Who are we and why does it matter?

October 9, 2011

Learning, Political Theory


Walking around campus at the University of Michigan one can see the different communities people belong to simply by looking at people’s t-shirts. People will wear shirts that say things like, “Michigan Law, “Michigan Engineering,” “Michigan Catholic,” “Michigan Political Science,” “Michigan Dad,” and so on. In this way people are openly sharing groups they belong to with the rest of the world.

This type of grouping helps to set up a “we” vs. “the others” situation. Appiah the philosopher, would say that groups are made up by mutual recognition. 1 The “other” category can be created by denial of recognition, misrecognition, or even the thought of someone not deserving recognition.

In the Political Science 101 class at the University of Michigan we talked about the pros and cons of this grouping system. A con situation includes a situation in which one group discriminates against another group. For example, in Japan if you belonged to the Burakumin group, then you were essentially doomed. The Burakumin were historically involved in butchering, and therefore were deemed unclean among the “other” Japanese. A pro situation includes a situation where grouping creates a sense of solidarity. This solidarity could in turn create a tight sense of community, where people take care of one another in the same group.

Grouping can make people feel like they belong to something. It can make this big world seem like a smaller place. For example, I’m pre-law, and when I wear my Michigan Law shirt I feel like I belong to some small group of people that share my interest. Clearly there are benefits to people grouping themselves, but clearly there are also dangers in this grouping system. 

The possibility of discrimination and exclusion that grouping creates is clearly something that people need to be aware of to avoid conflict. Especially now that the world is becoming more connected with the use of technology, people need to see that there are people out there that are not like them. Global business and global trade requires people to work and cooperate with others that come from completely different backgrounds. For example, my dad works at a company that requires him to travel all around the world. Just last month he went to China for two weeks and did business with the Chinese. If his differences would have gotten in the way, then nothing could’ve been done during his trip.

Students at institutions like the University of Michigan are being taught to value this diversity everyday. Diversity is clearly apparent at the University of Michigan, where people can buy and wear Michigan shirts that portray some of their identity. I feel this early awareness of diversity will benefit students in the future, because they will recognize the advantages to getting along with and working well with others.

Does the wearing of shirts like, “Michigan Catholic,” promote diversity because it makes diversity more apparent? Or does the wearing of shirts like, “Michigan Catholic,” make people want to exclude others that aren’t catholic? What are the best ways to promote diversity? Why is it valuable to society to promote diversity in this day and age? Why is the grouping of people valuable in this day and age? Is there a specific point when grouping becomes bad?

1 Reference is to Anthony Appiah, “But Would That Still Be Me?” available online at https://ctools.umich.edu/acess/content/group/36906fla-78bf444e-bd94-61b4ed057c86/readings/September%2029/Appiah%2C%20Would%20that%20Still%20Be%20Mey.pdf, visited October 9, 2011.

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16 Comments on “Who are we and why does it matter?”

  1. matthewlocascio Says:

    Grouping is a valuable social influence. It is part of human nature to seek and desire recognition with other people. Because of this, yes, people do get excluded because they do not belong to the group. It is a matter of promoting something you are part of, not wanting to exclude those who aren’t.

    I don’t think that it is a bad thing to have this desire for recognition in society, and if people feel they are being excluded from a group then most likely they do not belong in that group. If you should be a part of a particular group, the mutual recognition will satisfy itself. It is highly likely that you are not recognized because you do not belong. There are exceptions, like just about everything else in life, that should be addressed. Sometimes people are mislabeled as not part of a group. In these situations, the person must make it known that they belong if they truly desire the recognition, otherwise move on to greener pastures. Before you jump to the conclusion that I am being harsh and blunt, understand the point. There is a reason you are excluded by a group. You are either in or out, there is no gray area. When it comes to race, nationality, religion, social class, college major, sports fan, or anything else, you are either a part of the group or you aren’t. If you are mislabeled, make them accept you as one of them. Show them why they need to accept you. Sometimes it is as easy as having a conversation. So this whole group mentality thing should be and is important because it creates a sense of belonging, not exclusion. To reiterate my point, if you are among the excluded, there is a reason, and you most likely belong to a different group. It may take time to uncover this other side of you, but where one door closes another opens.

