The Dangers of Stereotyping and Splitting

There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people. Some are a little better or a little worse but all are activated more by misunderstanding than malice. A blindness to what is going on in each other’s hearts.…. Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see each other in life.~Tennessee Williams

Read the quote above. Read it again. And again. 

After the bombing at the Boston Marathon there seems to be a tremendous amount of black and white thinking going around on social media. For example:
“Americans are ignorant and racist”
“Americans don’t care about what goes on in other parts of the world where horrific tragedy happens every day”
“All Muslims are evil”, 
etc., etc., etc.
These statements are examples of black and white thinking, stereotyping, generalizing, and better known in the psychology world as ‘splitting.’ Splitting can be explained in an article in The Atlantic, The Psychology of Unity After Tragedy : Following a traumatic event such as 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombings, splitting can provide emotional comfort. There’s something profoundly appealing about the belief that we’re an inherently good people and that evil (hatred, envy, violence) is not an innate part of human nature but resides “out there,” in other people. Taking refuge in such a belief assuages our fears and inspires confidence about what lies ahead: after all, we are the good guys, and don’t the good guys always vanquish the bad ones?”

I’d like to address this stereotyping and splitting by saying a few things:

1. Everything is relative: The assumption that Americans are self obsessed, ignorant, and uncaring to what goes on in the rest of the world is untrue but it is also explained by the concept of what is relative (which is experienced by every person in every corner of the world). It is human nature to see our problems as relative to what is going on in our lives. Of course Americans are going to be horrified when something happens in their country and even more so if that is where they live. Other people in other countries are equally as concerned when something happens where they live. It’s survival. It’s fear for future generations. There is nothing wrong with having strong reactions and feelings to events in your world. This, however, does not mean that people can’t see outside themselves. There are plenty of people I know and don’t know of all nationalities that DEVOTE their lives to causes outside of themselves and often in other parts of the world, often sacrificing their own lives and safety. What’s most devastating to ALL of us is when things happen directly to us (we lose our loved ones, our people are suffering, etc.) and after that when it’s close to home (“I know someone who knows someone that was there!”, “I used to live there!”). The point is, caring more about what happens to ourselves does not mean we don’t care about what happens to others. This type of thinking is unfair and ultimately degrades the goodness that can be found in most humans.

2. All Americans are ignorant. All Muslims are evil: Again, this is blatantly untrue. There are varying degrees of good and bad people in every group of people in all parts of the world. You have the best and worst of human nature anywhere you go in the world. You can’t escape evil. If we did have a region where all people were amazing and kind we’d have utopia and everyone would want to go there. 

The greater point I want to make is that I truly believe most people are mostly good. Of course we have sociopaths and psychopaths with no conscience and empathy but at the end of the day we see good people outnumber the bad in droves.  Why can’t we just live in a world where we see the shades of grey and stop criticizing others so much and look to find our commonalities instead? I guarantee the world would be a much better place if we started to look at things as more nuanced and with more compassion. On a smaller scale in our own lives, there are many people we may dislike in our lives for petty reasons but that does not mean they are bad people. It doesn’t mean they have to be in our lives but there are probably reasons they are the way they are. Lets stop criticizing each other and start working together to be a better and more compassionate world.