Monday, May 20, 2013

Who's on First?

Why have we become so enamored with the idea of firsts?  Not just ordinary firsts, like the first man on the moon, but firsts by category.  Back in March there was quite a stir about the first Roman Catholic Pope from the Americas.  Shortly after that Chris Hadfield became the first Canadian to take command of the international space station, and the President named the first woman director of the secret service.  We now have the first gay to play in the NBA.  Sidney Poitier, in promoting his book on television, was referred to not as a great actor, but as the first African-American to win an Oscar.  Only yesterday Sang-Moon Bae was referred to as the first Asian-born golfer to win a PGA tournament since 2009.   It seems silly now, but I can remember the fuss about JFK being the first Catholic president.

Perhaps one explanation comes from a book by J. D. Trout called The Empathy Gap.  In it he explains how our empathy weakens as it moves from near to far, from local to remote.  Empathy, the capacity to understand emotions being experienced by others, helps us identify with them and increases our willingness to help those who may be suffering.  Humans in general are more prone to identify with and more willing to help, first their family and friends, then neighbors, then people nearby, and so on.  In addition, a number of studies suggest that we feel more attachment to those who are similar to us in personality, values, experience, and even race.  Trout goes so far as to say that we identify more with the present self than the future self, caring more about the wants of today, hence finding it difficult to save for retirement.

This natural reaction leaves us in a situation where the recent federal sequestration leads to complaints about the waste of foreign aid, “surely the most unpopular item in the federal budget,” while Americans are in need.  It drives charities to enclose pictures of suffering children in their mailings to help bring home, so to speak, their need.  It inspires those headlines about the firsts by category, in an effort to make people in that same category feel proud or inspired or included.

We should look forward to a day when there is less emphasis on categories and labels, when we can more easily identify and feel attachment, as we describe behavior independent of characteristics.  After all, “individuals from different populations can be genetically more similar than individuals from the same population.”  There is no scientific basis for this distinction by sex, color, language, or outward appearance in matters of business, attachment or identity.  As I’ve said before, the only reason for EEO laws is ignorant managers placing their own comfort above customer and shareholder needs by hiring or promoting those similar to themselves instead of those who can best do the job.  

The end of these firsts will be a sign that we’ve moved beyond judging people by their color, sex, religion or other irrelevant labels.  Heroes will be heroes; role models will be role models; and those with faulty, destructive or criminal behavior will not be defended by members of their own group based on this outdated reasoning.

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