The Well: Will There Always Be Outcasts?

I’ve long been interested in why human societies have always had outcasts and why, even in modern times, we appear unable – or unwilling – to live without them.

This wonder has seeped into my fiction. At the climax of The Book of Rachael, Rachael skulks on the edge of a mob struggling to make sense of the brutal execution of her rebellious brother, Joshua. But the group seeks more than understanding. They are also determined to strengthen the bonds between themselves. They achieve this by making Rachael an outcast.

*‘The murder of [Joshua] must be avenged!’ Cephas’s fist rose towards the sky. The men rubbed their hands together and grunted their assent. Revenge! For the life of their leader, their own lost honour!

But once the men faced up to the disappointing fact that the betrayer could not be killed for his crime because he was already dead, they would look for someone else to pay. Someone whose kinship with the betrayer demonstrated her guilt and put beyond question the rectitude of exacting payment from her in blood. In this way would the mob affirm who they were becoming by whom they reviled.

Moments later, I was in full flight, tearing towards the east. Running for my life.’[1]*

Excluding others is a key means by which human beings cement their own membership of the in-group. Humans are social creatures and the search for belonging is one of the five key motives driving how we act in groups (indeed, some argue that belonging is the motive driving all social behaviour and that shared understanding, control, self-enhancement, and trust are mere sub-categories of our drive to belong).

Reviling others and casting them out defines, in the reverse, who we respect and accept. Belonging, unsurprisingly, helps us feel secure because it is the primary means by which social goods (like friendship and influence) and material goods (like land and jobs) are dispensed. You must be one of us – an Australian citizen or resident – to benefit from our universal healthcare system. Similarly, anxiety wrought by globalisation over who will gain access to ‘new avenues of riches and power’ are behind violent persecutions in Africa of those stigmatized as ‘strangers.’

One of the most firmly established relationships in social research is the relationship between perceived similarity and social behaviour. If I think you’re like me in appearance, attitudes, personality traits, and group memberships, I’m more likely to treat you empathetically, be your friend and do nice things for you. The reverse is also true. The less like me I see you as being, the more likely I am to avoid and despise you. It’s easy to see how resulting senses of affiliation or alienation from our fellow humans lead to ethnic, racial and religious violence like the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide.

So much for being judged on the content of our character! And this is the nub of the problem. But before we attempt to resolve it, we must first take note of the key insight offered by American researcher Gordon Allport, one of the most influential social researchers in the area of bias, prejudice and discrimination. Classification, Allport warns, is inevitable. There is simply too much information available in the world and taxonomies are necessary for us to process information speedily enough to function.

Where does that leave us? If the way we treat our fellow is reliant on quick and dirty character assessments like race, gender, age, language and accent – and our inclination to like and reward those whose superficial qualities are most like our own – how will a fair and equitable world be achieved?

At the heart of international anti-discrimination law is the insight that opportunities for paid employment, advancement and recognition must be based on ‘merit and the ability to do a job,’ not characteristics irrelevant to undertaking the task. But where this does not happen, and the ‘have’s’ persist in doling out benefits like citizenship, employment and friendship to those of similar gender, race and religion – rather than on merit – how can the ‘have-nots’ fight back?

They can fight back. Not by eliminating superficial stereotypes, but by displacing them. Allport says orderly living depends on categorisation, but this doesn’t specify what rules-of-thumb humans will deploy. Indeed, across time and cultures, different societies have relied on different irrelevant qualities to create ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups.

Another of Allport’s assertions, that inter-group conflict would be reduced through contact – where the two groups share similar tasks and status and are involved in personal activities that promote meaningful interpersonal interactions – has been validated by more than fifty years of empirical research.

Contact that reduces conflict between groups must include four elements. Members of both groups must expect and perceive equal status in a situation, say, through membership of an inter-racial sports team. The common goal of winning shared by all team members is another key component of contact likely to reduce conflict. There must also be intergroup cooperation, like that seen in a study that sorted Australian children into groups balanced on gender, ethnicity, academic ability and racial lines. Engaged in a jigsaw classroom activity, the grade 4 to 6 students were forced to depend on one another to attain their final grade. Finally, for contact to succeed in reducing inter-group conflict, group engagements must have the support of authorities, laws or customs. Why? Because according to academic Thomas Pettigrew such authority ‘establishes norms of acceptance.’

Could children and adults be better trained to deploy narrower and less random categories, in place of broader and irrelevant ones like race and gender, in order to distinguish those who are similar and unlike themselves? Arguably we are succeeding at this mission when we look at what’s happening in New South Wales with ‘bikies.’ As interpersonal contact and education have now rendered overt racial and gender discrimination unacceptable, motorcycle gang membership may be the substitute categorisation by which some in the human family can be easily branded, reviled and legally and socially cast out.

Publication history

Will There Always be Outcasts   The Well