John Zielinski

Well, That’s Different!


I dislike clichés. I really, really dislike clichés. Some, though, irritate me more than others. Those are the ones that people use in an attempt to quell cognitive dissonance while avoiding the effort of actually constructing a valid or even meaningful argument. I encountered one of my least favorite of these this morning.

I was scanning a popular social media site and came across the statement, “We’re more alike than different.” It’s important to note that I’m writing this the morning after the Democratic National Convention ended and a week after the Republican National Convention ended. My first thought on seeing the sentence was, “Really? Are you nuts?”

At some level all human beings do share certain similarities. These are largely the effect of evolution and biology. Certain instinctive behaviors, such as our general reaction to fear, are so strong and well understood that there are actually entire industries that are built on and around them. I don’t think that those were what was in mind when my acquaintance dropped the cliché.

“We’re more alike than different.” What a wonderfully idealistic thought! It seems to imply that because of the similarities between us we should be able to ignore the differences as being insignificant. My acquaintance referred to those as “nuance.” How lovely. It’s too bad that all that one need do is look around to realize that those differences are anything but insignificant.

More than a few scholarly papers have been written over the years that discuss the things that affect a person’s beliefs. Since belief influences opinion and behavior, it’s a strong motivator. Among the items more frequently cited are cultural influences, economic factors, child-rearing practices, religion, education, formal training and general experiences. In looking for physical evidence that correlates with differing beliefs, research from 2007 involving functional MRIs revealed that the reaction of the brain to certain stimuli varied between members of different cultures far more than they varied between members of the same culture. While not quite the legendary “smoking gun,” this did provide intriguing data. There are observable, physical differences in the brains of our group (us) and other groups (not us or them).

Although I don’t generally do this, I want to share some information about myself. Why will, I hope, make sense shortly.

I was born before the first artificial satellite was placed in orbit. As a result, I’ve lived through all of the scientific and technological change that grew out of that single event. 3 out of 4 of my grandparents were immigrants. The fourth was the son of immigrants. I was raised in a southeastern suburb of Chicago. The size of the entire black population in that community of about 30,000 people was 0.1% (~30 people) the year that I entered high school according to available census data. Most adult men in town were blue collar workers in the nearby steel mills or oil refinery. My father was different. He owned his own business. He died when I was 19. I attended a Roman Catholic grade school (one of the 3 in town) and the public high school. I received my bachelor’s degree (BMus) from the largest Catholic university in the United States. I’ve formally studied advanced mathematics, physics, economics, theology, philosophy, computer science and music. I’ve worked pumping gas, as a professional musician and as a professional software developer as well as a couple of other things. My employers have ranged from small, sole proprietorships to large, international corporations. I’m straight and I’ve been married to the same woman for 35 years. There are some other things that I could mention, but I think that this is enough.

Now that I’ve bored you by talking about myself, I want to ask you a question. How closely does the background that I’ve just described match yours? I can tell you that I have some profound opinions and beliefs that are the result of that background. I can also tell you that those opinions and beliefs have changed over time as the result of new experiences and new information. Those changes, in turn, have affected my behaviors. I am not the man today that I was 30 or 20 or even 10 years ago. I’d be surprised – even shocked – if your opinions and beliefs were the same or even close to mine.

As I look at other people, their lives and their experiences there are quite a few things that I can say with certainty. I have no genuine idea of what it’s like to be black or Hispanic or Muslim. I’ve never been on the receiving end of the treatment that I see delivered to them. I have no knowledge of what it’s like to grow up impoverished or as the young child of a single mother. I don’t know what it’s like to be gay or bisexual or transgendered. As a result, I don’t know the effects of keeping something like that a secret or of coming out. Although I have friends whose children or siblings were killed by handguns, I can’t imagine the grief that goes along with that. Lest this be considered a liberal rant, however, I’d like to take a look at some things from the conservative perspective.

Never having lived anywhere but in the vicinity of a major metropolis, I have no idea of what it’s like to experience a lack of diversity of racial, ethnic, religious or cultural opinions or beliefs. I can’t understand the negative attitudes that developed and are perpetuated towards people who aren’t white, heterosexual Christians. My extended family, friends, acquaintances and coworkers aren’t exclusively white, heterosexual and Christian. I don’t know why someone would feel threatened by laws that increase the rights of others yet do not diminish one’s own rights since I’m not threatened by those things. I’m confused by people who say that the rights of responsible gun owners must be protected, yet are afraid of laws that would ensure that only responsible individuals can obtain guns. I can’t begin to understand what drives a morbid fear of the federal government. Similarly, I can’t fathom how one can be fearful of the federal government, yet support a military budget that’s bigger than those of the next 11 countries put together. Never having been truly poor, I can’t understand why those who are support policies that favor the ridiculously rich.

At the beginning of this piece I mentioned the nominating conventions of the two major political parties. Take a look at videos of the proceedings of each. Read each party’s platform. Do those things indicate that we’re more alike than different?

Despite being dwarfed by China and India, the United States is the third most highly populated country in the world based on estimates from the UN’s Population Division. That population, its origins and its geographic distribution create a situation more akin to what one sees between countries than what one typically sees within a country. This helps to explain the differences between us and how those differences manifest themselves.

There are some who will tell you that we should look past the differences between us. I’m not certain that’s even possible. I will tell you, though, that we should recognize, acknowledge and accept the differences between us. Once we’ve come to terms with the fact that not everyone is the same and never will be, then perhaps we can work seriously towards a culture that supports that diversity not just in the present, but for the future.

We either work together or we die together. That’s not an opinion. That’s an observation based on the history of the world. Deal with it.