L’identité ou l’obsession du nous et eux: Cynthia A. Sheehan at TEDxQuebec

Translator: Proma Banerjee
Reviewer: Elisabeth Buffard Hello, my name is Cynthia Sheehan and I am bilingual. In fact, I speak French with my mother
and English with my father. That’s how it is, and that’s how
it has always been for me. When I was little,
I thought that all moms spoke French,
and all dads spoke English. It was a huge shock when I learned
that it wasn’t the case. So when I tell you that I speak English with my children, it’s because I married a French speaker. If I had married an English speaker, I would speak French with my children, because it’s very important to me to pass on this bilingual
heritage to them. But as I said,
I’m perfectly fine with that but sometimes
I meet someone who asks me: “Are you an English speaker
or are you a French speaker?” To that I say: “I am bilingual.” But there are people
who won’t take it, they say: “Ok, seriously. Are you actually an English speaker
or a French speaker?” When confronted to that urging,
telling you that you must choose, that you can’t be both, I’ve been wondering about
what identity is. And why do we have to choose and how and why,
whenever we identify ourselves to something, do we necessarily have to give up its opposite? However, we are all mixtures of different categories,
of different identities. We are multifaceted!
For example, I am a wife, I am a teacher,
I am a spouse, and I am young — as long as I’m not 40, I am young! (Laughter) I am a mother,
I am a translator, a driver, an landlady, a movie lover,
I love shopping, I work at the university,
I have a sweet tooth, I am a huge Hello Kitty fan! So, all these identities live very well in parallel, one next to another. We all use a multitude of identities to identify ourselves, they are the labels to identify us, but also to recognize people who have the same interests as we do. And we don’t really have
a problem with that. But there are certain identities
that define themselves principally in opposition
to their opposite. Think back to when you were 6 years old: what does it mean to be a boy? At 6 years, to be a boy is
to not be a girl. Ok? And, to be a REAL boy is
to not be a girl. And, to be a REAL girl is
to not be a boy… ugh! Right? So, what does it mean to be poor? It is not to be rich, but its opposite. To be left-wing is to not be right-wing. So, obviously,
to be a poor, left-wing boy is to not be a rich right-wing girl. Examples of opposing groups
are numerous: think about Christians and Jews or Christians and Muslims, or Jews and Muslims,
that’s so ironic! Because these three religions venerate the same God. The God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob,
it’s the same God. However it’s on the prophets
they disagree and they put a huge difference
to distinguish betwwen “us” and “them”. The people of Quebec: to be from Quebec
is to not be from Ontario, to not be Canadian,
how many studies do we produce every year to show
the distinction of the people of Quebec from the rest of Canada? To be capitalist is
to refute the arguments of anti-globalists. The line that we draw
to exclude the other even has psychological consequences : in a group, we could… when a member of our group
hurts themselves, we feel empathy for that member. And when a member of
the opposite group has problems, we are happy for their misfortunes. The perfect illustration
of this phenomena is found in sport: when Canadians, when a member of the Canadian team
hurts themselves, all of Quebec feels pain. Except the old Nordiques’ fans, but that’s another story. When the Boston’s Bruins or
Toronto’s Maple Leafs lose, we are happy, we are happy for
the opponent’s misfortune. The separation between “us” and “them” goes back to the time
when man was grouped in tribes, where the very survival of the species depended on our ability
to defend ourselves, but also to beat back the enemy. Because we know that making
the distinction between “us” and “them” mobilises, it allows us
to present an united front and it protects the most vulnerable
elements inside the group. And if there is some dissidence,
we can threaten with expulsion. We say that those who aren’t with us
are against us. Have you heard that before? Although we don’t have tribes anymore, we still use that same argument, often in political speeches. To define the “us”, what we are, as opposed to “them”,
that which we are not, might have some benefits but it can also have some very
harmful consequences: especially, because it’s based on the premise that the “us” is good but the “them” is bad. And that’s what leads directly to war. In effect, war can only take place in a context of “us” and “them”. You can’t kill millions of people without first having placed these people in a category distinct from “us” and of an enemy to destroy. The problem is that these distinctions are completely arbitrary! For more than 1,500 years, doctors categorized people as being choleric, hot-headed,
phlegmatic and melancholic. They believed that there were four types of temperaments, and that it was very important to determine
which type one had because that impacted
the diagnosis and also the treatment
that was prescribed. Here’s the problem:
the distinctions were arbitrary and they only existed
in our imaginations. In fact, they were only
a question of perception and aren’t real.
It’s our perception of danger, our fear of what the other could do to us. But the other has a lot to teach us. And when we deny them,
when we put them aside, we put aside a lot of things. So the next time
that the idea comes to you to denigrate or to deny someone’s opinion because they’re liberal,
because they are a spoilt child, a spoilt student, because
they are a separatist a poor person, a muslim,
a woman wearing a veil, a French speaker, an English speaker, ask yourself: what are you scared of, but above all, what are you giving up? To conclude, I invite you to read
the excellent book “Us and them, Understanding
your tribal mind” by David Berreby, which introduces a bit more…
this book is unfortunately only available in English and unfortunately…
but perhaps you will find in it a love for English, like me and a love of the other. Thank you. (Applause)