Gaza Strip Conflict: Ingroups, Outgroups, and Taking Sides

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What happens if you only associate with people who share your eye color? Image by Alvimann.

The conflict between Israel and the Gaza strip is in the news and all over social media – so whose side are you on, anyway?

What determines how we feel about people on ‘our side’ vs. the other side?

Educators and social scientists researching minority relations, use terms like “in-groups,” and “out-groups” to describe our tendency to believe in exaggerated differences between people in order to build our own quest for identity.

Jane Elliott and the Color of Eyes

In 1968, in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., school teacher Jane Elliot devised a classroom experiment where children were divided into two groups based on eye color and encouraged to treat each other as inferiors or superiors.

As the Jane Elliot website states, “This, now famous, exercise labels participants as inferior or superior based solely upon the color of their eyes and exposes them to the experience of being a minority.”

Elliot’s point was that racial categories are as arbitrary as dividing people into groups by eye color.  Lumping people together because they share one characteristic and then ascribing other negative characteristics to them leads to bigotry.

In 2003 The Journal of Applied Social Psychology reported repeating a modified version of Elliot’s experiment in the college classroom – the exercise led to white students reporting, “significantly more positive attitudes toward Asian American and Latino/Latina individuals, but only marginally more positive attitudes toward African American individuals” – but it also increased awareness of their own prejudicial thinking.

Henri Tajfel and Social Identity Theory

Psychologist Henri Tajfel published an article about social identity theory in 1979.  According to Saul McLeod of SimplyPsychology, “The central hypothesis of social identity theory is that group members of an in-group will seek to find negative aspects of an out-group, thus enhancing their self-image.”

Social Identity Theory explains people’s tendency to build their own sense of self through social categorization, social identification and social comparison. In other words, people tend to lump individuals into categories and then identify with categories they feel are most like them, or their “in-group.”

We categorize ourselves in groups by gender, religious, racial, ethnic classifications, identifying ourselves as women/men, Christian/Jewish/Muslim/atheist, black/white/brown, Israeli/Palestinian, and many more.

To enhance the status of our own in-group, we then focus on negative aspects of other groups, the “out-groups.”

Anyone who doesn’t like (fill in the blank) can’t be trusted.

The tendency of people to exaggerate negative characteristics of out-groups leads to stereotyping and bigotry, not to mention virtual flames and ‘unfriending’ on social networks.

In addition to overstating the differences of of out-groups, we also overstate the similarities of in-groups. You might believe that everyone in your in-group, who agrees with you, is compassionate, for example.

The Relevance of In-groups and Out-groups in the Gaza Strip

The current strife in the Gaza strip provides an example of the use social categorization, social identification and social comparison in ways that lead to stereotyping.

Tasnim News Agency ran an article titled: “Iran Speaker: Gaza War Litmus Test for Egypt.”  The article cited Iran’s parliament speaker calling for Egypt to provide humanitarian aid, funds and arms to confront the “Israeli enemy” rather than calling for increased pressure for a peaceful settlement.

In this piece, Israelis are the out-group, and Egyptians are encouraged to see Palestinians as members of their in-group.

In Groups, Out Groups, and Society

Given how easily people can be led to create in-groups and out-groups, and the dire consequences of pitting these groups against each other in a world full of weaponry, the call to examine our attitudes toward those we consider ‘outsiders’ is perhaps more critical than ever.

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