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those with faulty, destructive or criminal behavior will not be defended by members of their own group based on this outdated reasoning.