Homogeneity breeds disrespect

Somebody on Facebook has been spouting anti-University of Michigan jokes. This morning I told him to shut the f*** up about Ann Arbor. I do take it personally, but there's a broader point too.

Jokes about a rival school are a lot like ethnic jokes, or jokes about religious groups or blondes or whatever. A group gets targeted and everbody else gets a few laughs at their expense. If they complain, they're told to lighten up, it's just for fun, don't overreact. All of which tells the victim that their feelings don't matter.

How does this happen? In today's example, it's easy to imagine that everyone in Cleveland is an Ohio State fan. When you believe that, it feels permissible to publicly trash-talk Ohio State's rivals. The homogeneity allows you to split the world into "us" and "them". But when you separate a group out as Others, you create a dangerous opportunity to treat them differently. It's just humor at first, but it can become disrespect, and then maltreatment. (Let's be honest, it's disrespectful to make jokes about them in the first place, and maltreatment to dismiss their feelings about it.) At its core, it's a failure, a refusal, to be understanding of differences.

This is one of the reasons I avoid ideological homogeneity too. I'm politically liberal, and many of my friends seem to be also, but when you get a bunch of liberals together in a room and they start using words like "repuglicans", I get uncomfortable.

I defend underrepresented points of view. It's one of my most deeply rooted reflexes. I do it in science because I want to know the truth, the real truth, and you can't get that by shrugging your shoulders and assuming that the information in front of you is all you need to know. You have to work hard to imagine other ways of seeing the situation. So I try to surround myself with a variety of points of view, and when someone separates a group into Others, I step in to correct that. Well, especially when the Other is me.


  1. My dad viewed this another way. He became a Michigan fan just to irritate Ohio State fans. The U of M fight song was the first song I ever learned to sing. He still answers the phone with "Go Blue" on game days, even though his allegiance to the team has waned. His friends love teasing him about it, and he them. I am proud to say that he is probably the only person in the world with a Michigan football helmet in the bedroom and an Bo-autographed picture of a wolverine hanging in the living room. And yet my sister married a die-hard OSU fan. Somehow they manage to get along. They also don't go for the jugular like a lot of fans do. It's all a matter of perspective and a healthy dose of humor. Sounds like your "friend" didn't have either.

  2. When I was in High School I purposely became friends with the only black kid and the only Hispanic kid. My father was a bigot, and I wanted to show that I was not like my father. Perhaps I befriended them for the wrong reason, but they were definitely good friends from then on.

    I've found myself doing the same thing as I became an adult. I'd see someone on the outside and make certain they felt accepted by me. I think I've developed some kind of waves though because I always seem to draw a lot of people who are...let's say, safely removed from the constant troubles of reality.

    I don't understand the team rivalry thing. I've never been a sports fan. When my sister married a man from Pittsburgh, he and his mother were watching a Steelers vs. Browns game and when the Steelers won, they shouted "In your face!" But we had just moved here from Oregon. What was in our face?

  3. Hi Jill and Bud! Sorry I'm so late getting back to you here. Holiday and all....

    I've never understood the whole sports rivalry thing either. I mean, I'm the guy who did his undergrad at Michigan State and his graduate work at University of Michigan. Not a lot of people in Michigan understood that. But I'm not much of one to identify with a group in general.

    Most of the time it's all in good fun; nobody's too vicious and nobody takes real offense. But when someone is bothered by it, you can't tell them to not be so sensitive. You might as well tell me not to be white. I can't control my feelings any more than my skin color.