    Personally, and most likely for the majority of people out there, you are proud of the group you belong to. That is the reason you wear shirts that promote a particular organization, school, team, or even religion. People need to stop being cynical and thinking that people are wearing these shirts specifically to say “You are not part of my group.” There is a sense of pride. I know in my family, being from New York but relocating to Los Angeles, there is the sporting of New York apparel because we are proud of our roots. When I leave my house with my NY hat I am not saying that I don’t associate myself with Californians, I am saying this is who I am and I am proud of it. It creates a sense of purpose, and it is a little gut-wrenching to see others say you are excluding them above all things. It brings up a point about society that it’s not always about you. If you see a Michigan Catholic shirt on, don’t feel excluded just because you are not Catholic; instead, understand they are proud of their religion and are just showing it.

  2. kristinamacek Says:

    I think that grouping is a very important part of society. It promotes/advertises diversity in several ways and it doesn’t cause people to become “others”. Going off your example, seeing all the different organizations, majors, etc. at the University represented is not a bad thing at all. Even if I am not a part of the group they are representing, I still look at their paraphernalia and think that it’s good that they’re passionate about the groups the belong to. I have never felt a desire to not talk to someone simply because of a T-shirt they wear or a sticker they have on their laptop. Also, it’s interesting to see how involved UofM students are within the university. I view these displays as a way to make our University stronger.

    Yes, a shirt may say “Greek Life”, “Chemistry”, “Football”, etc. but they also tend to say “Michigan”. These group affiliations do no separate us, they instead bring us together as a university. No matter what group you belong to you are still a Michigan Wolverine and that makes you part of the “we” majority here. Belonging to a different club on campus doesn’t make you an other, going to let’s say OSU might though.

  3. ianbaker2041 Says:

    I definitely agree with the first comment in saying that shirts and other forms of grouping are not intended to be discriminatory or segregating but rather are designed to express pride in a certain belief or way of life.

    I love wearing my Michigan Marching Band shirts. It’s nerdy, I know, and I’m happy to take the name of “band geek” for it because, after all, that’s pretty much what I am. Wearing that shirt reminds me that I’m part of a certain group on campus, and it seems to tell the world that I am happy about that. I’m not trying to shun people who don’t play an instrument and/or aren’t in the marching band; rather, I’m expressing how I define myself, and a big part of that is through music. Anyone who thinks I’m cynical and exclusionary obviously doesn’t know me very well because I (and the rest of the marching band) am not.

    The issue, however, is bigger than T-shirts. It’s about society and the community as a whole. America’s foundation certainly has to do with diversity, and while I’m not completely convinced that the US isn’t a Judea-Christian nation in a European sense (which is another discussion altogether), the citizens of the US really do attempt to embrace differences for the most part. The fact that we can worship any religion, support any political party, and even go out on the corner of South University and East University with pictures of Obama with a Hitler mustache drawn on speaks highly to the degree of tolerance and diversity in this country. To stifle any of that that would weaken our society by limiting the different opinions and ideas that float through society, as Mill would assert. As long as our opinions are presented respectfully, each additional view added into the mix gives us another opportunity to challenge our own beliefs and either continue to accept them or reject them for something new.

    I’ve recently seen reports claiming to rank the best countries on Earth in terms of quality of life, and I’ve seen places such as Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia making the list at #1. It doesn’t bother me because I wouldn’t choose anywhere else except the United States. Yes, I’m the typical American who wants to be the most powerful nation in the world, but through travel, I’ve found that America has a strength of purpose and a conviction to support everyone-at least in the country-equally. Many other nations lack this. From the huge issues of politics and “socialist Obama” to the small things like T-shirts on college campuses, we can see from the top down how America’s commitment to diversity has created a society where everyone can “find their place” and can be an active citizen, and I’m proud to be part of that.

  4. leannaprairie Says:

    I agree with most of the comments in that these benign shirts create awareness of diversity, not just differences between us.

    I love seeing all the Michigan “blank” shirts, because a lot of times I learn about a program that I didn’t even know our school had! I think that these shirts provide a peaceful way to advertise your affiliations or beliefs (unlike the exhibition in the diag the other day, which was anything but peaceful). It allows us to get out the word about our respective clubs/organizations/academic programs without shoving down people’s throats.

