Reading this story on CNN.com got me thinking about how (or if) we apply skepticism when deciding whom we will allow into our social circles.
The article describes the new atmosphere of xenophobia in South Africa, which hasÂ led to the deaths of moreÂ than 50 people across the country, and is destroyingÂ the country’sÂ image as a haven of stability. Photos of a Mozambican manÂ being burnedÂ made the front pages of newspapers around the world last week, causingÂ non-natives of South Africa to flee to refugee camps or even back to countries like Somalia because they fear persecution and even physical harm simply because they are foreigners.
Granted, this is an example from the far end of the fear spectrum, andÂ mass hysteria and otherÂ social psychological factorsÂ no doubt play a roll in xenophobia. ButÂ it’s not a far stretch to think a bit ofÂ skepticism could help alleviate this type of behavior on such a grand scale.Â Taking time to think critically about individuals and groupsÂ would certainlyÂ reduce snap judgementsÂ about people based solely on what square of dirt they were born on.
Now, true xenophobia seems to be a rare bird that only rears its head during or after traumatic events, like a terrorist attack, or a war, or a otherÂ international conflict. It doesn’t seemÂ as pervasiveÂ in times of peace. But other forms of unfounded fear and disdain, such as racism andÂ sexism, live with us all the time, despite the current political and socio-economic environment.
And these “-isms”Â seem woefully bereft of any skeptical forethought. Far too often we hear of atrocities visited upon innocence, not because they are evil or otherwise bad people, but simply because they are different, simply because of things like their skin color or sexual preference.
It takes no critical thought whatsoever to fear or hate someone forÂ such sillyÂ reasons.
But how do we select those we wish to befriend? Do we apply skepticism when we meet someone new? If so, to what extent, and in what form? Do we make a conscious effort to judge people on an individual basis, despite any socially ingrained preconceived notions? What about in this the era of “Internet friends”? How do weÂ accurately assess a personÂ if all we know of them is a collection of electronic blips on a screen? Do we do it at all? How exactly do we determine friend or foe? Is there an overtÂ process, or do we simply rely on instinct?
“There are two kinds of people in the world. There areÂ those who are mostly decent, and there are assholes. Try to avoid the assholes.”Â — Sam OgdenÂ in the Wit and Wisdom of a Saturday Conversation.