In or Out? Forming Identity without Excluding Others

Growing up as a nationally-ranked tennis player, I was taught that “in” and “out” was rarely a judgement call. In tennis, the saying goes that a ball landing 99.9% outside of the line is 100% in. (Sure, there were plenty of “accidents” when players called the shot, but the rules were always clear). In everyday life, however, we are constantly making judgement calls — whether conscious or unconscious — about who is in and who is out.

Increasingly, the United States is becoming separated along clear lines. In the aftermath of an impeachment trial, the nation is progressively polarized. One side sees their opponents as bigots and liars, while the other views their adversaries as ignorant and spineless. In much the same way, other lines are being drawn that distinguish friends from enemies — boundaries between religions, nationalities, and values that help us understand who we are.

On the one hand, who’s to say that this line-drawing is entirely a bad process? How are we supposed to know ourselves without knowing the other? Without other people, other beliefs, other cultures, we would lack any true sense of self, purpose, or morality.

“Unlike a drop of water which loses its identity when it joins the ocean,” Indian social reformer B.R. Ambedkar said, “man does not lose his being in the society in which he lives.” Said differently, we develop our identities through comparison and through our relationships to the rest of the world. The key premise is: I am me by knowing you, and you are you by knowing me.

But while there is nothing wrong with forming self-identity, the shortcoming of this relationship is that, far too often, we make damaging assumptions about the “other.”

One such danger is to make hasty generalizations about people based on unrepresentative information. (Check out Purdue’s list of logical fallacies). On a macro-level, a common mistake is to assume that one person can stand as an example for an entire group — that one person’s actions or ideas represent all people with similar characteristics. An obvious example of this assumption is the “terrorist” stereotype that surrounded Arabs and Muslims after 9/11 (even despite the fact that there have been more far-right extremist and white supremicist terror attacks since 9/11).

And inversely, on a micro-level, we sometimes assume that entire groups can represent individual people — that we can know someone’s ideology by knowing what political party they voted for; that we can understand a person’s religious beliefs by knowing where they go to worship; that we can understand someone’s background by knowing where they were born.

These assumptions are harmful because they reduce people to only what’s visible — a devaluation from an immeasurable human soul to a sum total of beliefs or actions. At the most fundamental stage, these assumptions are harmful because they imply that we can truly know the other at all. As Emmanuel Levinas, an existentialist philosopher, wrote: “If one could possess, grab, and know the other, then it would not be the other.”

In other words, the most crucial step in understanding others is realizing the limit to which we can understand them. This is, generally, to recuse oneself from the process of judgement and admit that people are more complicated and more valuable than we understand. It’s to admit we’ll never know why people act the way they do — and that we might not be any different if we had lived their life.

Once we change our perceptions of others — from just nationalities and beliefs to complex realities — we can begin the process of empathy and start treating people as humans.

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