Monday, February 22, 2016

Shades of grey

A widespread phenomenon in human thinking is what psychologists call “splitting”: Something is this or it is that. It’s never a bit of this and a bit of that. It’s a table or it’s a chair. I like something or I don’t. It’s a planet or it isn’t. And so on. Or rather, so we think it is. However, in reality most is a bit of this and a bit of that. We can sit on a table, and sometimes we do, although it’s an exception. We can put things on a chair, which we do more often. And we even have table chairs for children. On Facebook we can say that we lake a thing but we cannot say that we like it only a little bit or like it very much, although it’s actually the way we feel. And compare the discussion about the question whether Pluto is or isn’t a planet and the emotions it aroused. As if it cannot be so that this satellite of the earth has many characteristics of what we consider a planet, but not all of them. Psychologists have coined the concept of “splitting” for this mode of thought, as said. In plain English we call it black and white thinking.
Black and white thinking is often not as innocent as the discussion on the status of a celestial body like Pluto is. If people tend to think in black and white terms about themselves and see themselves more black than white, they can become depressive. If they think in extremes about others, it can disturb personal relations or even make good relations with others impossible. Therefore the problem of black and white thinking is closely connected with questions of mental health.
Thinking in black and white is not only a psychological but also a sociological phenomenon. In sociology it is ingroup-outgroup thinking or ethnocentrism: the belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own group. Also the opposite belief exists, namely that one’s own group is inferior to other groups (cf class and caste societies). The belief that one’s own group is different can have also a more neutral expression: The “We are not like them” doesn’t need to say that the own group is superior or inferior, but simply that it is different and that’s it.
If we look around, we find these phenomena in all kinds of discussions, also in one of the most important current discussions in Europe, namely whether Europe has to receive refugees and other immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. Many participants in this discussion ascribe refugees and other immigrants characteristics as a group; not as the individuals they are. “They” are such or “they” are so, many people tell us; and these “such” or “so” are often negative terms (I’ll spare you what these terms are; they make me often sad. I’m sure you know what I mean). Let me be clear, there are bad persons among the refugees, but good persons as well. Look around and watch: Isn’t it so that most people around us are middle-of-the-road? Some are a bit above it, some are a lot above it; others are a bit below it and yet others a lot more. Such is society and such are refugees and immigrants as well, even if they may not be completely representative of the societies  they come from.
Being a photographer, all this makes me think of the way you make a picture. I used to make only colour photos but more and more I tend to photograph in black-and-white. But why do we talk about black-and-white photography? Take a random black-and-white picture and look at it: Though we call it black-and-white what you actually see is many shades of greys with, indeed, here and there deep black and bright white. And what is most important in the so-called black-and-white photography is not getting the right deep blacks and bright whites but getting the right shades of grey. A certain photo can have more blacks than an average photo or just more bright whites, and if the blacks or whites prevail we call such a photo “low key” or “high key” respectively, but in the end it exists of shades of grey.
What has all this to do with society and with refugees and immigrants? When people think about society and special aspects of it, at first they tend to think in black and white: “People are this”, “people are that”, “this group is such and that group is so”. Is it true? Look around, come closer and watch. What do you see? Maybe a deep black spot here and a bright white one there but on the whole you’ll see a picture with all shades of grey, even in case it is low key or high key.

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