Specialism and Our Polarized World
A conversation on the how ethnocentrism created a world of extremism and lack of compromise.
Is the ability to compromise a thing of the past?
Compromise takes a win-win mindset. You have a desire to win something while seeing the need for the other side to win something as well. A compromise doesn’t work unless both parties feel like winners. However, extremism and a win-lose mindset is currently dominating our discourse. Extreme views on politics, religion, and even on the current world pandemic, are the loudest voices at the table. No one wants to let the other side have a victory. The world feels polarized. Discussions are not even happening. Leaders speak through short, uncivil, social media bombs which ignite rancor and violence. Calm voices of reason and civility are mocked and ignored, while the more destructive voices are celebrated and replicated.
There is no compromise anymore because those in leadership have a “win at all cost” or “I win, you lose” mindset. We’ve seen the effects of this win-lose leadership style with the US President who has stated he would help those who voted for him and would not help those who voted against him. It’s a shocking statement, and yet one that was acceptable to a large portion of the country.
Where else do we see this unwillingness to compromise?
How about religion? How many religious organizations refuse services to those who do not live according to their dogma? LGBQT people have frequently been turned away from shelters by religious non-profits because those organizations have been unwilling to compromise their dogma to save a life. Where is the capacity to disagree with someone and yet still love them and help them? It should be noted those non-profits are more than willing to take donations from anyone with any beliefs.
The same thing happens in our families. Young people are disowned by their parents, their aunts and uncles, and their grandparents for marrying someone of a different race or religion, or for having a same sex relationship, or for voting for the other person in the election. We cannot sit with our family across the dinner table anymore without deep animosity, severe judgment, and intense hatred for the decisions of one another. We cannot embrace and love our children for their different paths in life. Extremism has placed conditions on our love.
Conversations are not happening. It’s hard to talk to someone with extreme views who won’t listen to opposing opinions. They become loud, self-righteous, even violent, relying on character assassination, gossip, and fearful conjecture. They must win at all costs – even if they have to make up statistics and “stories they heard” on social media. You must lose. You must be silenced. You must be dominated. There is no compromise on this. They win. You lose. And you must lose in a way that humiliates and destroys you. From Facebook comment sections to White House press conferences, there is no line that can’t be crossed to win.
Why are we so polarized?
Extremists see everyone not like them as the enemy. There is an us vs them mentality in all they do and anyone who is a little bit different is an them or an other. Historically, this ethnocentric paradigm is how mankind has lived since we began fighting over land and resources… and gods. It’s been tribe vs tribe, village vs village, or kingdom vs kingdom for a very long time. After WWII we had a larger, seemingly world-centric group of us with countries becoming allies. However, the allied forces were, by and large, white Christian Euro-centric industrialized countries. They were virtually the same people with the same goals and same beliefs. One of those goals was to defeat Nazism and a deranged man wielding horrific power to kill. He tried to exterminate an entire population of people who were linked through culture and religion. A little less than 100 years later and we, in the US, are looking at extremists who support the same beliefs and behaviors of the Nazis from a modern day leader. And not just a small group of supporters– but 73 million of them.
The US is absolutely in a win-lose state with no compromise to be had. One side is said to be fascist. The other side is said to be anti-fascist. One side must win and one side must lose – there are no half-fascists, right? How we got here is something the historians will be writing about for ages. White supremacy, religious dominance, nationalism, political parties, poverty, classism, social media, 24-hour opinion shows pretending to be news, and leaders clinging to power at all costs are just some of the issues that will be studied for years on how they effected the polarization of a nation.
But I have a term I use to broadly pull all those issues together in to one– it’s called SPECIALISM.
Specialism is what has become of the outdated paradigm of ethnocentrism.
Specialism is an unconscious belief we hold that creates extreme behavior when facing an imaginary enemy. It’s a powerful hidden belief that says I am special and my specialness means I am set above the others. This is not about having a special skill or talent, mind you. Specialism creates imaginary enemies and wars and says I have a special right to survive over others.
