Who are these people?

21 Oct

So here are the headlines that crossed my desk today:

  • “Scout Leaders Topple 145 Million Year old Rock Formation” (that would be a Jurassic Era rock formation that once stood in Goblin Valley State Park, Utah)
  • “Happy Tourists Catch Rare Octopus, Beat it to Death, and Eat It” (it was family fun, with Dad leading his 6 and 10 yr old children in the spontaneous vacation activity). Here’s one for their vacation scrapbook:

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And just for the record: the animal being bashed to death here is actually a hexapus, a rare specimen of octopus.

  • “These moronic hunters actually shot and killed a rare albino moose” (by the way, the local Mi’kmaq people had known about the moose for years and not killed it as they considered it a spirit animal)

I felt sick just reading the headlines, and even more so reading about the events they describe (all of which you can link to through: http://observationdeck.io9.com/scout-leaders-topple-145-million-year-old-rock-formatio-1448595030/@laurendavis).

And I will be honest: the unfiltered question that popped into my head was, “Who are these people?”

Yes, I know: “these people.” A phrase cousin to “you people.” I’m not proud of what I’m confessing here. I think it’s a clear example of what I talk about professionally every day:

  • There’s a human tendency to form in-group identities, which invariably creates out-group identities. And part of in-group identity is in-group preference: the belief that your peeps are better than others (as a way of justifying your own value in the world).
  • Knowing someone and not just the identifiers we can use to name them goes a long way in facilitating our empathy with them, not just our reactions or attitudes about their “type.” If all we have are the outlines, then we fill in the details anyway; and if all we have to go on our generalities and stereotypes, then we don’t really bother to see the person, or we can’t because all of our preconceptions cloud our vision.
  • Stereotypes are alive and well, and we have to own our conscious or unconscious belief in them, in order to interrupt them.

To be clear, the “people” I was reacting to: “Americans.” That’s how a friend prefaced these stories: “They’re all Americans.” (Btw, the moose hunters are actually Canadian, which sparked a comment trail in the article about assumptions and what “American” connotes. While I agree with another reader that “American” is a term inclusive of Canada and Mexico and all of South America, I also overwhelmingly hear people use “American” to mean specifically and exclusively “US American.” So I personally use the term “US American” whenever referring to US Americans, in order to be clear. And I ask for clarification when someone uses the term “American,” if I’m not sure they really just mean a subset of people in North and South America).

So my working assumption from the get-go was that I was reading about US Americans’ destruction of nature. In other words, these people are my people. But they’re also not. In each story, the principal actor(s) was someone who looks at first glance to be a white man. And that’s the thing about “our” people: they’re a diverse group, defined by something we all share in common, and also unlike each other in a myriad of ways because being US American, or white or male does not entirely define any of us.

And as someone who identifies with and unlike the people in these stories, what I still find myself wondering is how identity matters in each of these incidents and in all of them collectively: how identifying as the dominant group in the US or in Canada, how having the privilege to be on vacation in another place (even if it’s a remote place in your own country, or the country where you were born but no longer live), and how notions of masculinity and leadership (whether for a scout troop or your own children) shaped what happened to the albino moose, to the Jurassic rock formation, and to the rare hexapus. Because I don’t believe these were just about three different sets of people. These were about how are identities in the world shape how we treat the world.

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