Why Are Only Some Differences Socially Relevant?

Image by Lustoza from Pixabay

As human beings, each of us is more alike than we are different. In fact, we all share 99.9% of the same genes, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute. Despite all of this sameness, we pay a lot of attention to differences… but only some differences are socially relevant, and the rest we don’t give a lot of thought to.

Physical features

Some people, due to a minor genetic variation, have a widow’s peak. I have this; it’s where the hairline forms a V-shape at the centre of the forehead. A widow’s peak is often noticeable, but if anyone does happen to pay attention, they’re unlikely to care. They may find it more or less attractive, but they’re not going to judge me on who I am as a person.

However, if someone has natural (as in “Afro”) hair, that’s going to garner both attention and judgment… but only in certain places where it’s seen as a socially relevant difference. In Zimbabwe, no one’s going to bat an eyelash.

Whether I have brown, blue, or hazel eyes, no one particularly cares. Whether I’m 5'2″ or 5'9″, no one particularly cares, although I might be more attractive to some people than others.

However, if someone has Asian, Black, or Indigenous features, that gets noticed, and there can be judgments attached to that.

What we wear

We also selectively decide what’s socially relevant when it comes to how we adorn ourselves. In many places, men going shirtless is no big deal. There are far fewer places where it’s considered socially acceptable for women to go shirtless.

Religious garb is likely to be noticed and have social meaning attached, whether that’s clothing or a head covering like a turban, kippah or hijab. We’re not simply noticing that someone has something different on their head than the hat we’re wearing; that’s a superficial difference that somehow manages to make the entire person Other.

Body size

Body size is something that’s become more socially relevant in recent decades. The notion of “thin is in” and fat-shaming is very modern. A few centuries, if you were on the larger side, people would probably assume you were wealthy enough to eat well. Now, you face moralizing of fatness from health professionals and social connections alike, and you’re considered lazy and all that associated nonsense.

It’s all arbitrary

It’s easy to assume that the differences we notice and pay attention to are inherently the most meaningful, but they’re not. They’re entirely arbitrary, and they’re relevant only because society has chosen to select them.

Differences don’t have to divide us. You don’t see clashes between widow’s peaked and non-widow’s peaked people. No one is facing discrimination when trying to get a job as a person with blue eyes versus brown eyes. Someone with blond hair isn’t more likely to get stopped by the cops than someone with red hair.

Differences are only bad when we decide they’re bad.

I think that’s a flaw in the idea of colour-blindness. Not because it’s non-PC to say, but because saying that differences don’t exist kind of misses the boat. Differences do exist, but that can be a good thing; it’s only a bad thing because people have decided it is.

The fact that these socially selected differences are arbitrary means that they can be changed. If my widow’s peak and brown eyes can come together with a non-widow’s peaked blue-eyed person, maybe everyone else can embrace the differences too.

Originally published at https://mentalhealthathome.org on February 1, 2021.




Author of 4 books — latest is A Brief History of Stigma | Mental health blogger | Former MH nurse | Living with depression | mentalhealthathome.org

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Ashley L. Peterson

Ashley L. Peterson

Author of 4 books — latest is A Brief History of Stigma | Mental health blogger | Former MH nurse | Living with depression | mentalhealthathome.org

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