My religion is special so I can kill others for this land; My race is special so I can enslave yours; My needs are special so I can break the rules to get my needs met; I’m special because I belong to this certain club, school, or church which holds the greater truth than yours; I’m special because my family has lived in the town for decades; I’m special because I went to college; I’m special because my parents make a lot of money; And so on…
Of course, we don’t usually say that in our minds exactly – it comes out in our behavior. Ever yell at a check-out clerk for a mistake or for not having the answer you want?
Ever demand faster service at a restaurant?
Ever argue with your child’s teacher that it’s unfair your kid can’t retake a test they failed?
Ever demand to be let out of a traffic ticket?
Ever vandalize someone’s property as an act of defiance or revenge?
Ever demand people greet you with your religion’s specific holy day greeting?
Ever demand your children vote the way you vote or marry the person you approve of?
Ever go to a family holiday dinner and loudly proclaim your views and beliefs to be the only right ones?
Ever have road rage when someone cuts you off, but when you cut someone else off you think you had the right to do so because you were in a hurry?
Are you a “spiritual” person who judged someone for not following the same path?
Ever fight someone for a hard to find item on Black Friday?
Yes? Then I need you to hear this – you have told yourself that you are special above other people. On those occasions you believed that you deserved special treatment. This is a win-lose mindset. You deserve to win and the others deserve to lose. This mindset can get heavy and specialness can come across quite angry and forceful. There is no compromising with a “Karen.” (and yes, I hate using word that but at this point it is a universal adjective that makes a clear point.)
I posted on Facebook one time that “everyone is special, so no one is special” and got told off by quite a few people. “My children are special to me!” That’s not the kind of special I mean.
Your children can have talents, or you can have someone who is very dear to you in your heart. That’s when someone is uniquely special to you. I am talking about when someone thinks they are special to the world – the kind of special that leads people to believe they are superior, better than, or deserving of privilege. This kind of special says they should get special treatment and that the “others” are here to serve them.
We might just call this narcissism if there were not a cultural root for specialness. Ethnocentrism/tribalism are the foundation of specialness. We define ourselves by the groups in which we belong and that is ethnocentrism or tribalism Our church, our neighborhood, our school, our town, our state, our country… our race. Most of these groups are assigned to us at birth or by our communities and as long as we go along with the assignments, we are good. The minute we step outside these boxes the world put us in we are headed for trouble. “Stay in your lane.” “Know your place.” “God says you must…” “Only this group is special…” These rules keep us caged in our tribes and we learn very early that our tribes define our specialness. Those who leave these groups often suffer from guilt and shame created by the unconscious belief that those tribes equaled being special.
Ethnocentrism and tribalism once served humanity. Loyalty to a group of people meant a greater chance of survival. It meant greater chance to procure food, water, wood, shelter, and to birth and raise children to adulthood. We don’t need group loyalty for survival at our current level of evolution. We need a tribe for socialization and comfort. And, with social media and the ability to move to other states and countries, our tribes can be global and multicultural. We do not need to be enemies of those outside our tribe anymore. We can choose our tribe. We can live amongst other tribes. Ethnocentrism is an outdated step on our human evolution. It’s more harmful than useful. It creates specialism and extremism.
Think about high school sports and the animosity and vitriol that is spewed at Friday night football games. We’ve all witnessed some fans who become enraged if officials make calls against their team or to coaches who take out certain players. They are special. Their kid is special. They deserve to win more than the other team. They call the other team names and spew hateful vile comments at the other team’s players. The other team is the enemy. For them, this game is not just about kids out there competing and doing their best – it’s a war and those other players and other parents are the enemy. It’s an unkind, violent atmosphere to behold. They behave that way at games because of specialism. When special people lose, they feel disrespected and wronged and take it very personally. They are special and losing only happens to the other people.