    These shirts, among other things, allow us to form an identity, to distinguish ourselves on a huge college campus, to make some small mark on the world.

  5. Joe Cotant Says:

    I too agree with the first comment in that wearing shirts such as “Michigan Catholic”, “Michigan Law”, and “Michigan Political Science” promote a sense of recognition and diversity and do not attempt to exclude others that do not associate with these certain groups. I believe that these shirts in no way attempt to disregard students who do not belong to the same group, club, major, religion, athletic team, or any other affiliation with the university. Instead, I think that they are symbols of diversity that show us that no matter what memberships we have with certain groups on the U of M campus, we are all Michigan students and that is the most important characteristic that we all share.

    Every student here at the University of Michigan has something special about himself or herself, such as a special skill or talent that separates them from others. For instance, take the classic example of “Michigan Football”. From what I have seen over the past two years as a student here, almost all students are supportive of the football team. The players here are happy to sport their maize and blue “Michigan Football” shirts with pride in their institution. Although the size of this athletic group may be much larger than any other, how is wearing a “Michigan Football” shirt any different than wearing a “Michigan Rugby” shirt? Or a “Michigan Volleyball” shirt? Or even a “Michigan Quidditch” shirt? In my opinion, I do not think that these shirts separate us from each other; I believe they inspire us to unite as one core institution. The word that appears after the “Michigan” should not matter in any way. I believe the most important thing that is printed on these shirts is not the club or group, but the “Michigan” that is printed above them.

    Concerning the core facet of our university, the educational side, what would U of M be without the Ross School of Business? What would our school be like without the Ford School of Public Policy, or the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning? Our school would be incomplete without them. Students wearing “Michigan Business”, “Michigan Public Policy”, and “Michigan Architecture” are not excluding others; they are celebrating all of the fantastic schools and educations that this university has to offer. These shirts create a community that all students at this school are a part of. Even though we may not own one of these shirts, we all have the opportunity of sporting one that displays what major or school we are studying in. Thus, we are not only displaying personal pride in ourselves for what we are learning, we are celebrating the University of Michigan as a complete system that is made up of separate and different components.

    In conclusion, these shirts make us members of something smaller. This university serves over 40,000 students, which is a pretty overwhelming number of people if you ask me. These shirts allow students to condense their interests into a core group that they can freely and openly express themselves with. Personally, I own a “Michigan Greek” shirt, not because it separates me from other fraternities, but because it creates a connection between every Greek student here at the University of Michigan.

  6. sgbraid Says:

    I agree with “leannaprairie” in that these shirts highlight and showcase the different groups that people are a part of while also giving these organizations a bit of free advertising — but thats besides the point. These shirts do not exclude but rather promote allow people to associate themselves with two different categories. They are a michigan student — or were once a michigan student — and are also part of a smaller subset within the university of michigan community, like the political science department or the dance team or club baseball.

    These shirts are easily one of the best ways for the university to promote the diversity of departments and abundance of organizations that are on campus. It’s also a good way for students to show some pride for the activities that they participate in on campus.

    Even though some might see these shirts as exclusion, they give the university character and a unique identity. These types of shirts can be found at other schools besides the University of Michigan and are a good way to promote what your passionate about.

  7. peja27 Says:

    I think sgbraid brings talks about a lot of truthful arguments in his comment- these shirts definitely promote and highlight the different group of people involved in a group. While some agree with his point of view, I know that everyone doesn’t.or example, one of my friends goes to the University of Vanderbilt. He did not get into their school of business and was very upset when he got rejected. Now every time he sees those Vanderbilt business shirts he gets upset about himself and how he couldn’t achieve what he wanted to. While I feel he might be taking this a little extreme, I know he is not the only person who would see something like this and feel disappointed and I feel this happens more then people think.

    Even though it was my best friend who didn’t get into the business school I completely disagree with his point of view. I feel that these shirts are solely intended to make a university feel smaller and so that people can be proud of what they can achieved. I feel that they bring a lot of people closer together and especially people who don’t normally associate themselves with together. People who see these shirts as exlusive are only looking at this idea in a selfish matter and don’t realize the good it does for the community as a whole.

