24 March 2006

Again with the Allophilia

Allophilia is an active liking of other groups (note that it is not xenophilia, which would be the love of strangers, but it comes darn close). While lots of groups of people have respect for other groups of people, it's apparently very rare for actual liking to occur.

This weekend I met a researcher (at my boyfriend's family reunion, but he's not related to my boyfriend, god only knows) of Allophilia at Harvard, where the concept has basically been created and is being studied by their social psychology people. I'd read something about it (Harvard Alumni Magazine or NYTimes Sunday magazine - can't remember.) (No, I'm not a Harvard alum, I just happen to work for one.) But the researcher guy (whose name five days out totally escapes me)was really cool and brought up something that I think was very interesting.

They did a study in group conflict at Harvard that ran like this: a bunch of people were told to come in for a study of left/right brain characteristics. They had been randomly assigned to groups, but told they had been assigned based on whether they sorted a series of dots in a "left" or "right" way. The groups sat at two different tables in the same room and were given a series of non-competitive tasks. But the groups consistently and spontaneously made them into competitive tasks.

Which made me wonder about the things we are randomly assigned to in life. Personalities are not exactly randomly assigned to the bodies we live, nor are we randomly assigned to our parents (not even adoption is random, because the group of adoptive parents is self-selecting), we are not randomly assigned to our religions, ethnic groups, or gender. But: we do not actively chose these things (reincarntion and LDS beliefs in a pre-mortal existence notwithstanding). Which makes all of the groups we defend, imagine exist, create and reinforce the equivalent of sorting dots: it's all imaginary.

Oddly enough, this makes me very hopeful for the future. When the Human Security Report came out, people were trying to make sense of the 15 year decline in violence around the globe. At least one researcher posited that it was due to the internet. Aside from the millions (billions?) of man hours taken up by pornography, the thought was that the internet increases communication, and increased communication lowers violence. I think the internet also does a handful of other things (all of which have been written about better by others, but lets catalogue them for fun).

1) The internet eases (if not outright erases) geographical distances and boundaries. This can profoundly effect geopolitics as land and space becoming increasingly about the private and the public sphere becomes more and more abstract. In some sci-fi utopia the apogee of this would be countries that you as an individual opt-in to, pay taxes to, receive benefits from based on personal choice, these countries would then pay physical "authorities" (see: Transit, New York) for actual physical infrastructure based on the number of members each country has in an authorities jurisdiction. Thus, you could be a member of a country where it was legal for you to get an abortion, but your neighbor could belong to another country altogether. You would both be subject to different laws, police and courts. This will never happen, but the internet is affecting our concept of space, the way the electric lightbulb affected our concept of time.

2) The internet lets you construct your own virtual groups. This is awfully similar to the point above, but is somewhat different. Real world groups often have "important" factors binding them together. These "unchoosable" factors include race, gender and religion (the last to a smaller extent, since I'm sure the definition of any given religion is that you can join: if you can't join it's an ethnicity with a religious-like overlay). But on the internet, people group themselves based on interests, shared loves and hates, philosophical leanings, preferences in books, music and sex. These are things that have traditional been considered "non-important" or "pop-cultural ephemera" at best. But they prove much stronger when people who don't have all the blah-soap-opera-esque entanglements of daily life near each other have to talk with one another. This shows that most of the stuff we consider "important" is more habit, more proximity, than the things that actually bring people together.

3)Internet avatars! Yay for pretending to be somebody else! Yay for identity slippage! Yay for being anonymous! As soon as an individual realizes that the things that make them a member of one group instead of another are things they can disguise, ignore or destroy, the meaning of personality changes. Are you the personality you have when stripped of gender, race, class, religion, and ethnicity? Do you have a personality at all? How do people treat you the same? Different? The ability to look through someone else's eyes may be the most potent weapon available against violence because it can create understanding.

You can't understand something without loving it. We learned that from Ender's Game. And it's awfully hard to destroy the things we love.

And that's how stupid arbitrary dots have given me a bit more hope.


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