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We’re All Basically the Same

December 7, 2009

As Progressive Scholar points out, “We’re all basically the same” usually means “they are just like us.”

Note: this never means “we are just like them,” because it’s fundamental that the “we” gets to stand in for what’s “normal.” If we were like them, then “they” would get to stand in for normal.

So, “they are just like us” is almost always condescending, in addition to the fact that it leaves unstated what we should do with those people who are not like us.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2009 3:06 pm

    In light of these dangers, would you say it’s best to assert “folks aren’t like one another”? Or is the “folks are all basically the same” idea still defensible, only fraught with possibilities for inserting certain normativities into the mix?

    I’d also submit that one can conceivably juggle various norms alongside claims of basic sameness… that is, one could hold an idea of “we’re all basically the same” while also asserting certain norms that are distinguished from what’s “basically the same”. So I can say that people with a different skin color than me are “basically the same” as me, while still holding the idea that it’s “normal” to be working class, while still not thinking that people with a different color skin than me are not basically the same as me just because that transgresses the class normalcy that I harbor. Surely one can think “you’re abnormal from my perspective, but basically like me”, can’t one?

  2. December 7, 2009 3:13 pm

    This was unclear to begin with, plus there was a typo:

    So I can say that people with a different skin color than me are “basically the same” as me, while still holding the idea that it’s “normal” to be working class, while still not thinking that people with a different color skin than me are not basically the same as me just because that [sic] transgresses the class normalcy that I harbor.

    Probably better stated:

    So I can say that people with a different skin color than me are “basically the same” as me, while still holding the idea that it’s “normal” to be working class. I just wouldn’t think that people with a different color skin than me are basically different just because they transgresses the class normalcy that I harbor.

    And do note… this doesn’t mean that any particular idea of normalcy should be seen as correct simply because it could conceivably be asserted within a more basic sameness. But it doesn’t seem accurate to me to speak as if one cannot have an idea of what is “normal” without thus destroying any asserted sense of sameness. I think that people can (if not always) be given enough credit to juggle these various distinctions.

  3. progressivescholar permalink
    December 7, 2009 3:36 pm

    I hadn’t thought about the meaning of “we are just like them” – I agree that it puts them in the normative position and us as the outsiders. Thanks for expanding on this!

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 7, 2009 6:28 pm

    Evan, I don’t think most people can be given the credit to juggle a lot of distinctions. That’s how propaganda works—by simplifying stuff in easily digestible nuggets that are often false and almost always misleading, but nevertheless set up to serve the interests of some groups at the expense of others.

    Look back at my recent post about the movie Philadelphia. I think the movie teaches that gays are “just like us,” the “us” being middle-class white heterosexuals. And this particular gay man, Tom Hanks, practically is just like “us.” But there are gays and lesbians who are not at all like middle-class white heteros. The message of the film is set up so that transsexuals, because they are not “just like us,” aren’t included in the set of people to whom sympathy or empathy should be extended.

    In general, I think you’re considering “people are basically the same” as a philosophical proposition, when I’m taking it as a rhetorical claim that works like propaganda. As such, focusing on the philosophical truth or falsehood of the claim will be misleading—what matters is less whether it is true or false and more what sort of social work the claim does.

    About it’s truth or falsehood: all people are similar in some respects and different than others. There’s no “basically the same” unless you say “basically the same with respect to X,” where X is something like “having DNA of some sort.” All humans obviously are similar in some relevant respects and different in other relevant respects. If we’re philosophically evaluating such claims, we’ll have to be attentive to what different respects we’re talking about.

    But when my students say, “Why can’t everyone just get along—we’re all basically the same,” this is NOT what they’re doing. They’re making a rhetorical claim that does social work. And usually they make that claim when they’re talking about people who are more or less “normal” to them. I’ve never heard it come up when students are talking about groups that they do not consider “normal.”

  5. December 7, 2009 7:18 pm

    As a matter of rhetoric, then, what would you assert? I’m asking this to get a better sense of your concerns here. I get the problems you’ve brought up with Philadelphia or with the sophomoric appeals to fraternity made by a student… but for someone like you, who might have more insight into the lurking normalcies in such “propaganda”, how would you characterize folks? Would you say that we’re basically the same, or that we’re not? Or would you just avoid making these sorts of statements altogether because of how fraught they are with slippery slopes?

    I guess it’s just that I can see a kernel of good will present in the student’s claim, or in Philadelphia. It’s not as if either are explicitly, or even consciously asserting a litmus test of “normal”. Because of that, I take their rhetoric about commonality to be something of a good stab at the situation. If we can’t do that, I guess I just don’t see the point of sitting around and waiting until someone could really meaningfully assert “we’re all basically the same”, because I doubt it would come any time soon. Not without some admixture of exclusion or other.

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 10, 2009 10:02 pm

    I guess I haven’t replied to this yet. Sorry!

    In sum, I would probably never intentionally say “basically the same.” I would try to restrict myself to saying “the same with respect to X.” Since I often think like a utilitarian (although I’m not one), that would usually probably be “they are the same as us with respect to the fact that they can suffer and be happy—hence they should have our respect, sympathy, or whatever.”

    Can one say another is basically the same, yet different/abnormal? Well, I think what you’re describing could be more accurately said (and less rhetorically) by something like this: “you’re like me in this respect but not like me in this other respects.”

    What matters, of course, is which issues are relevant. The fact that you like chocolate ice cream like I do probably has little ethical significance. The fact that you can experience pain like I can probably has considerable ethical significance …

  7. December 11, 2009 11:48 am

    Normally I think “they are just like us” when I read Euripides.

  8. December 11, 2009 11:50 am

    But I don’t see what the fuss is about, there ARE these groups of “us” and “them” – we do have these distinctions, ingroup outgroup behavior is pretty obviously a hardwired part of being human.
    Isn’t it better to learn to deal with what is there than criticise it for not being some imaginary ideal?

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