I , Me and We

George Herbert Mead made an important distinction between I and Me. His contention was that all of us are both individualistic and innovative beings (I) and social and relation beings (Me). These two interdependent aspects are part of every human being and create an inevitable dualistic plurality between need for autonomy and need for belonging.

These two orientations have some interesting implications for how we look at “We” i.e. our idea of a collective. Many societies (for example, India) have traditionally placed greater emphasis on the relational (Me) side. In this scenario, “We” acquires an all pervasive presence leaving very little space for I. In contrast, the modern day societies place emphasis on I. In this scenario, “We” becomes essentially a convenient collation of I’s, which must exist primarily to serve the needs of the I,  with no distinct identity of its own. In fact, any assertion of salience on part of the We is often experienced as an intrusion and unnecessary limitation to the freedom of “I” to embrace any identity that it wishes to.

Thus, differentiations based on collective identities(e.g. race, religion, gender, etc.) become problematic. Such differentiations are often seen as (and many times are) discriminatory, prejudicial and stereotypes. Reference to racial/gender differences carry with them the risk of being labeled as racist/sexist. Besides the obvious confusion between differentiation and discrimination, there is also the apprehension of dilution of individual salience. While there is an understandable concern that people should not be seen ONLY in terms of the collective identity of their belonging system, often it manifests itself through a complete denial of the collective identity of the individual.  The underlying belief seems to be that human beings are only I and there is no Me in them. Some of the manifestations of this stance are-

a) human beings have ( or at least should have)  unlimited freedom to chose who they are and who they wish to become,

b) messages and influences received from systems of belonging should not play any part in this process of “individuation” and

c) people should be seen and engaged with only in terms of their “personal attributes” and all references to the codings from their belonging system are necessarily prejudicial.

These beliefs are particularly strong amongst people who Joseph Heinrich has called WEIRD( see my blog piece on “Democratic Condescension). WEIRD is an acronym for Western, Educated,Industrialised,Rich and Democratic). Heinrich’s hypothesis is that a large part of our understanding about human condition is based upon this “statistical minority” , which we then apply to the entire human race..

For the greater part of my life, I have subscribed to this perspective of the WEIRD, and to a large extent still do. In many ways, both my personal and professional lives have been governed by this perspective.  However, I am also becoming aware of the limitations that it has imposed on my understanding of people who do not share this perspective. Rather than acknowledge that the relationship between I , Me and We is configured differently  in them, I have been quick to judge them as immature, dependent, parochial and regressive.

I have also begin to realise that in this process, I have actually not transcended the codings of my belonging system, I have merely shifted my allegiance from one reference group to another. Perhaps real “individuation” does not happen with turning one’s back on Me, but only through the difficult path of co-holding both I and Me.

Do share how you have experienced the relationship between I, Me and We in yourself.

 

 

Democratic Condescension

Recently, I came across an interesting term WEIRD- it is an acronym for western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. The term was used by the psychologist Joseph Heinrich and his associates. Their contention was that it is this small group of statistical outliers that provide us with both the producers and subjects of our contemporary psychological knowledge, which we then go on to happily generalise to the rest of humankind.

Heinrich’s proposition made intuitive sense to me but more importantly, I was struck by the incongruence inherent in the notion of WEIRD- on one hand, it suggests a kind of elitist exclusivity ( western, rich, educated) and on the other an egalitarian inclusivity of democracy. What would be the notion of democracy that such a group will have? A possible answer is suggested by the way election results are analysed by most political commentators, who presumably belong to the WEIRD group.

Elections come and go and each one brings its own set of surprises, but one thing which remains fairly consistent is the reaction of political commentators. If the results are aligned to their preference, then the electorate is commended for its wisdom, and if they are not, then the voter is regarded as a naive recipient of misinformation, false promises or other manipulations. One some times gets the impression that the voter is like a student who is being tested and the commentator is the teacher who is evaluating the performance of the student. If the student has given the right answer then he/she receives a pat on the back for having acted wisely, but if the student gives the wrong answer then the teacher admonishes him/her for having got misled and/or being guided by baser instincts.

For example, if the commentator is a Congress supporter then a congress victory will be interpreted as the intrinsic commitment of the electorate to secular,liberal, pluralistic values; but a congress critic will attribute it to the grip of the feudalistic mai-baap syndrome prevalent in the collectivity. Similarly a BJP supporter will interpret a BJP victory as the voter’s commitment to nationalism and development, but a BJP critic will reprimand the voters for having fallen prey to jingoism and divisive communal polarisation.

Thus the content of what the voter is praised or reprimanded for, will vary depending upon the analyst’s preferences, but the process is identical. Virtually all analysts will either praise the voters for their sagacity and wisdom or subtly reprimand them for allowing themselves to be misled. Needless to say, the praises are more direct and upfront, and the reprimands more subtle and indirect and sometimes even cloaked in the garb of understanding (e.g. people are so frustrated,uninformed and neglected that they become easy targets for false propaganda) Simply put, the WEIRD (in this case, the political analyst) puts him/herself on a platform from where he/she passes judgements on the commoner. The WEIRD is democratic but in a condescending sort of way.

This democratic condescension is visible in virtually all spheres of life. Whenever our personal preferences are at variance with the popular, majority trend, we are likely to feel disdainful towards the majority. In fact, the term populist has a definite derogatory association- as though popular appeal necessarily implies pandering to the baser instincts. This disdain for the majority is often expressed through statements like “you know how people are ..” or ” how can people be /do like this.. “If one were to do a simple experiment of collating all the statements one hears about “human nature” or “people in general”, chances are that the derogatory statements will beat the complimentary ones by a huge distance.

I do not have any substantive evidence to support my hypothesis, but I believe that WEIRDs are particularly susceptible to this condescension towards the majority. I say this, because I think WEIRDs are hyper conscious of their separateness and individualised identity. Consequently, it becomes extremely difficult for them to see themselves as a part of the collective. In contrast, the non-WEIRDs find it easier to see themselves as “one of the many” in a community. Not surprisingly, it is relatively easier to mobilise non-WEIRDS into a collective/political force than WEIRDS. The WEIRDS can voice the concerns of a community and even act on its behalf, but it is not easy for them to become a part of the community.

Given the historical split between the elite and the commoner in India, the issue becomes even more complex. However, the recent events suggest that even in the so called “developed” world, there is a huge disconnect between the WEIRD and the majority. I suspect that while the issue has a socio-economic dimension, it also has a psychological dimension. In case of WEIRDs, the “self-image” of the individual is so heavily governed by a certain idea of being progressive and liberal, that it does not allow any space for aspects which do not fit into it. For example, it is very difficult for a WEIRD to acknowledge any religious/racial paranoia,  gender stereotypes or interpersonal dependencies in him/herself. In contrast, the non-WEIRD has no such problem. He/she is often willing to be quite blasé about them, much to the discomfiture of the WEIRD. In fact, the more flak that he/she receives around these issues that more defiant he/she becomes.

In this scenario, it is easy for the WEIRD to take up the role of some sort of moral guardian of a progressive/liberal perspective and look at the majority as vulnerable children who must be protected from the potential regressive influences of vested interests. This only leads to further alienation of the WEIRDs from the majority. If this vicious circle is to be broken, then the WEIRDs will necessary have to step out of their present frozen notions, acknowledge their own vulnerabilities and anxieties and most importantly learn to grace their part hood and ordinariness.