Being unique should bind us, not divide us

Being unique should bind us, not divide us

When I was at the University of Western Australia, I remember sitting in an honours year tutorial discussing Edward Carr and Geoffrey Elton's historiographical works.

I was finding it increasingly frustrating that my fellow students seemed to believe that for anyone to understand anything, they had to categorise it and find its likeness in something else, which then precipitated judgment based on that comparison rather than its individual presentation.

I lamented the need to box people in, because invariably people were generalised and squished into tiny pigeonholes that only really accounted for part of who or what they were, and then judgment was levied on them out of context.

I was laughed at and told this was very "Eltonian" of me, and I remember getting annoyed and declaring, "No! It's Zoënian of me!"

Even in my frustration about restrictive categories, I was literally being categorised and then judged on someone else's views.

Why am I telling you this? Because labelling others is "a thing", and it can be both good and bad.

That said, it's important we are aware of the role labels play in how we interact with each other. We use labels to build an understanding of others.

By comparing and contrasting with what we already know and recognise, we are able to build a comparative understanding of that which we don't.

If we must label, it should be the first step to understanding others - the starting place perhaps - not where the journey ends and judgments are made.

Disabled. Gay. Trans. Aboriginal. White. Tattooed. Rich. Poor. Old. Young.

No matter the label, whenever you see or hear it, a stereotype appears in your mind based on your own experiences, and those of others who have influenced you.

We so often judge and discriminate based on those stereotypical assumptions, often without taking the time to actually know the person.

Dr Saul McLeod describes social identity theory as stating that a person's sense of self is based on the groups (or categories) they belong to.

It acknowledges that putting people into groups is a normal cognitive process, but in doing this, we also tend to exaggerate the differences between groups and the similarities of things in the same group.

No matter the label, whenever you see or hear it, a stereotype appears in your mind based on your own experiences, and those of others who have influenced you.

This often results in the "us and them" paradigm, where those in the group look for negative things in those outside of the group, resulting in divisiveness, prejudice and discrimination.

When you consider prejudice is defined as "bias which devalues people because of their perceived membership of a social group", the danger of policies like the Morrison government's proposed religious discrimination bill - which allows employers to tell their employees that their sexual orientation will land them in hell, childcare workers to tell single mothers that childbirth outside of wedlock is evil, and doctors to tell patients their disability is God punishing them for their sins - is that the price of this "free speech" will be to devalue certain groups of people. Is this not too high a price to pay?

Many will argue there is no price too high to pay for freedom of speech. Sticks and stones, and all that.

However, when the way we make sense of the world is to squish people into boxes, and then how we interact with that world is to judge people not in the same box as us, perhaps we need to rethink how we use the social categories that are apparently so inherent to our human cognitive function.

It has often been said that what we have in common with each other is stronger than what divides us. And yet we still struggle to accept difference as OK, even when it doesn't affect us personally.

We cannot expect equality within society when we believe our subjective truths make others who disagree somehow less than us, and in need of correction or exclusion.

Since my UWA days, I've come around to the fact it's not the categorisation that's necessarily the problem. It's the way we apply categories.

We all wear many different labels, and this fact both binds and differentiates us. But it doesn't have to divide us, and it certainly shouldn't be allowed to undermine our own inherent value.

This story Being unique should bind us, not divide us first appeared on The Canberra Times.