  8. sbsmoler92692 Says:

    Diversity at a large university, such as the University of Michigan is extremely important. In fact, it was one of the topics I wrote my application essay about. I feel that both the student population, and the faculty here at the University of Michigan take pride in the wide array of cultures and nationalities, identities, and interests that combine to make up our school. This is extremely evident during Festifall and Winterfest, when each student organization group will put up tables and market their club or interest group for fellow students to join. Wearing those said shirts, that advertise and market for a students particular interest or club, help to promote diversity throughout campus. Some clubs I did not even think existed here at Michigan, until I saw a peer wearing a shirt for the “Squirrel Club,” for example. Not only was this shirt interesting, but it also sparked my interest in wondering just what the club was about. It turned out that the Squirrel Club meets every Sunday and goes to feed the squirrels on campus! This is just one example of how diverse our student body is. If that student were not wearing a shirt that said “Squirrel Club,” on it, I might never have known about the club or what they did. Wearing shirts does not limit diversity, nor does it exclude others. Because many of these clubs and niche’s are open to the rest of the population, it invites and welcomes others to join their clubs and organizations. This is extremely valuable to society, because it also promotes tolerance of those who are different than us, and hold different forms of identity and interests. Tolerance in the workplace, and within society, are common issues that in today’s day and age are extremely important. Going to a big university such as Michigan, where you can meet so many people from all over the world, is important in expanding your cultural horizon, and being more open to diversity. Grouping gives others a sense of community on such a large campus, because it would be easy to fall out of place or get lost in the crowd. However, grouping will become troublesome when it interferes with the diversity that it promotes. If groups become exclusive, become hateful, or violent, I would have to consider grouping to be a bad and negative influence on campus. In general, I have felt my experience with the vast array of groups available to both undergraduates and graduates on campus has been helpful, and broadened my cultural horizons. It is one of the many things that I love about going to the University of Michigan.

  9. adamstillman2011 Says:

    I do think that these shirts are a great way of displaying the diversity that we have on campus here. They are not only a great way to display what group you identify with but they also are a great way to advertise your cause and get others involved. I often wear my “Michigan Mock Trial” T shirt around campus, and many people ask me what we are all about. These shirts are a great way to recruit people to become a part of your organization, which allows people who have similar interests to connect on campus. This can help give a student a sense of community, as explained in Robert Putnam’s piece on Bowling. If you wear a shirt that says “Michigan Political Science” you may have the chance to meet someone else with similar interests and maybe become involved in different clubs or groups. According to Putnam this sense of community leads to more involvement in government. These shirts are a great way to not only represent your group, but to increase your network and involvement on campus.

  10. marydahm08 Says:

    I agree with all of the above comments on why these t-shirts are invaluable to the Michigan community. I think that they highlight the wide range of programs and organizations in this school, and they encourage involvement in all that Michigan has to offer. But I think this post raises another interesting question about why people fear grouping so much, despite the value our society places on diversity.

    The word “diversity” gets thrown around a lot, especially at this school. Every college wants to be “diverse,” or at least have decent enough statistics that they can appear diverse to students perusing U.S. News and World Report rankings. But, to me at least, the idea of “promoting diversity” can feel so artificial. Colleges think that if they just have a wide enough range of students on campus, then that’s enough. But having a real sense of diversity requires the understanding of people different than you, not just doing the whole “we tolerate you” thing and as a result essentially ignoring differences. I think that it has become an increasing trend for people to shy away from labeling themselves to a group, to shy away from getting too involved with trying to understand people’s deepest beliefs, for fear of appearing discriminatory or intolerant. For example, politicians are afraid of appearing too religious. Religion and politics are supposed to be separate, and when arguments are being made for why a policy is good or bad, it would certainly be a bad political move to bring religious beliefs into it. Religion is seen as “private” and politics as “public,” and private life is supposed to be separate from public life. But in reality, our identities are based on all of the facets of our private life, and not bringing this into the public sphere cheapens our political discourse.

