We come into the world with open minds, ready to tune in to whatever language or culture surrounds us. But as we lock on to the strongest signals, the others become less distinct. As our sense of ‘us’ develops, our sense of ‘them’ degrades.
This seems to happen in infancy — before speech, stories or stereotypes. Of course, a baby cannot say that a face is different from one it has seen already. But its awareness can be inferred if it pays the new face more attention, for instance by looking at it for longer. When white babies in a Sheffield hospital were shown photos of students from visibly different ethnic backgrounds — white European, Middle Eastern, African, and Chinese — those aged three months showed that they could distinguish individuals in all the ethnic groups. Six months later, that ability would be gone. White babies aged nine months could differentiate only white individuals. Apparently the others all looked alike to them.
New-born babies gaze with equal attention at faces regardless of ethnic appearance, but by three months they prefer looking at faces from their own ethnic group. As their ability to organise their impressions develops, they focus on the kind of faces they see most often. If they tend to see both black and white faces, as in the case of Ethiopian babies who were studied while their migrant families waited to be housed in Israel, they might show no preference between the two. But if the faces floating above them are predominantly of one ethnic appearance, they are likely to build models in their minds based on its characteristic contours and tones.
These findings are unsettling. They suggest that a sense of ‘us and them’, with its accompanying biases, can emerge from vital processes that are not directly concerned with sorting people into in-groups and out-groups. Human beings are social by nature and obligation. Even loners born under a wandering star depend upon others to raise them until they are sturdy enough to wander off. And so an infant’s need to read and recognise faces is more pressing than its need to stand or speak. To recognise people and understand their expressions, it needs to build mental models of faces that it can compare with those it sees. During its first nine months, an infant seems to refine its models by narrowing its focus. In the process, it loses its ability to recognise less familiar-looking people as individuals.
It’s all too easy to see how this can play out. Infants lose the capacity to distinguish individuals regardless of race (in the sense of visible difference); then they gain the capacity to absorb prejudices; and they end up the kind of adults who say ‘They all look the same to me’ as an expression of disdain rather than a statement about perceptual shortcomings. Even without factoring in prejudice, it affirms the lesson on which so much of human history seems to insist: that sympathy for some entails the exclusion of others.
The idea of ‘us and them’ was crystallised in the 1906 book Folkways by the American sociologist William Graham Sumner. In his vision, it wasn’t just ‘us and them’ but ‘us versus them’. ‘The insiders in a we-group are in a relation of peace, order, law, government, and industry, to each other. Their relation to all outsiders, or others-groups, is one of war and plunder, except so far as agreements have modified it,’ he wrote. For Sumner, these relations demanded each other: ‘Loyalty to the group, sacrifice for it, hatred and contempt for outsiders, brotherhood within, warlikeness without — all grow together, common products of the same situation.’
He introduced the term ‘ethnocentrism’ to describe ‘this view of things’ in which one’s own group is ‘the centre of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it’. The term included the tendency for groups to regard others as less than fully human: ‘As a rule it is found that nature peoples call themselves “men.” Others are something else — perhaps not defined — but not real men.’ Sumner saw ethnocentrism everywhere, from Papuan villages in New Guinea ‘kept separate by hostility, cannibalism, head hunting, and divergences of language and religion’, to the great powers, each of which ‘regards itself as the leader of civilisation, the best, the freest, and the wisest, and all others as inferior’. Whether they wielded stone axes, like the Papuans who were still isolated from outside influence by the New Guinea highlands, whether they built ‘dreadnought’ battleships, as the great powers were racing to do, humans would always conjure up an Other to threaten with their weapons.
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/if-we-love-our-friends-does-that-make-us-hate-our-enemies