Monday, February 06, 2006

WHAT MIGHT the OTHERS THINK?

In my February 3rd entry about hyphenate-Americans, I referred to something as a “good old-fashioned ‘groupthink’.” So I thought today I’d take a look at that age-old phenomenon.

“Groupthink” is defined as: “The act or practice of reasoning or decision-making by a group, especially when characterized by uncritical acceptance or conformity to prevailing points of view.” [1]

President Kennedy nearly succumbed to the groupthink exhibited by many of his closest advisors and Cabinet members in October 1962, those who wanted him to launch a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. Had he followed their strongly offered advice, he would have made one of the most horrible decisions of the 20th century, and the United States (and the world) would have likely plunged into a full-scale nuclear war.

Instead, the president kept asking questions until he felt he had enough information from enough sources (including the Soviets), and then he trusted his own judgment and made a (well informed) decision, ultimately ending the threat altogether. The president’s brother and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy recounted his recollection of the tense events and groupthink that occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis in his book Thirteen Days.

Technology and communications in 1962 were not what they are today. Yet, though decisions then were made using different tools and earlier methods of information sharing: they were still made. Sometimes those decisions were based on so-called “good” information, and sometimes on “bad,” as they still are now. Today, though, it seems there is so much rapid-fire information pouring into our lives, that it’s easy to relinquish any participation or responsibility we have in the decision-making process. We shouldn’t—especially in the age of the 24-hour news network.

In fairness, it should be noted that politicians are not the only ones who make decisions based on information we receive from sources other than our own personal experiences. We all do. Construction workers, bankers, mothers, fathers, priests, butchers, bakers and, yes, candlestick makers also get the vast majority of their information from friends, family, co-workers, television, radio, newspapers. By receiving this information, however, we often mistake it for personal experience.

Sure, the experience of receiving the information is certainly our own, but the experience of living it or gathering it is not. Therein lies the problem.

We rely on much of the information we receive as being real and true, since it’s needed in order to get through the day the best we can. Which freeway should we take during rush hour? How much are Red Delicious apples at Albertson’s? Where is the nearest veterinary facility? These are all pieces of information many of us will want at some point. And, for the most part, day-to-day, localized information like this is fairly accurate, especially when it’s only simple, verifiable facts we seek. But do we no longer feel safe with our individual abilities to reason for ourselves? When emotions or beliefs are involved, the rules of the game seem to change.

At a party in mid-December I briefly met a woman who politely excused herself, saying she was actually on her way out. As she walked away from me I said, “Nice to meet you. Merry Christmas.” She stopped and turned around slowly with water welling in her eyes and said, “Thank you for saying ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of ‘Happy Holidays’.” And then she stayed another half-hour to talk with me.

See, the game had changed around her, and, while she didn’t like the new rules at all, she continued to play.

She went on to explain that a superior in her office at a movie studio had verbally reprimanded her earlier that week for answering the department’s phone line by saying, “Merry Christmas.” The woman was told by her superior that it was against company policy and inappropriate. The irony lay in the fact that almost every person in the department (and the company) celebrated Christmas, as opposed to another religious holiday, or none.

The tricky part for many of us is that we react negatively only because we think we should. That’s groupthink.

I also wrote previously that “Conforming to a point of view (and subsequent behavior) without questioning the possible or even probable future damage it may do to us is irresponsible, especially around the children who learn from us.” Seems pretty applicable here, too.

Similarly, a longtime friend of mine who also lives in Los Angeles called today. I told her I was writing on this particular topic. She celebrates Christmas yet said she has “always said ‘Happy Holidays’ because I have so many Jewish friends if figured that was safe…”

Safe? Safe? Safe from what? I can only imagine what she thinks will happen if she unwittingly offers a Jewish person good tidings during the month of December by saying “Merry Christmas?”

Well, I’ve done it. I continue to do it. And the response has always been the same: a bright smile and a warm, “Thank you!” The reverse it true, too. Though I celebrate Christmas, when I’m greeted with “Happy Hanukkah,” I am genuinely delighted that someone took the time to actually say something in the first place! And when I know someone is Jewish, I may also say “Happy Hanukkah,” and vice versa. This is, in fact, the respectful behavior many seek in the quest to be ‘politically correct’ and inclusive.