    It is this same thinking that might discourage someone from wearing a “Michigan Catholic” t-shirt. But realistically, most students would be able to wear it without worry. After all, the University of Michigan is a tolerant place. The problem with tolerance in regard to grouping, however, happens when tolerance just becomes ignorance. When the fear of appearing discriminatory leads us to a “tolerance overload” of sorts where, instead of avoiding intolerance and discrimination and exclusion, we try to avoid the differences themselves. We become afraid of pointing out our differences, and so instead peacefully glide over them, pretending they do not exist. Like a political discussion when politicians “set aside” their religious differences, trying too hard to ignore groupings in favor of creating an atmosphere of tolerance only creates an artificial sense of sameness.

    This is why the “Michigan blank” t-shirts are so important. They counteract this trend and make sure we can’t ignore differences. The author certainly raises good questions in asking whether groupings can promote discrimination and exclusion, and there are certainly cases when they do, but I have to argue that we have to fear the opposite phenomenon as well.

  11. arielleshanker Says:

    While the concept of grouping is all well and good in that it makes people feel like they are a part of something greater than themselves, I would argue that it completely discounts all of the other factors that make up your identity. In lecture yesterday, we talked about how to be an individual self is to have multiple different roles within the different spheres that your life makes up, and that your identity is a constellation of such roles.

    The author makes good and thought-provoking comments about the exclusion of “others” while wearing these kinds of grouping t-shirts, but do we ever stop to think about the exclusion of our other selves that is occurring as well? By presenting yourself as only one of your many selves, you are, in a way, discriminating against your holistic identity. In our modern society, one that is becoming increasingly more globalized due to technological advances, it is even more important to promote diversity not only at the aggregate level, but the individual level, because the diffusion of cultures and ideologies across boundaries has made it increasingly more difficult to be seen as “unique.” If we are to apply the idea of “covering” more to our daily lives, or the act of minimizing characteristics in order to become more mainstream, we run the risk of blending into one singular, monotonous identity. While grouping has positive affects for self-esteem issues, it often overlooks other important features and qualities that an individual may possess.

  12. michellerubin Says:

    Personally, the idea that diversity is a positive aspect of our community has been ingrained in my mind since the early days of elementary school. I can not even recall the amount of times I have learned about diversity in class, done projects on diversity, and even written essays (my admission essay to U of M) on the subject of diversity. I do believe that diversity is a strong selling point of our university. Part of this diversity attributed to the assigning of groups because without the assignment of groups based on certain interests or heritage the world would seemingly have no diversity. In this sense, the assignment of groups is a positive way of splitting people up. However, I agree that it can also turn negative, such as in the Japanese Burakumin case. Yet, I feel as this is very different than sporting a “Michigan Law” or “Michigan Muggles” t-shirt around campus. In the sense that when you are wearing these t-shirts you are not directly ostracizing anyone, you are simply displaying your interests for others to see. As long as grouping does not turn into ostracizing others because they are not part of a given group, or because they are different than yourself, I believe that is a necessity for diverse world. I believe the author of this post raises a valid point and good question when asking if the wearing of a “Michigan Catholic” shirt promotes diversity because the person is displaying their religion, so it makes diversity more apparent to the public eye, or if this makes those wearing these shirts want to exclude those who are not catholic. I believe that it definitely helps to promote diversity, especially on campus because it makes us aware that not everyone is like ourselves, which in turn, makes us realize how diverse our campus and world really are. As long as grouping does not cross the line and cause problems, it is definitely essential to our world, which is probable why it has been around for centuries in various forms.

  13. briank726 Says:

    I don’t see how wearing these shirts can be a cause of discrimination or exclusion. We recognize our differences between people of different ethnicities, student groups, etc, but this is hardly a reason to conflict with these people. I think all the Michigan blank shirts are fun ways to display diversity on campus. And I think that they allow us Michigan students and faculty to appreciate this diversity when we see people wearing them.
    Diversity is crucial in college because it is the first time many people actually interact with people of different backgrounds, especially with people outside their hometowns. Interacting with diverse groups of people allows us to experience new views and become more open-minded, and also broaden our social circle. Having a diverse college campus paves the way for our experience in the real world, in which the lines of segration are more defined. We can gain so much more knowledge and perspectives from diversity, and we can even learn more about ourselves. It allows us to compare the beliefs and experiences of other groups with our own, which makes us more aware of our own cultures and ideas. Probably most importantly, when we enter our professions, many of us will be forced to work and interact with people of diverse backgrounds, so we need to be exposed to that in college. Therefore, doing things such as wearing these Michigan blank shirts are not harmful but only beneficial in promoting diversity.

