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The hardness of distinction


"They all look the same." It is a cliche, and a bad joke, related to how we view our arbitrary classifications of people.


A friend recommended that I listen to "Seeing White", a podcast on Scene on Radio. It explores questions like: Where did the notion of “whiteness” come from? What does it mean? What is whiteness for?


On the second episode, Suzanne Plihcik of the Racial Equity Institute in Greensboro North Carolina says:

"We know, for example, since the human genome project, that we are what percentage genetically the same as human beings? 99-point-what? Nine. 99.9 genetically the same. There is more genetic variation in a flock of penguins than there is in the human race. There is more genetic variation within groups that have come to be called races than there is across groups that have come to be called races."

I continue to listen to this podcast series that is built on the truths that while racism is a very real experience, the distinctions of race are made up.


There appears to be a societal intent and desire to practice classification of humanity, make up stories to harden the distinctions and validate the classification, disseminating these stories until they become treated as fact. Structures are created to reinforce the stories. Hard structures, with identifiable locations and geographical boundaries, buildings, and institutions. The story telling hardens our internal structures too, manipulating our thoughts and emotions to generate fear, dismiss, ridicule, and dehumanize.


I have learned a lot about this process from connections to people who have been categorized and classified using any number of distinctions related to "disability". I have met many people over my lifetime who have been labeled by such markers as autism, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, Downs Syndrome (and the list goes on), under broader classifications of intellectual/learning/developmental disability, physical disability, psycho-social disability. The range of diverse expressions, experiences, and capacities within the classifications/categorizations is so great that it makes the classification marker meaningless.


I am not knowledgeable enough to understand why we persist in the practice of making harsh and hardened distinctions, and the telling of stories that reinforce them. My simple observation is that it does not seem to be helpful to our thriving and surviving as a species. I am perplexed by our commitment to hold onto the stories that harden classification and categorization structures, even when it is obvious that they bring more harm than good.


There appears to be a pattern of holding onto the illusory stories even when they fly in the face of the reality in front of our eyes, and it is clear that it is not in our self-interest to do so. Recent stories here in the USA demonstrate this pattern of holding onto the illusion of these stories in the face of reality:

  • This impact of this week's Texas freeze rooted in Texan's political commitment to "freedom" and resistance to regulation of the federal government.

  • A nation that prides itself on being the "greatest democracy in history", that has 22 states trying to prevent people from having access to vote.

  • A January 6 insurrection on the US Capital based on people's belief in the story that the election was stolen by citizens who simply and legally cast a vote.

I recently read the Atlantic magazine article, “The Subtle Mindset Shift That Could Radically Change the Way You See the World” by Arthur Brookes. The article is rooted in Brooke's conversations with the Dalai Lama. He offers this as the foundation for the mindset shift:

“Self-centered thinking … is against” nature...For Buddhists, this argument is based not on aspiration, but on simple truth: Individual identity is an illusion; we are, in fact, all interconnected and inseparable from one another. As the Buddhist monk and writer Matthieu Ricard puts it, “Our grasping to the perception of a ‘self’ as a separate entity leads to an increasing feeling of vulnerability and insecurity … This imagined self becomes the constant victim hit by life’s events.”

Brookes goes on to write:

To build a world with more well-being, the Dalai Lama says, we must first acknowledge the fact that we are each “one of seven billion human beings.” Far from meaning that we should somehow recede into a lumpen disindividuated mass, his point is that being one of many empowers us to see sisters and brothers all around us for whom we can show compassion, and who can do the same for us. It can also attenuate the loneliness that comes from a society that encourages us to celebrate uniqueness above all else, creating barriers with others where they should not exist.

I often feel perplexed and naive when I think that the Dalai Lama's mindset makes sense to me. I look around and see the rage and intensity of the commitment of people to hold onto the hardness of the distinctions that separates humankind, from each other, and from the environmental world we live in.


I ask myself, "what am I missing?".






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