Big Tents

Years ago, back in my lawyering days, I had to go to Israel to meet with an Israeli scientist who was a witness in one of my cases.  Even though I was extremely busy, and anxious to hurry off to my next destination, he convinced me to stay an extra day for sightseeing.

In hindsight, of course, I’m really glad he did.  We spent a wonderful day exploring the sites in and around Jerusalem.  He and I had become friends over the years and he brought his wife and 12 year old daughter along.

One of the places we visited was St. James Cathedral in the Armenian Quarter, a popular tourist attraction.  It is a beautiful ornate church, supposedly on the site of the tomb of St. James.  While we were there a priest came into the church, chanting and swinging a censer of burning incense.  The priest had a long gray beard and was wearing a black hooded robe.  Behind him was a procession of boys wearing robes and chanting beautifully.  It was an amazing sight and I’d ever seen anything like it. (I later learned it was the Vespers service and the boys were seminarians from the Orthodox seminary there).

My friend’s young daughter was standing next to me while this was going on. She leaned over and whispered to me, “What are they saying?”

“I don’t know,” I whispered back.

Then she shot me an embarrassed glance and said, “Oh, sorry.  I thought you were Christian.”

I think of that often.  She imagined that if was Christian, then naturally I could understand and relate to what these Christians were doing and saying.  She had no idea how diverse a lot we are.

Many years later I recall a friend who grew up in an extremely strict conservative ultra-fundamentalist family talking about being in an English class when he was in college.  Somehow the subject of Epiphany came up. The professor, knowing my friend was a Christian, asked him to explain Epiphany to the class.  Although my friend was a pastor’s son (and was eventually to become a pastor himself), knew the Bible well and no doubt could easily recite the tenets of the church he was raised in, he was embarrassed to say he had no idea what Epiphany was.  The professor didn’t mean to embarrass my friend.  He just didn’t take into account the diversity of beliefs among Christians.

I suppose we all do that–sometimes assume that people who share a particular religious, ethnic, or social identity all have the same beliefs. We may even take our observations about a group (usually negative and derived from observing a very tiny fraction of the group) and project them onto the entire group.  That’s called stereotyping. Even when done innocently (as it probably most often is) it results in error.

The error is worst when a person who has developed negative feelings toward people of a particular religion, race, ethnicity, social group, etc. (perhaps justifiably) then projects those negative characteristics onto the entire group.  That error has done a lot of damage across the centuries.

Whatever identifying labels are attached to us (religious, ethnic or otherwise), the chances are good that they merely place us inside a very large tent.

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12 comments on “Big Tents

  1. And here I thought this was gonna be all about camping.

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  2. El Guapo says:

    It’s a beautiful country.

    I think more damage is done by groups convincing themselves that they (and only they) are right.

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    • Bill says:

      Anyone who does that is guilty of what I’m talking about.

      Of course projecting that negative impression onto an entire group of people, because some members of the group do it, would be stereotyping.

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  3. Ethnocentrism – one of the few things I really held onto from my degree in Anthropology…the concept of viewing the world, and other cultures, through the lens of one’s own culture. It is impossible not to do this, and it is why Gene Roddenberry was so wise to have the Prime Directive for the crew of the USS Enterprise :). Because “Christians” of one stripe or another have violated the Prime Directive a whole lot in the last several centuries, largely because of ethnocentrism, wrapped up with greed for riches and power.
    Labelling – we humans have an innate desire to categorize everything in our world. Generalizing is most certainly part of that. Despite 4 years of training designed to help me see around my restricting ethnocentric lens, I still find myself putting people into groups that make them like me or not like me. It’s not always bad, sometimes it’s just people who knit and people like me 🙂 (maybe that IS bad), but it nearly always implies that “my” group is in my eyes more acceptable than all the other groups I’ve divided people into.
    A friend has a son who has Aspergers syndrome. Very high functioning, but definitely a quirky kid. For years, she, and most people she was friends with, just saw him as a quirky, very intellectually gifted kid. And then he got into school, and the teachers didn’t see the label quirky, they saw the label challenging. As Spock could have told them, using a negative label changed how people intereracted with the boy, which changed how he responded, which changed his school experience. Not for the better, obviously. And without a formal diagnosis, there could be no “official” help – so his mum had him assessed, and labeled officially, not without a lot of heart wrenching consideration of his future. I’m thankful to say that he’s now in University, much happier, and no one there knows he’s “Aspergers”. As you say, he’s in a much larger tent. He’s just one of the brainiacs…wait, is that a label?

