Social Categorization (according to Groucho Marx)

Misleading title. Sorry.

Paraphrasing an old Groucho Marx line, I would never want to be part of a group that would accept me as a member.  Remember this for later.

I was talking with a friend and the subject of stereotypes came up as we discussed age groups.  Stereotyping anyone can be a slippery slope because we eliminate individuality in favor of apparent norms or generalizations.

We live in a time of gross stereotyping and profiling, resulting in division, fear, prejudice, hate and even worse.  Try it, it’s easy.  Politicians, cable networks, bloggers, everyone is doing it.  Stereotyping saves time and skips to the conclusion.  I’m even guilty of it at times, but don’t tell anyone.

Let me demonstrate with a personal example.  I’m a member of a group that feels threatened and discriminated against. My group is on the defensive against aggressive and militaristic behavior. I am a member of the persecuted old, white guys group. And we’re pissed off. [Editor’s note: this blog contains more than the daily recommended dose of sarcasm.]

It used to be that age, race and gender mattered (as in old, white, male). My group traditionally held the power in relationships, organizations, government, boardrooms and some religions. Now, the paradigm is shifting and it’s unsettling.

Things worked pretty well with us in charge, we preserved the social order and were begrudgingly working to introduce more opportunities for others, but in moderation. Why upset the apple cart?

Okay, now the social science.

Henri Tajfel originated the theory of social identity theory, which basically says our sense of who we are, is based on the groups in which we belong.  And we increase our feeling of self-image by increasing the status of our group, usually in relation to other groups.  Normally, for our group to gain it must be at the expense of another group.

Let’s go to our source of all wisdom. No, not the Internet, American television.  Remember the early 1970’s situation comedy, All in the Family? The main character, Archie Bunker, was a working class, older, white male who had very definite ideas on modern society and social categorization.  He even had a hierarchy of races: 1) Whites, 2) Blacks, 3) Chinese and Japanese, 4) Puerto Ricans, etc.

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George Jefferson and Archie Bunker

He also didn’t think much of women and the younger generation. So, who did he respect? Old, white guys.  (I can hear The Who singing “My Generation.”)  He was rattled by the change he saw, the threats to the social order, and the loss of power to his social group.

In fairness, not everyone who looked like Archie Bunker, thought like him, but many did. Physical attributes are one of the ways social groups define and categorize themselves.  Do we naturally gravitate toward people who look like us, or organizations that represent what we believe in, or groups that reinforce how we feel about something?  Is there safety or comfort in social grouping?

On the other hand, have you ever intentionally sat with people you don’t know or pick people to talk to who do not appear to have the same attributes as you?  I have, specifically to “change it up” as they say.  Meeting new people and engaging in conversation about topics different than the norm (for me) can be interesting and might offer diverse viewpoints and conversation topics.  Some of us don’t venture far from our comfort zones (introvert here), or when we do, we don’t lose sight of the shore.

When we elect to engage with someone with different views or experiences, it can be a very risky encounter, which is why many people resist doing it.  Often for safety purposes we keep it at superficial conversation. Our own identify and belief system can be overwhelmed to prevent any real sharing or even listening. We either tune-out, or we come back arguing.  We listen to formulate a response instead of hearing and processing that information. We can be quick to shutdown listening when it triggers our defensive-response mechanism.   (Let the volleying begin.)

A third option, is an engaging conversation, where maybe we don’t agree, but we hear and appreciate the stimulation interaction. How often does this happen? I don’t know, but we clearly need more of this!

Let’s make this even more interesting.  What happens when two old, white guys have differing views and are in different philosophical camps? Not all old, white guys think alike, unless you get them talking about cholesterol and prostate issues, or ask about their grand kids.  You can appear the same on the outside and be different on the inside.  Different is not automatically wrong, it is just different.

In the just completed election, America took a big step towards diversification.  America is very diverse and elective offices should be more reflective of our diversity. There are still walls and ceilings that prevent women, persons of color, different sexual orientation and younger generations from leadership roles in public and private organizations.  Those walls need to come down.

There are a lot of things that divide us.  Do we more often notice the differences or the things that are similar?  We aren’t born into categories; we create them and place a meaning on each of them.

Groups in general, why do we belong or align with them?  We belong for group identity,  social interaction, sharing a common purpose, learning, and sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves.  As humans there seems a natural gravity to form and belong to groups.  It’s boring alone in the wilderness. And men need other men to discuss sports and get insight on women.  While we don’t live in a feudal system (except for Wisconsin), where unity provides protection from neighboring lords, being part of a military hierarchy established some order and social framework for common folks.  And, the monthly feudal meetings at the manor did feature good pot luck dinners and karaoke.

Looking for the holy grail or the karaoke.

So back to the Groucho line. Would I really want to welcome myself as a new member of the club? I’d wonder what the hell was wrong with the group to offer me membership.  If I join, is the group better or worse off?

Groucho also said, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”


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