By Owen Auch, ’15
When Patricia Arquette, the winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, delivered an acceptance speech promoting wage equality for women, she received fervent applause. But when asked to elaborate in the press room, a chillingly familiar narrative was set in motion.
“It’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for [women] now,” said Arquette as part of a longer statement.
What may have been a simple slip of the tongue quickly turned applause into attacks. Arquette’s noble intentions were forgotten as her comment, seen as excluding women of color and gay women from equality, and her race made her a perpetrator of “feminist whitesplaining.” Social media exploded as critics of the comment continued to pile on the abuse gleefully.
The reaction to Arquette’s comment is just one example of the daily social media barrage against a new outrage that offends people on account of race, sex or other factors. While taking offense to intolerant actions is entirely justified, our reactions when offended today has caused public debate on social issues to suffer as the merit of ideas is decided by the race or sex of the person offering them.
As humans, we naturally form tribes within society, often based on arbitrary factors. In his book, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Harvard social psychologist Mahzarin Banajee argues that we are hardwired to sort others into groups based on physical characteristics, and stereotype them based on these associations. Individuals often base their identities heavily on these groups or tribes made up of people of the same race, sex, age or sexual orientation, feeling connections to those like them and distance from those different.
The constant outrages presented by social media ingrain these tribal identities deeper into our psyche. When offended or attacked on account these identities, we draw in tighter with those like us and define ourselves more by these characteristics. Empathy fades as outrage feeds a consistent message to those involved: You can’t trust those who are different than you.
This distrust is evident in public debate today. Ideas and arguments are ignored or berated because the person that offers them isn’t of the right race or sex. Meaningful conversation about racial or sexual equality in America has become rarer as each side resorts to buzzwords, outrage and attacks on identity to advance its agenda. We’ve certainly reached the graveyard of public discourse when we can’t have a discussion about gender equality without constant attacks on men for “mansplaining” and persistent portrayals of women as radical feminists.
The definition of ourselves and others by a racial, sexual or other tribal identity hinders our efforts to move towards equality. While imperfect, society operates effectively under the assumption that in the free competition of ideas, the best ideas will win. By willfully ignoring the perspectives of groups of people based on characteristics they cannot control, we ensure that the result of competition between ideas will be at best imperfect, and at worst counterproductive and harmful.
But tribalism, while natural, is not inescapable. Studies show that there are two surefire ways to lessen the tribal polarization of society: diversity and interdependence. Increasing our contact with people of different races allows us to see our similarities with them and lessens the grip of tribal loyalty. And interdependence helps us to reject discriminatory views in favor of motivations to create, innovate and earn money. But most of all, we need to consciously reject the notion that our tribal identity is our most important definition. While people still allow themselves to be defined by their race or sex, tribalism will continue to reign.
There is still a great deal of progress to be made in ensuring political, economic and social equality for women and people of color, among other minority groups, but society will never alleviate these problems through tribal politics. Instead, we need to reject rigid tribal identities to stop the cycle of outrage and truly work for change.