Gnawing Around the Edges

photo

This is my daughter’s gerbil. He has a habit of chewing on his food bowl. He simply cannot help himself.  He goes on nibbling and destroying until we finally replace the dish, and then he begins anew.

You’ll have to excuse the absurdity of the metaphor- but in some ways we are like this gerbil. We can’t help gnawing at the edges, slowly destroying our institutions and their leaders until they almost collapse, and then we start anew.  And like the gerbil, we simply cannot help ourselves.

I know this might seem ridiculous, but these are the things that I think about. An observation or idea reveals itself and then continues to emerge in various  situations until I finally acknowledge its form . So please bear with me as I try to make the connections.

Although we function at a higher cognitive level than rodents, we too are “wired” with certain tendencies that help us to survive. One such tendency that seems to be innate is our focus on major categorical boundaries or edges. These are the major differences that we perceive as such- blue vs. green; Democrat vs. Republican; good vs. bad, virtually any category that we can comfortably agree differs from the closest alternative. We’re really good at differentiating these high contrast boundaries, and we (naturally) enjoy doing what we’re (naturally) good at.

In this way it’s not surprising that we invest so much time- our own and others’- in debates about categorical differences, and also why we hold on so tenaciously to our own experiences and perceptions. The differences appear to be so strong and obvious that we feel compelled to fight for them. This notion of categorical perception lies at the very heart of polarization. 

This tendency can be seen in a myriad of ways and extends well beyond individual people (or gerbils) to involve institutions and systems that together accelerate the undoing of our proverbial food dishes.

What is the alternative? -you might ask, especially if this tendency to gnaw around the edges is in some ways innate or pre-wired. Well, although our attention naturally gravitates to the edges- the boundaries that divide us, there lies a wealth of fertile common ground in the spaces between. 

If you think of categories or labels as spectra, there are infinite opportunities for consensus and agreement before we hit the categorical cliff. Although it may take some self-control and discipline to avoid the edges, this is where progress can most easily occur.

One would hope that unlike gerbils we could control our pre-wired tendencies, especially in areas that are fundamental to our continued viability.  Interestingly according to my six year old, once gerbils destroy their food dish, they will start gnawing on their cages, slowly destroying their own homes and means of security.

So while we are obviously superior to gerbils and rodents, perhaps we should take a moment of introspection and self-control and consider, for once, trying to stay within the edges.

 

*Please note that no gerbils were harmed during this photo shoot. On the contrary both Pip and Zip (I have no idea which one this is) greatly enjoyed the experience.

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About mbhuber2013

convener and co-founder of BTEP, instructor for Tanzania Study Abroad course; Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning at University at Buffalo

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