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.