As humans we naturally tend to categorize and compartmentalize. Political left vs right. Male vs female. Race A vs race B. The danger arises when people exert pressures to coerse those that do not conform completely in one group or another. The result is a disturbing lack of middle ground in a culture full of false binaries where individuals lying outside of these poles are often marginalised, ridiculed, or worse are faced with violence.

The following is a visualization of this polarization.

Drag the slider to increase or decrease the level of cultural coersion

A Self-Reinforcing Rigidity

Our brains continually uses what we observe to form patterns, a process which help us make sense of the world, and as a result there is a natural tendency to differentiate and categorize. But we are bad at dealing with blurry boundaries so we create rigid categories from spectrums and gradients. When we do this to society and culture it prevents individuals from being at their natural states; expectations and coersion confine individuals, which feeds back into the observed cultural state making the distinction even more stark. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some individuals are more steadfast in maintaining their position, but many are acquiescent. The desire to belong and to fit in is strong in all cultures, and so we modify our behaviour in response to jokes, derision, shaming, ostracism, or even risk of violence.

In Politics

When applied to politics this breeds extremism and groupthink, preventing fruitful dialogue and discourse between opposing groups. The left-right single dimension is a gross simplification of a complex mix of ideologies and approaches and those that deviate from the group’s platform are seen as having irreconcilible differences and is lumped together with those with much greater difference in viewpoint.

Whether you call it partisanship, tribalism or polarization, in the end the result is a lack of nuance in political dialogs and messages—take for instance the Bernie or bust attitude. Or if one agrees with one clause or one statement by Trump, one is casted off as a supporter regardless of whether the argument has any hint of truth.

Oh, Gender

When applied to gender1 we have better visibility in recent years how gender roles are ingrained in society and how tough it is to unwind it. Despite this visibility it is very common to hear assertions of the type all guys are X, all girls do Y. “All men” think about sex all the time and are less nurturing, “all women” want to be courted and are less analytical.

Languages themselves reinfornce the binary with gendered words or phrases. Don’t be such a girl2. Man up. These presupposes one attribute for all members of one gender, implying that every individual of one gender is always weak and passive while every individual of the other should be agentic at all times3. Both genders are culpable in maintaining this binary with casual comments and often playing it off as harmless exaggeration, but these are micro-coersive forces that add up.

Race and Nationality

When applied to racial or national identity, a desire for purity or homogeneity is present in different cultures in varying degrees. You can see its effect in cross cultural and people with mixed racial backgrounds where “not all adults with a mixed racial background consider themselves “multiracial.” In fact, 61% do not. … about one-in-five (21%) say they have felt pressure from friends, family or “society in general” to identify as a single race.” One seem to have to place one locale or culture when defining one’s identity, denying the possibility of various influences having similar weights.4

In extreme cases, groups try to enforce its loose membership into something stronger going as far as calling those who don’t conform “sell-outs”, that they are “acting white” or that they are “race traitor.”

It’s Everywhere, Sadly

In general false dichotomies can be seen in other areas of culture too such as nature vs nurture, competition vs cooperation, pro-business vs communism, individual vs group.

It’s not good enough to just wave it off as “it’s the way we are”. Societies are unlikely to progress by lapsing back into us-vs-them attitudes, and to move foward we need to be aware of our cognitive biases and actively undermine them.

  1. This particular spectrum is also skewed where females taking on roles traditionally associated with males is empowering, Why can’t boys be like girls [return]
  2. The Like A Girl ad illustrates this wonderfully [return]
  3. There are, naturally, overall group level difference between two populations with different genetic make ups but these are statistical differences and should not be used to judge an individual. [return]
  4. “mixed-race people may not seamlessly blend in with others’ perceptions, but rather be told that they do not belong to a group, or that they must choose only one, contrary to their personal identity.” [return]