Them Versus Us

The first part of this thought experiment was intended to test if my perception of the ‘Other’ was a reflection of nothing more than my own prejudices. It had me revisit repeatedly the same set of objects arranged in different ways to see how my reactions varied in response to the arrangements.

In the second part of the experiment I want to see the picture from the other end. This time I imagine myself to be a member of the set of objects and try to sense how I would feel in the various scenarios.

The setting is still the same – a classroom of children being visited by an outsider. As before, imagine that in the initial arrangement of the class all students, wearing the school uniform and no other marks of identification, are seated in random order.

The subsequent arrangements are as follows:

  1. The boys and girls are seated separately.
  2. The fair skinned and the dark skinned students are seated separately.
  3. The school uniforms are gone and students in western dress are seated separately from those wearing native dress.
  4. The urban and rural students are seated separately.
  5. The non-handicapped and the handicapped are seated separately.
  6. The students are wearing marks of religious identification and seated apart from each other.

In this experiment, the identity of the visitor varies in each scenario. The visitor can be male or female, dark or light skinned, in western or local dress, from an urban or rural background, and belong to the majority or minority religion.

How would we expect the children belonging to the various subsets to respond to a particular incarnation of the visitor? Under what conditions would the responses of the different subsets be the same? Under what conditions would they be markedly different?

There is a larger public policy issue embedded in this experiment. We know, for example, that public housing projects built exclusively for low-income groups ended up stigmatizing the poor. Racially imbalanced neighborhoods (black inner cities, white suburbs) heightened the resentments against segregation. Confining religious minorities to ghettoes fueled social tensions.

In an earlier post we have referred to the difference between ‘bridging’ capital (ties between groups) and ‘bonding’ capital (ties within groups) and pointed to research that shows that the former is much more crucial for social harmony. This would suggest that any arrangement other than a random mixing of the children in the classroom could give rise to fears and apprehensions whether they are justified or not.

We can now extrapolate from the classroom to society. In a region like South Asia where the social order is fractured in so many diverse ways and history carries such a burden of oppressions, we need to make a conscious effort to eliminate the sense of distinctions to the extent possible. We need to strive to see everyone as a citizen or transform everyone into a citizen, equal in every respect, and do away with outmoded notions of majorities and minorities.

We know that human beings are not born with prejudices. Children when allowed to play together are not conscious of differences; it is the early socialization that gives rise to the sense of difference followed by the perception of superiority or inferiority. This is what we need to minimize, if not altogether eliminate.

Is that possible?


  • Vinod
    Posted at 01:39h, 17 May Reply

    In Singapore, the govt housing estates, where most of the people live in, are distributed to owners on the basis of a race calculation. In every estate the govt makes sure that there is a certain percentage of Chinese, Malay and Indian allowing for a little bit of flexibility. THat way, the races are forced to live next to each other and no ghettos are allowed to form. There are still Malay dominated and Indian dominated areas. But these are more dominated by the business and places of worship that exist there. I believe there are also race related constraints on places of worship as well though I do not have the precise details.

    Has it worked in building bridges? I don’t know really. Singapore has not had race riots since the 1960s. There are still racial tensions in place although there is a veneer of racial harmony. I really don’t know if that has helped.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:34h, 17 May

      Vinod, Thanks for this very useful information. This confirms that the thought experiment was not completely off the mark. If the Singapore government is consciously thinking of this dimension, it means that the argument has some validity. Of course, getting to a state of complete harmony requires other things as well and we need to continue discussing them.

      The other value of your comment is that it suggests we can hope to understand big societal issues by scaling them down to situations we can imagine better, e.g., a classroom. We can think of other examples. There was a time when visitors to British clubs in India were greeted by the sign “Dogs and Indians not allowed.” In the US South, there used to be signs on buses saying “Blacks to be seated at the rear” and toilets with “Blacks Only” signs. Schools used to be segregated. In Germany, religious minorities had to wear marks of identification. In South Africa, the racial minority needed internal passports and mixed marriages were a crime. All these were attempts to order society in particular ways. Now we know that all these were arbitrary and discriminatory and were nothing more than a blatant abuse of power. We need to strive to rid the world of all such arbitrary exclusions and we have to start from our own homes, classrooms, buses, clubs and toilets.

      This also reminds me of the remark of an architect: Show me how they build their houses and I will tell you how they treat their women.

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