And it’s nonsense.
It’s absolutely nonsense that some act the way they do at sporting events… or at Black Friday shopping events…or during presidential elections. They create an imaginary enemy and behave like violent warriors bent on destroying the others because they are the special ones that deserve to survive (win).
What happens when a survival instinct like Ethnocentrism is no longer needed? Where does that need to war with the others go? It goes nowhere. It remains part of our psyche until we replace it. We create imaginary enemies based on our unchosen tribes and every day events turn in to survival events. We tell ourselves that we are special and rules, social decorum, even losing, is not for us. Specialism becomes our response to life and every disagreement is a battle. This is how “Karens” are created. They buy in to their group’s message of being privileged. “Our team is the best!”
Of course, sports are not the cause of “specialism.” I used it as an example of human behavior because sports are something most of us can relate to universally. Humans used to hunt for food and fight other humans for water sources and land – that was once “sport.” Sport now is pretend war with pretend enemies. What was once a matter of survival is now a matter of privilege…of specialness.
Extreme behavior, whether its spewing hate during a football game, disowning a child, or wanting a political opponent dragged through the streets, is all found in the belief that we are special and our ideas are the only right ones and that all others should be thinking, feeling, voting, shopping, and living the way we do. It’s such a strong belief that it feels like a very real matter of survival. It isn’t, but it feels that way.
Specialness is a mental attitude, an unconscious belief – a paradigm. A shift in this single mindset will curb extremism. If we stop thinking we are special above others, we can begin to see everyone as human equals with equal rights to their ideas, religion, and way of living. We can stop seeing our differences and conflicts as win-lose options and respond to life with a win-win attitude and bring back compromise and civility. We see the humanity in one another instead of the enemy.
What would it mean to live with a WIN-WIN mindset?
I teach win-lose/win-win mindset in my marriage class. Win-lose means that “I win and you lose.” In a marriage, is it good for your spouse to lose? No, it isn’t. In a marriage, if your spouse loses, you lose and your marriage loses. That can be applied to every relationship you have.
Let’s look at the sports example again. Yes, a competition is meant to have a winner and a loser on the score board. But losing the game by points doesn’t make someone a loser. Just as winning the points doesn’t make someone a winner. Is it winning to behave like a violent psycho at a game? Is it winning to call players derogatory names and curse the officials? In who’s book of morals and integrity does that make someone a winner? For special people, extreme behavior is winning, no matter what.
In truth, you can be a winner even if your team loses. You can cheer for your team with enthusiasm and be a gracious loser and be a winner at life! That’s WIN-WIN mindset!
The Win-Win Mindset is about behaving with equanimity and understanding the equality in our right as humans to live freely. It’s knowing that you can win when others win.
Win-Win is the foundation of compromise. It says, “we can believe different things but come to an agreement about how we treat each other that works for us both.” And when we stop thinking we are special and deserve privilege over others, win-win becomes an easy thing to do. Winning no longer means survival, it means the way we treat other beings.
Know this: We cannot win in life while hurting other people.
We cannot win in life and watch other people starve and die from disease.
We cannot win in life if behaving like animals is part of the process.
We cannot win in life if all we think about is how to make others lose and suffer.
We cannot win in life and think we are deserving of privilege.
We cannot win in life if we must destroy others to win.
We cannot win in life if it means losing our souls.
I know this blog is going to anger people. It’s quite broad and it’s pointing fingers and it’s pushing buttons. It doesn’t solve much – but it gets the thought process started. Consider what I am saying. Consider that you have areas where you think you have extreme or uncompromising behaviors that come from your thoughts of being special. It is not easy to overcome this shadow. It’s not easy to ask yourself, “where do I behave like I am more special than other people?” I know most of you cannot imagine that you have any sort of superiority thoughts in your mind. But you do. We all do. The beauty of humanity is that once we confront the shadow, we can change it and evolve. We can grow closer to living our life from a place of love.