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks for this thoughtful comment. You made me google the Prime Directive. I didn’t remember what it was. Great point. Colonialism is an excellent example of it. Recall too that typically the colonizers believed they were doing good by “civilizing” and/or “converting” the natives. Even some of the exploiters rationalized their behavior (then and now) by claiming they were helping bring “progress.” Now in the mostly post-colonial world we have a lot of damage to undo.

      The reason stereotyping is effective is complex I’m sure. In part I think we have an urge to want pre-existing biases confirmed. Also because they’re often valid as to enough of the group that we don’t see any automatic disconnect when we make the leap to generalizing. Evolutionary biologists say our tendency to negatively stereotype is a remnant of a tribal defense mechanism to fear and distrust groups outside our tribe. It’s a tough thing to overcome and it sometimes requires effort.

      Your friends story resonates with me too, because of our own experience.

      I’m optimistic that we’re moving beyond these old tendencies. Particularly among young people these days (in our culture at least) ethnocentrism seems to be disappearing. Let’s hope so.

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  4. shoreacres says:

    When the divisions, disagreements and stereotyping become part of the dynamics of a group which is, itself, a sub-group, it can become almost amusing. Saying I’m Lutheran doesn’t cut it for a lot of other Lutherans. Thirty years ago, the question would have been ALC, LCA, Missouri Synod or Wisconsin Synod? Then, the ALC and LCA merged to form the ELCA. Now, that group has divided again, and people still are trying to figure out which group to look at askance.

    One of the hardest things for me, as a blogger, is writing about Christmas before December 25. After that, most people think the Christmas season is over. I’ve got a pile of Christmas related posts that never have been finished because, by the time I get done with Advent, everyone else is talking about the Super Bowl. I swear I’m going to get with it this year and finish one or two of those posts!

    On the other hand, I do have a few readers now who know what the season of Advent’s all about.

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    • Bill says:

      That made me smile. 🙂

      I’ve done Christmas-related posts but they were almost always me grumbling about consumerism and the like. These days I’m trying to keep any Scroogism to myself (and trying to be a little less judgmental too).

      I wonder if anyone has looked at how our culture has developed it’s own liturgical calendar. Halloween to Black Friday to Christmas to the Super Bowl,etc. It’s an interesting thought….

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  5. Tina Schell says:

    Enjoyed your post Bill, and also enjoyed the thoughtful comments that followed. I especially agree with El Guapo about the groups who think they are the only ones who are right. That’s why I’m such a big proponent of international travel. Experiencing other cultures and seeing the way others live give us a much better appreciation for the wonderful diversity in the world.

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    • Bill says:

      I completely agree Tina. Experiencing other cultures, and getting to know personally people outside of our tribe (whatever that may be), is the best antidote for bigotry and narrow-mindedness. As the world (and our communities) becomes more diverse, even people who are unable to travel internationally can easily find opportunities to interact with people who look, think and behave differently from them. That does wonders, I believe, to break down prejudices and false senses of cultural superiority.

      Happy Thanksgiving!

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  6. EllaDee says:

    Labels limit us… is an inspirational message with supporting quotes, that turned up in my In-Box earlier this week, counselling against labelling ourselves “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” – Lao Tzu and “As long as I am this or that, I am not all things.” – Meister Eckhart. It applies equally to labelling or projecting onto others.
    Better off to ditch the tent, sleep under the stars and enjoy the magic that is life in all its aspects 🙂

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    • Bill says:

      That is beautifully said! Amen to that.
      And I really love both of those quotes. They ring very true to me. (The Meister Eckhart quote inspired me to add him to today’s post).
      Thanks for this great comment. 🙂

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