The Problem With the World Today

I don’t normally get political or socially conscious on this blog, but damn it, I can’t hold back anymore. Not after the conversation I had with my three-year-old this evening when an Indian gentleman appeared on the TV.

‘Look, daddy!’ my daughter cried. ‘What’s he got on his skin?’

I frowned, unable to see what she was talking about. ‘He hasn’t got anything on his skin.’

‘It’s all black!’ she said.

Ah. The penny dropped. Since an early age she’s been exposed to people of many different ethnicities, but this is the first time she’s mentioned it.

Knowing my response might impact her view of the world, I phrased my words very carefully. ‘It’s not black, it’s brown,’ I replied. ‘That’s just the colour of his skin. It’s perfectly normal.’

‘But, but, he’s a boy!’ she said. ‘He’s supposed to be white!’

As you can imagine, this threw me through a loop. ‘What do you mean he’s supposed to be white?’ I demanded. ‘Who told you that? And who do you know who has white skin?’

‘We do,’ she said.

‘No we don’t,’ I replied. ‘Our skin is a kind of pinky peach colour. Why do you think our skin is white?’

She ummed and ahhed about this, and then started pointing out other people on TV, and saying, ‘He’s white,’ and ‘She’s black,’ depending on their ethnicity.

‘People aren’t black or white,’ I told her. ‘People have different skin tones, from very pale like ours through olive and bronze and all shades of brown to very dark. Like people have different coloured hair and different coloured eyes, people have different coloured skin too, but inside we’re all the same.’

I could have dismissed it as simple childish curiosity, but what really disturbed me was that she somehow knew the manmade categories of white and black – skin tones that rarely, if ever, exist in nature. I have deliberately never spoken to her about race as I want her to treat people as individuals, not as belonging to one group or another. Once you start lumping people together into groups you begin to assign values and assumptions to those groups, and that’s why I’m so determined that she takes people as she finds them – especially living in a county that at the last census was 98% white. The fact that even kids as young as three are arbitrarily dividing people into ‘us’ and ‘ them’ is indicative of the world as a whole, and, I have to admit, makes me fear for the future.

I recently commented on a blog called Pointless Overthinking that asked readers to suggest the biggest problem facing humanity right now. I didn’t have to consider my answer because it’s something I’ve been thinking about for months.

In my opinion, the biggest problem afflicting society right now – in the West, at least – is polarisation: the division of people into discrete, competing and mutually exclusive categories. While this has always been a problem, the last five years seem to have launched us into a face-off with one another that has reached truly frightening proportions, from the level of the individual right up to that of government and state. It isn’t good for any of us and it really needs to stop.

We live in the age of Black Lives Matter, of Fourth Wave Feminism, of #MeToo and MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way); Donald Trump and Women’s Marches; Brexit and Trans-Acivists. Every day we hear about patriarchy, white privilege, rape culture, mansplaining. We’re increasingly being divided by our sex, our skin colour, our sexuality – even whether our genitals match our gender identity. We’re being put into boxes, stripped of our individual identities and judged on the basis of arbitrary characteristics that don’t really mean anything at all.

These days, you’re either left or right; a bleeding-heart Democrat or an evil Republican; a racist Brexiteer or an unpatriotic Remoaner. You’re an oppressed person of colour or a privileged white person; a female victim or a male rapist; a trans or a cis. And instead of reaching across the divide and trying to understand the other side as people, all we’re doing is throwing insults, and spreading hatred, and treating whole categories of people as though they all share the same opinions, the same values, the same attitudes and beliefs.

People blame Trump for this polarisation, but it started before him. He wasn’t the cause of it, but a symptom of the growing divisions that are pushing everything to the opposite extremes and leaving the middle ground empty. People are mostly reasonable, rational if complex beings, and should be treated as such, but instead of finding what we have in common, we’re using terms like racist and sexist and transphobic to reduce people on the other side to simplistic bogeymen. Calling somebody a Communist while they call you a Nazi isn’t going to build bridges – quite the opposite, in fact.

What I don’t understand is how we got here. How did social categories – those things I was brought up to believe were unimportant – become so damned important again? I thought we were beyond the male/female thing, the white/black thing, the straight/gay thing. I thought we’d reached a point where we judged people by who they are rather than what they are. But apparently not.

That’s why we have books like Why I’m No Longer Talking (To White People) About Race: white people are unable to understand racism because of the colour of their skin. And why men are frequently told they are not allowed an opinion on abortion because of their sex. And why the voices of cisgendered individuals are often marginalised, even within the LGBTQ+ community, because of their gender identity. In a society that everywhere tells us not to judge a book by its cover, we are everywhere judging and being judged by our covers. The rich individualities we hold inside are being ignored.

The circus of the Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing over the alleged sexual assault of Christine Blasey Ford by Brett Kavanaugh shows just how divided we’ve all become. Instead of the solemnity and seriousness with which such an allegation should have been treated, it became the focal point for all the  various polarised tensions that exist today, an explosion of anger and judgment and partisanship, of emotion and categorisation. The truth of what happened to those people all those years ago seemed less important than what they represented and how they could be used to score points against the other side.

