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Same place; same time


Someone I know recently described an impasse this way:

“Maybe the best way to describe it is as people who only care about themselves in one group, and people who believe in the greater good in the other group.”

“Which group are we in?” I asked.

Okay humans, you and I, listen up. We can stand in the same place at the same time, and look in the same direction, and yet we take a different sample of what’s coming at us from our surroundings.

School of Athens

Artist: Raphael

Center figures: Plato and Aristotle

Sometimes the sample the next person takes is a little different; sometimes it’s so different, we can wonder if we’re the same species.

And it’s the human condition to assume the person taking a different sample is less intelligent, less moral, and less careful than we are.

Our studied observations of humans over time and worldwide suggest it’s more likely they just do different stupid, bad, and careless things than you and I do. With notable exceptions, their frequency of these behaviors is the same as yours and mine, it’s the targets that are different.

And when I work with people experiencing workload overwhelm, often it’s the result of either not delegating, or of picking up after others, while invoking the bromide: “If you want a job done right, do it yourself.”

The difficulty with delegating is not that the other will make more mistakes than you and I: it’s that they’ll make different mistakes. You and I understand our mistakes and have mostly learned how to recover from them. People’s different mistakes activate, “How could you?”

And other’s decisions made from a different point of view, also activate, “How could you?”

And these viewpoints form a continuum. There’s no us; no them. Some of us can cluster broadly around a point of view; nonetheless, there’s no sharp line making a boundary: there’s only you and I standing in the same place at the same time, taking different samples.

Social distancing exacerbates these differences. I grew up in Boston. When Bostonians are isolated in our cars, we’re notoriously rude. At the same time, stop us on the sidewalk to ask directions; we’re notoriously thoughtful.

More than ever now, we have tough work to do as a collective, now under conditions of maintaining physical distance. We are losing same place; same time. Our deep cognitive bias in these circumstances is to retreat into us versus them.

Therefore, be conscious of groupthink. When you and I hear “right” and “left.” That country; our country. Let’s tread carefully. We need moral cohesion at this time of social distancing.

In particular, let’s catch ourselves when we say or think, “them.” Let’s take a courageous look at what criteria we use to make them: “them.” Collective pronouns can include or divide.

Let’s move from othering to “you and me.” You might find you and I are equally intelligent, careful, and moral humans with a different point of view to share and different mistakes to make. Nonetheless, we can still walk side by side.

If you’re in Boston when we can meet face to face again, stop me and ask for directions to Old Ironsides. You might find I walk there with you.

-- Frank

More on othering: What am I missing?


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