Don’t box me in

Elected officials make a mistake that costs them. It is a kind of prejudice, but it is not necessarily related to race or ethnicity. Elected officials lose votes when they box constituents into categories, based on little or no information.

Why do we categorize people?

The human brain categorizes people and things. It is a natural function that enables survival. The example often given is that people are startled by a rustling in the bushes. Our brain alerts our nervous system because there was a possible predator in the bushes. Here in the urban and suburban Northeast, it is unlikely to be a tiger, but our instincts react as if it might be.

When it is a puppy, the neural alert stops, unless the person is particularly afraid of dogs. If it is a strange and upset dog, the startle response might have been warranted. Until the dog calms down, most people will stay alerted and cautious.

The classic misfiring of this kind of fear is seen when some people overreact to the presence of small critters like mice, or spiders, or insects. Mice, spiders, or insects are not likely to kill you, but if you are afraid of them, you are afraid of them! Rationally, the insect most likely to harm you in the northeast is a mosquito that is carrying Eastern Equine Encephalitis or West Nile Virus. I don’t know anyone who reacts in fear to mosquitos; annoyance is the more typical reaction.

The same thing happens in person-to-person interactions. It is reasonable that some people see other people as a threat. Anyone who has been assaulted will have a startle response to someone who reminds them – consciously or subconsciously – of the attacker. That memory lasts and may show up when it is not needed.

When interpersonal interaction is unpleasant– but not fully an assault — this startle response may get activated. The interaction might feel like a threat. The interaction might just feel uncomfortable. You might need to slow down and pick your words carefully because you are expecting an argument.

This categorization of who is threatening might track along typical prejudices; maybe you’ve had bad conversations with people in certain racial or ethnic groups. It may, instead, be that the person reminds you of your sister (who is a pain in the a–).

Two friends. Two elected officials. Opposite experiences.

This summer, I had a conversation with a friend about local politics. When I arrived at their house, I saw that they had yard signs for some candidates up for reelection. Among them was a candidate who has been rude to me in every interaction I’ve had with them. I told my host about this.

There have been only two conversations. Each time, the elected official talked to me like I was a three-year-old; they dumbed down the topic as if I was somehow unable to follow an adult conversation. It was markedly different than how they spoke to everyone else in the conversation circle. It pissed me off once. I tried again at another gathering. I got the same thing again.

When I imitated the conversational tone, my friend told me that I sounded like another elected official who talks to them that way. Then they told me about a conversation with that other elected official. The elected official (wrongly) assumed which side my friend would be on regarding a hot local topic. The elected official said the tell-tale phrase. She said something like, “I have talked to a lot of people like you, and I disagree about this project.”

People like you.

My friend thinks that they were slotted into a category of rich and liberal. In fact, my friend grew up working class and are left of liberal. Their household is getting by, but is not wealthy.

It is hard to know how others perceived me, since I get categorized in opposite ways by different people. I am white, but I am Jewish (not white to some). I am not conventionally femme, but I am absolutely femme. I come off as old or middle aged, depending on my daily energy level. I am too working- class for some professional-class folk and too professional-class for some working-class folk. I am too nerdy for many and not nerdy enough for some. I am opinionated; that might be enough to set some people off.

For whatever reason, I got talked down to by one elected official. My friend got talked down to by another.

What to do?

My friend likes and respects the elected official who dissed me every time I open my mouth in their conversation. I like and respect the elected official who falsely categorized and disrespected my friend. What now?

Seeing how an elected official can be so wrong about my friend, I turned my thoughts about the uncaring (maybe hostile) behavior of the elected official who talks down to me. Their behavior was about their fear of me; I am reminding this elected official of someone who has been verbally unpleasant (or worse) to them. As an elected official, they probably talk to lots of unpleasant people.

That said, elected officials need to do better. I am still withholding my vote from the elected official who can’t find a way to speak respectfully to me. I probably will not try again. However, I am going to watch who they talk down to, so I can figure out which category I am being trapped into.

Somerville City elections start November 1, with early voting. Polls are open November 7th.


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