And there is the truth of today’s world. Political discourse these days is about demonizing the other side and reducing the wondrously individual entity that is the human being to a mere cipher for everything you hate. ‘Us and them’ is alive and well in a day and age intelligent and aware enough to know that such a division is not only dangerous, it is untrue.

So how about we stop treating people as men and women, straights and gays, blacks and whites, trans- and cisgenders, evil this and evil that, and start treating one another as people again? All sides, left and right, male, female, woke and still asleep – you’re all equally to blame. Try explaining your point of view to one another, instead of simply shouting, and try listening to what the other person has to say, instead of hearing only what you expect to hear.

It was 1963 that Martin Luther King Jr had a dream that his children would not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their characters. Those words are as resonant today as they were all those years ago. I will continue to teach my kids to take people as they find them. I just hope that others will show them the same courtesy in return.

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8 thoughts on “The Problem With the World Today

  1. I admire your passion for the subject. Kids are fascinating, and I’m not at all surprised your 3-year-old already knows race categories despite the language you use in your home. Studies show by three they’ve not only learned about race, they’ve also absorbed societal impressions about those races.
    I agree that we need to teach our kids to see people as, well, people. But I’m also one of those folks who believes telling a black or transgender person “you’re just one of us” ignores the reality of the country they live in. Just my two cents.

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    • Thanks for your response. This is exactly the kind of thing I advocate – people who have differing opinions communicating with one another, offering their thoughts, and doing so in a civil and respectful manner in an attempt to better understand the other’s position and suggest something they might not have considered.

      Regarding the ‘reality of the country they live in’, I don’t wish to deny people their experiences. I absolutely acknowledge that the world is full of racist people, sexist people, homo- and transphobic people, and that if you’re a POC or female or transgendered, you’ll likely have been the victim of this type of abuse in a way that I, a white heterosexual cisgendered male, has not. The mistake is to think, as a result of receiving this abuse, that all white people are racist, or all men are sexist, though I fully understand why a person might come to believe that.

      Perhaps a better way of thinking about the issue and moving beyond the polarisation of the us and them narrative, is to acknowledge that differences exist but focus on our similarities. A POC’s experience, or a transgender person’s experience, will differ from mine, but instead of seeing one another as the enemy, I hope we can find enough commonalities between us that we can get along.

      Gillan

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  2. And all of this because we’ve learned over the years how not to accept other people because they’re different. Something that should be common sense from my perspective is tearing the world apart.

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    • I’m not so sure I’d agree that we’ve learned not to accept each other over the years. Humanity, like other species of great apes, has always been fundamentally tribal. I imagine this evolved as a means of survival, in that when fighting over limited resources, you have to favour your group over other groups. Likewise, an outsider has to be seen as a threat until you’ve established whether or not he is. There is safety and security in belonging to a group that protects itself.

      Since humans have been around some 200,000 years, while civilisation has only existed around 10,000 years, I think much of our problems with people who are different is because it’s hardwired into our DNA. What we have to learn is that we ARE now civilised, and while tribalism and treating outsiders as a danger might have worked way back when, in modern society it is destructive and, as you said, is tearing the world apart.

      Gillan

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      • True, but children see their parents behaving differently when they encounter and interact with people from other races. I believe this has an influence as well.

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      • Ah, point taken. Yeah, parents certainly have an influence on who we regard as being part of our group and who is outside it. I think the media also has a massive part to play. When I was four, I apparently told my mother that black people were ‘baddies’. I must have somehow obtained this notion from Disney movies and the TV programmes I watched in the early 80s like The Littlest Hobo and The Fall Guy. Luckily The A-Team came along. I remember all us five-year-olds at school thought BA Baracus was cooler than The Fonz!

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  3. I probably shouldn’t say this but you blog-title is all about catergorizing its author 😦

    I wonder whether the rise of blogs and the way we now have so many discussions with invisible strangers increase the need to find groups to help us to feel that we have an idea where people are coming from ?
    Andrew, another aspie dad.

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    • Hi Andrew, yes you’re right, my blog title does somewhat categorise me!

      What I try to do with my blog, however, is explain to people without autism what it is like to live with it, both the positives and the negatives, to help us all better understand one another. I think being a member of a group is okay, providing you don’t use that membership to distance yourself from other groups i.e. don’t make it exclusive and make sure you mix with and belong to other groups.

      I think you may have something with your idea about the internet fostering group identities. I think perhaps the reason that polarisation seems to have increased is the way people join a group of likeminded people and then stay in it. Everywhere you look you find echo chambers, everyone agreeing with each other and nobody challenging their views until their beliefs become more and more extreme. That’s why I try to explore all sides of something, looking at the Guardian as well as the Daily Mail, the left-wing view and the right-wing view, to get a more balanced, and hopefully therefore more accurate, idea about things.

      Gillan

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