Numerous academic works are conducted about group orientation and ethnic identity and how they generate prejudice, fear of the Other and social isolation. I am not ‘armed’ with the valuable academic essays here. Rather, I try to illustrate the fluid and flexible aspects of our identity on one hand, and how group-orientation fixates our opinions and limits our scope of discussion.
When referring to ‘identity’ here, I’m not discussing an absolute, deterministic value that we carry from birth to death. Our national identity, our race and gender are unchangeable aspects of our existence. However, what varies is the importance we give each element of our identity. Some of us may consider our religion as the most essential aspect of our being, others national identity, gender and even ‘specie’. Furthermore, different situations might stimulate new orientations. For example, my national identity might become more influential to me when I am abroad among people of different origins, or my gender could be more provoking once I sense I experience sex-based discrimination.
Our identities are fluidic but evidently, for most of the human race they are quite static, conservative and taken for complete granted. In our short life span, during our early years we attempt to become the pride of our parents by bringing to play our family’s value systems. Later when we set up a new generation, we naturally wish to inject our opinions and orientation into our offspring. This is what we know, this is what allows us to maintain control continue our tribal lifestyle.
The interests of our group, of our main identities direct our opinions and hopes. But our orientation doesn’t only promote disputes with competing groups and enemies, it creates a rigid stubbornness and complete misunderstandings. We might be influenced by a one-dimensional set of rhetoric that even we think that we have access to a variety of views and possibilities, in fact it is a very narrow scope that doesn’t allow us to understand the experience of the Other. Worse of all, we don’t even know that there is something we are missing, that there is something that our repertoire is not covering.
I won’t continue with the abstract definitions and provide some examples. Let us take a current hot topic in Israel; the right wing supporters in Israel recently complain that the Israeli media is too left winged, too Tel-Avivian, biased with its reports and doesn’t represent the Israeli society in a fair manner. From the right wing orientation, they are not completely wrong. It is probable that the Israeli media is more left-winged than the mainstream of the Jewish Israeli orientation. Observing this situation, the right wing supporters feel anger. It does not occur to them that perhaps the media tries to some extent (and only to a very small extent lamentably) to address not only the Jewish population but also the non-Jew population. Furthermore, the right wing cannot understand that perhaps some of the media navigators simply experience an orientation that is cosmopolitan and globalist. Anyhow, the result is frustrating: an angry right wing that wants a nationalist Jewish media, the media that manifests a Zionist agenda yet is criticized by a significant fraction of society, and Israeli Arabs, who feel that the media does not address them at all. Three dots that cannot be connected.
Everyone who traveled overseas and met new cultures, not as an instant tourist but as a true explorer, knows that intercultural encounters influence our perspective-taking and sometimes even shake our group orientations, or at least bring us to ask questions that we didn’t know that existed. An even stronger life changing event can be becoming good friends (or god forbid- romantic partners) with someone who belongs to our enemy group. Once that our enemy group contains someone who is truly close to our heart, our group orientation changes to some extent. Perhaps this makes us discount our ethnic identity and see ourselves, first and for all as – humans.
Inside our groups we tend to name ‘traitors’ very easily. When one seems to connect him or herself to an outer group, we feel fragile and threatened. We blame that person for forgetting one’s origins, disrespecting one’s ancestors, being easily influenced or instable emotionally and in extreme cases even putting one’s group in risk. Needless to say, our psychological conservativeness leads us to build a shield of stubbornness in these situations. Besides social psychology and the effect of friends and family, our societies employs numerous mechanisms that inhibits the diffusion of identities.
Our identity-orientation is a sociocultural asset that we wish to possess. It is also glasses that narrow our vision, make us stubborn and in very sensitive situations even produce violence towards our enemies or towards ‘traitors’ among our group.
This dialogue of the deaf is indeed frustrating and disturbing. On the other hand, it is exactly this – a dialogue of the deaf, whether this deafness is emotional or intellectual. While some people intentionally manipulate others’ opinions and emotions, in most cases people simple cannot see beyond their own social orientations. Understanding that this firm wall is a handicap rather than viciousness can allow us to exercise some perspective-taking and reduce the suspicion level towards the other, and even towards our friends that are more ethnically conservative than us. Once we manage to contain these different perspectives and not hasten to determine between good and evil, we could slowly slowly become precursors of a reaction where people acknowledge the potential fluidity of social orientations and respect the fact that each of us is free to determine for him/herself how to construct one’s own orientation.