Monday, January 8, 2007

First day of school, part 3, and herd mentality vs diversity

The afternoon went well again, although it is a bit of an emotional mine-field in this house at this point. The younger one was riding the most extreme emotional roller coaster. Hysterical in every sense of the world. The elder was steadier, although still fragile. The husband is quiet and a touch cranky, although he hasn't lost his sense of humour, he looks worn out.

A note to any teachers out there...if you have children in your class that don't speak the language...don't give them verbal instructions about things like getting to school early or what the homework is...they will smile and nod, because you are in authority, and then when they get home...they won't have a clue. (No I am NOT bitter.) The elder child is maybe supposed to be meeting some other girl whose name she doesn't know at 8:30 at the school, but we aren't sure, and school starts at 9 normally....we haven't a clue. The elder also has a mass of math homework, but we aren't sure how much she is supposed to do of it as most kids seemed to have had it over the break...again, no written instructions that we could have then studied and learned from. All of you with kids over grade 3 know how hard it is once the school decides to send information through the now supposedly mature enough child - WHAT?!? I am supposed to buy you a calculator, make a costume and three dozen cookies for tomorrow???? And you tell me at BEDTIME!!!!! AND you aren't SURE if it is for this week or NEXT!!!!!!! - picture it in a second language....

Nomad brought this up in her comment on my diversity post a few days ago, and at the risk of repeating myself, I felt like posting about it. Possibly because I felt like my kids were vulnerable fringe types today at school.

Nomad wondered why it is that we tend to drive the fringe members from the group. She is right, we do. I strongly believe that these fringe people are vital to the health of humans as a species and as a culture. We are both animal and intellect. Maybe this drive, this tendency to exclusion lies in our animal selves since it seems so universal, and something that we seem to have to work against.

Neurologically we are trained to group items based on similarity, and to move rapidly over sameness, noting differences. This is both for neurological speed and efficiency, and for survival. We acquire speed as we stop needing to wonder over every single flower and petal the way an 18 month old does, we wouldn't get much done otherwise. Anyone who has taken a very small child for a walk knows it takes about an hour to go one block. It is all new and different, and they are creating categories of knowledge - which can become stereotypes. Adults are faster. (Yeah, yeah yeah, it's a flower already...seen one flower.......)

We also are neurologically designed to pick out differences - although some men seem deficient here, "How could you not notice my new haircut?" - it is normal. This allows us to notice when things come into bloom, when fruit ripens, when the water hole looks different, when the boss is looking ticked off, when the alley looks alarming..... It helps us survive.

Why does this ability to group like together and to rapidly recognized difference sometimes cause us to drive others out? To view an us and a them.

I think it is partially nature and partially nurture. Our animal selves recognize who is in our group, who we can rely on to help us and ours, and who is not part of our clan - tribe - group - nation - club and therefore may pose a risk. I think some of the suspicion is inherent, but I also think a lot is taught. We are taught in myriad ways to let that suspicion flourish and lend itself to greater generalizations about the otherness of the suspected.

But still this does not completely answer why the formation of a group leads to the driving out of others, and the alienation of non-members, since we do it at all levels. The familial -how many people do we all know who have trouble with in-laws, half-siblings, step-families. Undeniably some is personality, but it could not reach such stereotypical levels if there were not a more universal underlying cause.

It happens in school yards, from about age 4 or 5 and on, although with good adult intervention it does not build. Maybe therein lies the answer. That adequate intervention at a young age would stop this process. I think it can and does, but not every child behaves this way. Even at that young an age, some have been taught that otherness is negative. Possibly some are more sensitive to otherness and differences as well, but why does it sometimes play out as negative?

We do it as individuals and as groups when we are adults, and teens are notorious for this behaviour. One of the least pleasant aspects of teenage life in fact is enduring this process which is often done without social graces, and without a route of escape for the ostracized individual, who has to return to the same shunning day after day for year after year.

My guess is that we do in our animal selves have this tendency to form groups and to be suspicious of others, but that our intellectual reasoning selves deny our animal nature and attach specious reasons to our inherent tendencies rather than analyzing them. That was wordy...we tend to be suspicious instinctively, then rather than analyze this, we take the easy route, go along for the ride, and since this occurs at societal levels too, it seems reasonable. What needs to change, in my opinion, is an understanding of our animal tendencies, coupled with a firm unwillingness to allow the continuation of this unthinking behaviour both in ourselves, and in those we could influence. We must be intolerant of this sort of brutish behaviour, whether it is bullying on the playground, racism in the news, or the shoving out of another based on any non-conforming trait, be it sexuality, gender, disability or ability, race, colour, preference, social grace.........on and on and on.

Tie this in with a conscious celebration of our diversity, both as individuals and groups and maybe we will start to get somewhere. I remain ultimately disappointed with the wish for tolerance that was voiced here in Spain during the festivities. The intentions were good, but to my mind, tolerance is simply tooth gritting forbearance of what we ultimately find that too strong? Probably a bit in some circumstances, but not universally.

If we can create circles of people that recognize and celebrate diversity, both in ourselves and in others, we will be a whole lot further ahead than if we merely aim at tolerating each other.

What do you think?

....later note....I must say that my children's experience today at school was positive. They were not shunned, but were rather welcomed joyously into the group. My cynical side wonders if this would have occurred as easily if they had been wearing a head scarf, been a visible minority, or had an obvious disability. I also wonder if it will last.

Simultaneously I am disgusted with myself for that response since we have been so warmly welcomed by everyone here that we have dealt with. Including the children at the school.


Trish said...

Hmm, certainly food for thought...

I am glad they did not feel shunned, that is the worst possible thing.

Beth said...

