ‘people like me’? Girard would predict, I think, that we’ll see more and more rivalry, as perceived differentiation disappears, if it does disappear.  (Maybe it won’t disappear, because we will continue to see smaller and smaller distinctions as meaningful …)

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