On the other end of the phone-line I hear her ask her friend “WHAT’S WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE!?” Her outrage at my inability to solve her mundane and minor problem got me wondering who the hell “these people” were and when I became one of them. We’re all, at some point in our lives, one of those wondering what’s wrong with some others, and one of those being wondered about.
It’s a strange and unpleasant sensation, suddenly feeling pushed into a group of “THESE PEOPLE” you never signed up for. You were born with a number of characteristic that can lead you to be stuck into an outgroup. The place you were born, the color of your mother, the color of your father, the fact that you don’t have a father, the fact that you were born in this place rather than that, the way in which you were born, the size of your feet, your predisposed weight and height, what you have between your legs… I could obviously go on, but if you haven’t grasped the point by now you never will.
There are also choices you make that affect the outgroups you are thrown into. Even choices that were minor when you made them can make a difference. Pity the poor boy whose only clean clothes were black on a day a bully decided he was going to beat up “one of them goths.” Pity, too, the kid who chose to dress that way because he thought he looked cool, or because he thought it would make him cool, or just because he liked people who did it.
Where you’re working, as in my opening example, can provide an outgroup for you to be lumped into. So can the place you choose to live and the manner of dwelling you inhabit there. The type of vehicle you drive is an especially popular one in the United States. Again, I doubt the value of further examples.
Surely these choices and characteristics do have an impact on our lives. I’m not so deluded as to think it’s meaningless that you have two brown-skinned parents and I have two white-skinned ones. But these effects are created by the people who surround our life, and are not in any way inherent in the characteristics. It’s not similarities and differences among people that place them in groups, but the similarities and differences that people treat as meaningful.
Eventually, you realize the utter banality that underlies the in- and out-groups into which people divide the world. And then you can’t really avoid the conclusion that people can’t be put confidently into any groups. That they’re all just people, like you, doing the best they can.