You're right - we do find what is "different" threatening. And while at times it may be, that's not always the case. I also agree with you that celebrating diversity is far better than the limiting goal of simply tolerating differences.

Glad to hear your girls had a good day - not too traumatic.

traveller one said...

Wow... now that's some post!(Enough food for thought to write a book on it I think).
In my opinion it has to do with fear- fear of the unknown- fear of being rejected- fear of standing out- fear of looking stupid- all kinds of fear. Lately I've been thinking a lot about fear and it's influence on the world and I think it's often overlooked as the source of most problems. When we take away fear we can then be open to celebrating everything- including diversity!

oreneta said...

Trish: I am so very glad they were not shunned too, indeed it has so far - been better than I had hoped for.

Beth: They went off to school pretty happily this morning too, although the eldest was a little angst ridden about the showers after gym. Can't say I blame her one little bit. *shudder*

T. One: I agree with you about fear. We have spent quite a bit of time in the States, and quite a bit of time with Americans in the last few years, and to my eyes, there is a country completely controlled by fear. They don't see it either. Debating a post, but it is a fairly hot topic...I'd have to work up my nerve for that one.

kate said...

Catching up here... This is an interesting analysis! In my Special Ed class, in the unit we are doing right now the teacher presents a distinction between "multiculturalism," defined as the goal of accepting and tolerating differences that occur in a multicultural society, and thus avoiding conflict. Then there is "interculturalism," (a term and distinction I hadn't heard before) that refers to a more open exchange and relationship among different cultures, in which differences are not just "tolerated" but actively embraced as a positive part of society. Not sure if I'm explaining it right, but that's the gist.

Also, recently there was an article featured on aldaily that discusses diversity and distrust of others:
The article was published in "The American Conservative," which of course shows in its treatment of the issues. Still, it raises some interesting questions, whether or not you agree with the premise.

oreneta said...

Kate: thank's for that link, I would love to get my hands on the original paper, rather than the spun version. It is a shame the author of the article didn't tighten up his argument a whole lot though....

The article states that there was account made of income, class etc. I would be interested to see what weight was given to the size of the city...Large cities, especially car dominated ones like LA can be very hard to create any sort of community in, especially if barrios (sorry, it is the word coming to mind as it is similar to the Catalan) or ghettos (there's another,) of ethnically similar groups have formed.

Kids in schools, young one's before they have been taught to hate do not in my experience which has been quite extensive as well as multi-ethnic, display this lack of trust. His example of Ethiopians and Eritreans is a case in point for adults carrying baggage from previous learned situations.

This too however seems surmountable. My neighbourhood in Toronto is filled with both Poles and Germans who arrived after WWII. If you know any history at all, you would wonder why they settled in the same neighbourhood. But they did, and they stayed there together. At our street wide events, all these old survivors are sitting together, having a beer, and talking.

Gives you hope.

That intercultural concept sounds like something I'd sign up for...must do research. I had not heard of it either.

oreneta said...

sorry folks, interculturalism, and I googled it, there is a ton out there....must post.

Dorky Dad said...

I'll provide two cents to this.

First, I think people fear differences and look for commonalities. Second, you see people being shunned most often in school situations because of the kids' maturity. Adults still do some of those things, just not to the same extent, because we've learned that much of that stuff is petty.

oreneta said...

DD: I hope your right. Some do look for commonalities. No question, we get the velvet glove on as adult, but I am not sure it ends...

Worth the two cents:-)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous sister here again - Oreneta - see my comment from earlier post re: diversity comment.
SO glad that everything at school was ok - of course it would be sooner or later with your girls - they are so great - but better sooner. Send them my love.
Tolerance - also think this word is a total compromise - and actually comment to DD: I don't think that adults are better than kids - they just learn to hide it - and express it in more subtle ways - but not neccesarily less harmful. And adults opinions are undortunately more stubbornly ingrained. Of course there are plenty of people who do celebrate diversity as well - otherwise the whole world of art, music, dance, theater and all other creative endeavours would not survive or flourish the way they do. One of my favorite examples in fact is Barcelona - a city profoundly formed by Antoni Gaudi's influence - which was only possible through a celebration of extreme "diversity"!

Nomad said...

Heya...great post.

I expect it has been on my mind lately since our experience here in France has left us suddenly (and quite unexpectedly) very much on the "outside". I think (being the rabid Darwinian and a bit of a naturist) that our herd/exclusion instinct is deeply rooted in our survival mechanism and clan mentality and exclusion historically has meant death in its most basic elements. It is almost like in our efforts to be included we exclude as though it is more a byproduct of our own inclusion than an end in and off itself...sort of like you cannot experience light without dark...

I would say the most universally difficult of all human emotions is to be excluded. This makes me question the relationship between our emotional evolvement as a species and the survival of our species...

Ultimately it is wonderful to appreciate and celebrate differences and intellectually I certainly cannot agree more, though I am not sure how this plays into our current evolutionary road mapmoving forward.

It may also be that we can only function while absorbing only so much more like your analogy of a toddler going for a walk...there must be a balance there.

oreneta said...

Sister: Nice to hear from you...I agree with you about adults not being any better than kids, indeed the I honestly think they were worse. I hope DD is right, but I ain't seeing it.

Thank you about the girls, I think they are pretty sweet too...

Nomad: I hope that once we acquire some language that our experience here in Spain will not involve as much exclusion as you have experienced in France.

I agree that certainly some people feel the urge to exclude people in order to feel included. There is no doubt in what you say that you by definition cannot be included without also excluding as well, although some people seem to be able to balance it better. There is a step beteen describing a group, and then describing the group as better or best. That is where the problem lies to my eyes.