16 May 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:
- The boys and girls are seated separately.
- The fair skinned and the dark skinned students are seated separately.
- The school uniforms are gone and students in western dress are seated separately from those wearing native dress.
- The urban and rural students are seated separately.
- The non-handicapped and the handicapped are seated separately.
- 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?