The Law of Similars

In Part 6 of his series, A Purple State of Mind, Beck argues that Americans “rarely encounter difference in any meaningful way.” This is because we are alone and pretty disengaged, and because we are sorted, mixing (when we do) primarily with people who are like us and who share our preferences.

Then he writes:

“My concern with these trends is that we rarely get to practice the skills of welcome, debate, listening, inclusion and hospitality. We begin to find difference shocking, deviant, weird and effortful to live with. Worse, as the research on group polarization showed us, separated from difference we grow more extreme in our views, demonizing difference rather than listening and learning to make room for strangers.”

My thoughts:

First: I am fortunate to live in a place, in the U.S., where I am often called upon to practice skills of welcome, listening, inclusion and hospitality (serious debate’s not for me most of the time). I meet and talk with and interact almost daily with people whom I don’t know and who are different from me — on the surface, anyway — politically, religiously, demographically, and in most every way (except race — where I live there’s not a lot of racial diversity; I have to visit friends in the cities and take long train trips to experience that).

I also feel like I am often engaged in conversations with people I know (to some extent) and trust (to some extent) about topics on which we vary sharply. This is particularly in my bookgroup, which is composed entirely of well-off white women from age 45-85! It’s also true in the local Buddhist sangha whose book discussion groups I attend from time to time. I like these conversations with people whose viewpoints vary from mine, and the opportunity for them. I fear losing that when we move.

Second: Beck says that when we clump together as similars, we begin to find difference shocking, deviant, weird, and effortful to live with. Has it not always been so? In past centuries, and around the world now (not just in the U.S.), people seen as too different have been and are marginalised, excluded, called witches, exiled, expelled, banished to asylums and the countryside, scapegoated, killed, set upon by mobs, and generally been made to either change and become more like the group, or to leave the group one way or the other.  There doesn’t seem anything new there. (In current news: Kids attacked because they look different in New Zealand — ‘difference’ can feel especially threatening during the teens and 20s).

What might be new is that as groups become more homogenised, it requries less and less ‘difference’ for one to be perceived as too different to be tolerated — to be viewed as weird, deviant, etc.


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