Blinded by Group Identity

Posted on 16 June 2010

Players in professional sports change teams so frequently today that it is a running joke that fans are basically “rooting for the uniform.”  Whether that uniform may be the hallowed pinstripes of the New York Yankees, Dodger blue, the silver and black of the Oakland Raiders, or any of the other familiar, immediately recognizable symbols of professional franchises, their respective fans identify with the colors and logos associated with the franchise brands.  They purchase team apparel and memorabilia in aggregate volumes that are staggering.  They love their team’s players and hate those of their rivals.  Amazingly enough, when one of the hated rival players becomes a member of their team, the fans embrace that player – with years of animosity melting away as readily as snow on a warm spring day.  Many of the most diehard among them live and die, figuratively speaking, with the fortunes of their teams.

An outsider, or someone with little interest in professional sports, may look upon the dedication and loyalty of such individuals as ludicrous.  Yet, if each of us earnestly examines our own attitudes and behaviors, the vast majority of us would have to admit, even if reluctantly, our own illogical, sometimes shameful attachment to groups based upon externalities.  The groups with which we identify may be the result of external features such as the color of skin, gender, height, weight, relative beauty, or apparent wealth or social status.  These characteristics are our “uniforms,” and we wear these uniforms every day.  Some
aspects of our “uniforms” may change over time; others will identify us for our lifetimes.

Consider for a moment your own attitudes, judgment, and behaviors.  How often do the “uniforms” worn by others affect the decisions you make in your personal or professional life?  Are you more likely to associate, befriend, or hire someone because of his or her skin color, appearance, or social status?

Making judgments based upon externalities and identifying ourselves with groups are learned behaviors.  They begin, for most of us, with that first group with which we identify – our families.  In our total dependence on our parents and other early-life caregivers, we learn reliance and trust.  We bond with our family members and come to view others who look and behave as they do as friendly and trustworthy.  Conversely, we become wary of those whose appearance and observable actions differ from that first group with which we have identified.  During our lives, we will come to identify with many groups, but few will have the lasting influence of our families.

As humans, we have a great capacity for change and adaptation.  Sadly, many of us can never truly trust or embrace anyone wearing a different “uniform” from those of the groups with which we identify.  And, this attitude creates a formidable barrier to the advancement of humankind.

Our greatness, as a civilization, lies in our abilities to work collectively and to build upon the foundations laid by others.  The pyramids of Egypt or the skyscrapers in cities around the world were not the work of individuals.  Our greatest discoveries in medicine or technology, although often credited to an individual, could not have occurred without the contributions of those who had set the table for such breakthroughs with innovations of their own doing.

With our greatest achievements yet to come, we can hardly rely upon the efforts of a single person or team.  We need to break down barriers – allowing us to collaborate with people wearing other “uniforms” to optimize collective efforts in our communities, nations, and world.

Judgments based upon appearances and group identity denigrate the value of the individual human life and propagate distrust, hatred, and often violence between groups and isolation of individuals from society as a whole.  Imagine that your group identity was somehow changed.

If you were horribly disfigured in an accident, would that change who you are at the core of your being?  Yet, you may become isolated from those groups with which you had previously identified – perhaps, avoided, pitied, or derided by those whom you had once considered friends.

On June 12, 1987, standing at the Brandenburg Gate of the Berlin Wall, then President Ronald Reagan made a speech including the exhortation: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”  The Wall of which President Reagan spoke was ultimately dismantled, heralding the joyous reunification of a free and united Germany.

Yet, Reagan’s appeal to the leader the Soviet Union at that time could be made to each of us today.  Peoples of the world, tear down those walls that isolate you from the other inhabitants of this planet!  Look beyond the external and superficial, and you may be surprised to discover that the things that we all hold in common far outweigh our differences.  In that way, we may break down barriers, resolve our major differences, and live in relative peace and harmony.

Is this merely an unrealistic, naïve, and unattainable dream?  Only if you believe that it is so.

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- who has written 408 posts on Write On New Jersey.

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3 Responses to “Blinded by Group Identity”

  1. OL says:

    A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends!

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