Another friend told me how he never says “Merry Christmas” to anyone because there are “so many Jews I don’t want to risk offending anyone.” When I asked if he would be offended if a Jewish person said “Happy Hanukkah,” he immediately laughed and said, “Of course not!” That’s groupthink.

So why are we seemingly so bent on separating everyone into areas of “safe” existence? Why aren’t we putting an end to this, at least in our own lives? We celebrate our differences best by learning about them, not by judging them, or being afraid to ask others about theirs.

Christmas is a religious Christian holiday. And Hanukkah is a religious Jewish holiday. By combining these holy celebrations and issuing a sterilized greeting of “Happy Holidays,” we are, in truth, offending mostly ourselves and sending the message that all religious celebration is wrong. That message is seriously flawed.

In spending so much time in the ‘groupthink tank’, trying to homogenize all peoples, we are actually succeeding in excluding everybody, and forcing them to retreat into confusion. America celebrates diversity by expressing it. Why don’t more Americans do that?

We must endeavor to stop playing judge, jury and hangman for those around us, deciding how they will feel about us as individuals. On the contrary, we must embrace our ability to learn about each other and continue celebrating the fact that different cultures and traditions exist: including our own.

[1] Source: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition, © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Co.

Friday, February 03, 2006

AMERICANS-the-BEAUTIFUL

In my experience, many wonderful and well meaning folks, in an effort to be ‘politically correct’, spend far too much time separating, categorizing, and labeling their own friends as hyphenated-Americans instead of allowing them to exist under, what in my opinion, is the greatest moniker of all: American.

You’ve probably heard the labels: “Arab-American,” or “Mexican-American,” or “Asian-American.” Yet nobody has once referred to me as “British-Scottish-German-American!”

So what does this mean? Does it means that many people are ashamed to be Americans?

The attempt to be ‘politically correct’ may be stripping America of its most defining quality: the inclusion of diversity. When did being ourselves – being who and what we are – come to mean we can’t live happily together as Americans?

President Teddy Roosevelt (a Republican) said in 1915, “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities … There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.”

And just two administrations later, President Woodrow Wilson (a Democrat) said, “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.”

The other day I saw a young man wearing a t-shirt with an image of raised fist that read: “Black Power.” I’ve seen others wearing shirts that read “Viva La Raza” (literally meaning “ long live the race” in Spanish). Can you imagine the uproar that a “White Power” or “Long Live the White Race” T-shirt would create?

Obviously that would be in bad form, and I’m glad those weren’t hot sellers for Christmas. That said, it’s worrisome that not enough of us are asking why it seems to be important that we celebrate race, color, creed, religion and cultural history — provided that celebration doesn’t apply to white Christians.

Two of my closest friends, who happen to be black, refer to themselves as such whenever we’re together in private. However, they admit that while at work, or elsewhere publicly, they refer to themselves as “African-American.” Neither is African; they’re both Americans. And this is why it’s a problem: they don’t want to refer to themselves as “African-American,” yet they do so because they think they’re supposed to. To add insult to injury, another close friend of mine emigrated to the U.S. from South Africa. He, however, is not allowed to refer to himself as African-American because his skin is white.

This ever-present self-separation of hyphenate-Americans causes damage, to be sure. This damage is perhaps tricky to measure, but it is palpable.

Conforming to a point of view (and subsequent behavior) without questioning the possible or even probable future damage it may do to us is irresponsible, especially around the children who learn from us. Are we aware that we may be teaching children to be ashamed to be American?

Too few of us actually stop and ask why this is happening. I think the reason is because we’re afraid we might get an answer we won’t like. We might find that the oft-obeyed mighty 'Emperor of Politically-Correctdom' has, in fact, no clothes at all. It may have been us all along who were playing a game none of us really wanted or needed to play—a good old-fashioned “groupthink.”

Does this mean we should give up on our traditions? Should we abandon all learning about our various cultural histories? Will “Americanization” mean we all have to think alike? Of course not. That idea couldn’t be farther from reality.

I would simply offer this to those of us who are natural born or have been fortunate enough to become U.S. citizens: We all live in the same country.

It is the hard won right, and the envy of the millions around the globe, to be able to call oneself an American. In my humble opinion, we should each be satisfied to stop there.