12 August 2022

Be wary of simple categorisations in conflict

We can render complex groupings as hyper simple in our modern society, writes Chris Porter. Picture: iStock

By Chris Porter

30 July 2022

In Acts 22 and 23 we find Paul dragged before a series of arbiters intent on questioning him about his identity and belonging. They ranged from a baying mob who saw Paul as a quasi-Gentile threat to temple purity, to a Roman centurion wrestling with Paul’s legal citizenship, and a council divided between Pharisees and Sadducees. Each group saw elements of Paul which cohered with their own understanding, and others which threatened the group’s existence. Faced with the reality of a complex world these groups tended towards a violent simplicity to defend their own self-understanding. Furthermore, some of these groups saw their interaction as a nil-sum game, where Paul’s membership within one group immediately removed his identity with another group.  

We too follow similar patterns of rendering complex groupings simple in our hyper-complex modern society. We have categories such as vaccinated and anti-vaxxer, conservative and liberal, Jew and gentile, or in the church liberal, orthodox and evangelical. Not only are these categories a simplistic rendering of reality, but they often do violence – and incite violence – between grouped individuals. 

In their base form these, patterns of grouping and categorising are natural and not particularly controversial. As Eleanor Rosch discovered in 1978, we very naturally draw on the characteristics of cognitive stimuli to categorise them and simplify the world to usable proportions. When surprised by an animal with fur, four legs, and a tail we naturally look for other criteria to determine whether it is a cat or a dog. We apply these categorisation practices to almost every aspect of life, leading to a situation where a 16-category personality test for a job interview or a magical sorting hat in a children’s novel appear entirely logical.  

Therefore, it is also unsurprising that individuals and groups employ similar categorisation practices for their own group and self-understanding. From jersey wearing outside the MCG, to social group-specific slang, we are constantly on the lookout for indicators of groups to categorise people into. 

Lest we think in our Australian individualism that we are immune to this form of simplification and categorisation we need not look far for examples of this in our own city. Throughout the pandemic the categorisation of COVID responses into “Victorian” and “Gold Class NSW” promoted a strong reaction against anything stemming from NSW. This was seen powerfully with a certain group of removalists in August 2021. Indeed, similar group-based and state-based suspicions lead some to cast aspersions over various clergy throughout our own diocese. We can think of this as priming, or preparing people to less-than-consciously respond in a certain way to certain identities. 

More perniciously however is the pattern where certain religious identities also strongly correlated with fears of persecution, and political identity. This was identified by sociologist of religion Samuel Perry. In one study his team found that white Christians who scored highly on a Christian nationalism scale were up to three times more likely to believe persecution was increasing in the following 12 months. Black Christians showed no such belief, no matter their Christian nationalism score. If this priming was not shocking enough, further studies highlighted that many American Christian leaders used these same priming patterns as dog whistles for their audiences, to strongly conflate “white” with “Christian” to the detriment of all others.  

But what does America have to do with Australia? Perhaps a few examples will help the social imagination. Earlier this year I suggested that any archbishop’s election will naturally lean towards an understanding of an effective archbishop as “one-of-us”, as leadership is naturally a collaborative enterprise with dual action between leader and followers. Of course the danger here is that candidates will be categorised by certain characteristics, and that members of synod will only vote for candidates who perfectly represent their group. Worse still, some candidates may be construed as inhabiting one group identity or another based on a primed identity construction. 

Indeed, this pattern already occurs in many of our parishes. Characteristics such as Sunday service style form mental shortcuts for priming other categories such as theological or ecclesiological understanding. All these aspects some under the broad categories of how one understands “us” and the “other” – as I suggested in my Faith Seeking Understanding column in 2021.  

Given that the innateness and power of these cognitive processes of categorisation, is there any way out of the situation we find ourselves in? Some solutions using exposure, interaction, and understanding have been proposed, but this broad “contact hypothesis” does not yield consistent results. In fact, in many circumstances inter-group conflict only seems to exacerbate the inherent group conflict and enmity generated by intrinsic difference. Harking back to Acts 23, the Pharisees and Sadducees in the Sanhedrin had constant and deep contact with one another, to the degree that Paul – a self-declared Pharisee – could invoke a strong point of difference with the Sadducees. Indeed, these two groups shared almost everything in common as Jewish co-religionists, yet single points of difference generated strong invective and polemic. 

Rather an approach to group conflict reduction needs to take seriously the social reality of our humanity. After all, as John Turner famously noted, “All cognition is social cognition”. Therefore, any approach must consider means to deconstruct groups – social categories – and instead embrace some of the complexity that our categorical minds eschew.  

The paradigm set forth a little earlier in Acts is helpful for reducing social conflict. In Acts 10 and 11 we find a church strongly divided over the question of Gentile inclusion after Peter’s foray into Cornelius’ house. In that case the inter-group conflict generated by “Jew” and “Gentile” is initially lessened by the interpersonal – rather than inter-group – interaction between Peter and Cornelius, before finally being cemented by the coming of the Spirit upon the members of Cornelius’ Gentile household. Indeed, these patterns of inter-personal interaction are also seen in a series of studies on inter-group conflict and prejudice reduction from Matthew Hornsey and Michael Hogg.  

But what does this “walking across the aisle” look like in practice? One approachable example comes from the Boogie-woogie singer and pianist Daryl Davis, who found himself as a lone African American in close relationship with many members of the Klu Klux Klan. In biographical documentary Accidental Courtesy one poignant moment comes when he talks about his motivation for cultivating friendships with Klansmen. The overriding question he asks is, “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” From sitting down in a bar with Klansmen, to being invited into their home, this question – and the associated interpersonal interaction – drives the conversation at hand, rather than the groups of white and black. The results show how successful it is, as Davis displays a wardrobe full of Klan robes that were given to him after members had left the Klan. 

Davis follows the pattern of reducing inter-group prejudice to the level of personal interaction, akin to what we see in Acts 10-11. Furthermore, in the church we gain an extra layer of reinforcement for these interactions. Just as in Acts 11 the giving of the Spirit seals the Gentile inclusion into the Jewish narrative, we read in Ephesians 4 that so too the Spirit is our “seal for the day of deliverance”. It is only by this means that we can devolve our natural inclination towards group behaviour to give up “bitterness, wrath, anger” etcetera, and instead relate to one another in forgiveness. 

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