Monday, 13 March 2017

‘Divisions Erected Out of Thin Air’: Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ (part three)

It is so easy to make assumptions about different groups of people and to slot individuals into particular groups. Sometimes our assumptions are proven correct, but much of the time they are shown to be invalid and even prejudicial. But if our assumptions about others more often than not are deeply mistaken, why do we even attempt to categorise people? We categorise, says Christena Cleveland, to conserve mental energy. It takes a lot of mental energy for us to process the amount of information we take in every day, and so by categorising, I can focus on certain things—though at the expense of others. Cleveland writes:

We can conserve our valuable and limited cognitive energy by spending time with people who are like us and whose behavior we can easily predict. Conversely, our interactions with people who are different from us or who violate our expectations are laden with uncertainty and are cognitively taxing. (p. 45).

This leads to stereotyping, where we (prejudicially) assume groups of people will behave in certain ways based on our interactions with one member of that group.

Cleveland points out that categorising is not always harmful precisely because it is a cognitive process designed to increase the efficiency of processing information (it would prove extremely cumbersome and inefficient if we had to identify a certain kind of four-legged object as a chair every time we saw one). But there is a danger:

Most importantly, in our haste to conserve mental energy we often erect divisions out of thin air by grouping people into smaller homogenous categories. These are typically based on less significant but easily distinguishable features like physical characteristics, language and theology that indicate membership in specific homogenous groups rather than less obvious but more important features that indicate membership in larger diverse groups. (p. 48).

When this happens, says Cleveland, the focus tends to settle on whatever divides the groups rather than on the things that unite them. This is especially harmful when it happens within the body of Christ:

By dividing larger categories that are very diverse (such as the body of Christ) into smaller, less diverse subcategories (such as ethnic or denominational groups), we’re better able to make assumptions and predictions, thus conserving mental energy. For example, if I come upon a Korean Christian, I can conserve more mental energy if I conceive of this person as a Korean (a relatively smaller and more homogenous groups) rather than a member of the body of Christ (a relatively larger and more heterogeneous group). The larger group is too diverse to enable me to make assumptions about the Korean individual’s theology, worship style, language, food preferences and so forth. It is significantly more energy-consuming to predict the actions of a member of a large, diverse group because one cannot make as many assumptions about the characteristics, values and tendencies of the group. (pp. 48–49).

And so:

By focusing on smaller, distinct categories for church groups, we erect and fixate on divisions that are far less important than the larger, diverse group of members of the body of Christ. (p. 49).

This is why, Cleveland avers, there are so many groups within the body of Christ. Positing clear boundaries between groups helps us preserve mental energy—but such boundaries tend to push us towards creating ingroups (‘us’, Right Christians) and outgroups (‘them’, Wrong Christians), along with the acceptance or rejection of the theologies that drive these particular groups. Also, in this context, it becomes difficult to accept that an individual person within any given outgroup might have different views from others within that same outgroup:

Perceptions of outgroup homogeneity [e.g. a progressive liberal supposing that all conservative evangelicals are complementarian; a young-earth creationist presuming that a non-literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 leads to a denial of biblical authority—and notice that I’m assuming certain things about these particular groups by using them as examples] often lead to prejudice. By perceiving the ingroup as heterogeneous and the outgroup as homogenous, group members are less likely to believe that their group would benefit from more diversity, more likely to perceive the outgroup in unflattering and oversimplified ways, and more likely to believe that the outgroup has very little to offer them. Thanks to the outgroup homogeneity effect, our perceptions of outgroups tend to be inaccurate and arrogant—not exactly a winning combination. (p. 55).

But if categorising people and groups of people tends to be so harmful, why do the divisions between ingroups and outgroups persist? Our metaperceptions—our assumptions about what other groups think of us—discourage us from taking the risks necessary to engage with people not from our ingroup. Cleveland contends,

Inaccurate metaperceptions go hand in hand with perceptions of outgroup homogeneity to form a dynamic and divisive duo. If we assume that we already know what they are like, then we can assume that we already know what they think of us. Unfortunately, in tandem, our perceptions of outgroup homogeneity and our metaperceptions lead us to believe with a degree of certainty that the other group doesn’t like us and doesn’t want to interact with us. This results in further divisions and infrequent meaningful interactions. (pp. 56–57).

Thus the process of categorisation affects our interpretations and memories simply because it offers us a framework by which we can recall people, events, or situations and complete any gaps that might exist, all the while strengthening the validity of the categories we have developed.

The sinister side effects of categorizing—erecting divisions between us and them, thinking that they are all the same, automatically thinking that they think poorly of us, recalling false memories of them, and inaccurately interpreting their behavior—are reinforcing the divide between different church groups. These processes need to be overcome in order to create meaningful interactions between different groups that break down unbiblical and unloving divisions. (p. 60, italics original).

Cleveland doesn’t offer too much in the way of resolution of these issues, at least not in this chapter; but she does suggest that once we have identified the hidden cognitive processes that lead to prejudice, we can take steps to ensure that our language intentionally includes:

If we begin to use inclusive language such as we and us (rather than they and them) when we refer to the different groups in the body of Christ, we will begin to associate the different groups with the same positive attributes and feelings that we associate with ourselves. . . . By relinquishing divisive us/them distinctions and adopting inclusive “we” language, we would begin to treat different members of the body of Christ like we tend to treat ourselves—graciously, generously and lovingly.
As a bonus, we would also begin to build bridges with different members of the body of Christ. By referring to other group members as us, we would implicate ourselves whenever we decide to offer constructive criticism to the other group. No longer would we perceive the problems of other groups in the body of Christ as solely their problems. As newly minted members of us, their problems are now our problems. We can no longer stand at a distance, point our fingers at them and shake our heads in disgust. We must lovingly and wisely engage because to fail to do so would only hurt ourselves. In this way, consciously avoiding us/them distinctions in the body of Christ changes the way that we approach and perceive each other. (pp. 63–64, italics original).

The implications of what Cleveland writes here are immense.


  1. Really interested in these posts, Terry - just haven't managed to find enough time to comment! But maybe that will change once I've settled into redundancy (as of 1 April), and once the delights of daytime TV have started to pall.