  14. ljgoslin Says:

    I think grouping people by their interests is a good thing in moderation. Recently, we have discussed the “Bowling Alone.” I agree completely that our lack of community has hurt our national success and governmental process in the US. In countries, like in Europe, when there is a high sense of nationalism, there is more compliance within the government. They are able to pass more legislation, and act in situations of need. However, the US has hit a rut. Our Nation is split, and even though this has happened in the past, we cannot seem to get past it this time. Reagan and the leader of the house would argue and fight about issues, but at the end of the day they would sit down and drink and make a compromise. They would get done what needed to be done. But now, there is a lack of community. People aren’t willing together because they aren’t bonded by a bigger purpose. Self Interest has overcome the want to create a better nation. In history we has a sense of togetherness from our independence, World War One, Great Depression, World War Two, and The Cold War. But now, citizens are not in favor of the wars we are in (I think, rightfully so). Republicans fight Democrats,and people are losing the trust in their government. I think this is completely a result of our lack of community in the United States. So in addressing promoting groups, I completely agree that we should do it. But of course, to a certain extent. Promoting who you are and having companionship with others who are similar to you is human nature. It is how we form relationships. But it is possible that if you are over promote your group, that you will scare away others that have the opposite interests. So in conclusions, I would advocate that you can promote groups, but be open to others with different interests. A happy medium is key.

  15. amgille Says:

    During fall break, I had an experience very much like this one. In a small town in West Virginia as I was checking into a hotel, the desk worker looked at my Michigan fleece, shook her head and said, “Our boys let us down today.” I was momentarily confused, mostly because in West Virginia, everyone basically is a WVU fan. However, when I realized she was talking about the Wolverines, I immediately smiled at her. We discussed the depressing MSU Michigan game and I found out that she had lived in Michigan until about five years ago when she decided she needed warmer weather. It was impressive that the simple fact that I was wearing a Michigan fleece could connect me to someone who I had never met and could allow us to have a conversation that would have never occurred without the group identification of my clothing. It is important to note, though, that the group identification we had did not discriminate against those that were with us. Our conversation did not limit the interactions she had with the others, and she even began to ask them questions about their lives.

    In regards to the shirts around campus, I think that it follows along the same lines as my West Virginia Wolverine experience. Though we walk around and read the shirts, expectantly looking for those in our own majors, we do not avoid those with other shirts. It might even stand to argue that I talk to others with different majors more as I am truly interested in what they are doing with their studies. If anything, these shirts also make me feel more connected on campus. While we all have different interests, the blue and maize of the shirts is ultimately the thing that unites us more than the identification on our shirts. We are all wolverines, and coming to Michigan, we were prepared for a diverse environment. This diversity is just evident more on campus by these shirts and they create a sense of community walking across the campus.

  16. samyoovpolsci Says:

    There is no doubt that the plethora of people wearing different type of Michigan apparel promote the school’s sense of diversity. However, I think the importance of such apparel is for recognition and in hopes of finding a “we” in the masses.
    As an international student (Korean-Australian) when I first arrived in the US at the start of this semester, i had never felt more foreign. Everything that was so natural and normal for everybody else, like using miles, and Fahrenheit to tipping people in restaurants, seemed so foreign and alienating. To me, initially, I alone was “we” and America was “them”. But after a couple of weeks ( and very heavy brainwashing to love the Wolverines and hate the Buckeyes), i found myself cheering and jeering, up until my voice was completely gone at an American Football game, for a team i had no idea that existed until 5 weeks ago.
    These shirts, our blatant expression of “us”, does not necessarily create discrimination or exclusion, but rather promotes the sense of belonging that we all long for. It shows our pride in this “group” we are a part of. As discussed in “Bowling Alone” by Putnam, there is this growing trend towards isolation and a growing loss of “community”. Yet it is these ostentatious promotion of our “group” that brings us back to our sense of “us”.

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