Insiders and Outsiders

In a recent exchange about the Israel-Palestine issue with a friend,  he informed me that as an ‘outsider’ to an issue, I couldn’t fully appreciate it. As someone who has academically studied this issue, I do have strong convictions. As a fellow human being, I have sympathies. Finally, as an intellectual, I believe that I have (an informed) opinion of the topic.

On a similar note, as a Non-resident Indian, I am an outsider in India and the U.S., where this in-betweenness can create not only legal challenges – not being able to vote – for instance, but also put one in a strange situation, where speaking ‘on behalf’ of a particular idea or conception is suspect, simply because of one’s positionality.paper-people

This line of reasoning of insider-outsider can lead one on many slippery slopes.  For instance: Can I, as an Indian born Muslim really ‘understand’ Arab-American issues? Or for that matter, can I truly appreciate what a right-wing Hindu nationalist feels about India?  Finally, can I ever know what it is to be an ‘American’ or ‘Mexican’? Does belonging to a group give special access to knowledge or insights?

As Robert Merton points out in his classic essay Insiders and Outsiders, Merton points out that an extreme manifestation of the ‘insider’ doctrine can lead to arguments such as: only Blacks can understand Blacks and only women can understand women. He calls this extreme manifestation as the ‘credentialism of ascribed status.’ This, he contrasts with the credentialism of acquired status, on which meritocracy is based. In essence, this means that our brahminical attitudes are not well-founded and extreme ‘insiderism’ – the belief that you must be one to truly understand one – is fundamentally flawed. I tend to agree.

In today’s world, we are all insiders and outsiders, to some extent. The notion of a ‘community’ is changing so rapidly that academics may have to throw out many of the old stodgy definitions of ‘place-based’ community and the like. What is the ‘community’ of internet users, what about a refugee? What is his or her community? What about diaspora communities?

With an Indian background, lineage going back to the Middle East (from my mother’s side) and Afghanistan (from my dad’s side) I realize I am an ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ in more ways than one. I am currently in the U.S. and married to a Mexican-American woman. Though my Spanish leaves much to be desired, I believe our kids will inherit a far more complex lineage than mine and my wife’s. This is not to throw up my arms and say ‘We are all one’ or something similarly banal, but to actually carefully examine what all of this means. Does it mean that I have greater ‘authenticity’ when speaking of Mexican-American issues or those of the Middle East?

 The other extreme manifestation of this idea is to claim to know ‘everything’ about the other groups or individuals, by virtue of educational or other qualifications. While having indepth scholarly or professional expertise about other communities or groups may give us a lot of depth and gravitas, it does not fully give us an appreciation of what it means to live as the others do. Which is another way to say that there are limits to what we can ‘know’. Tacit knowledge cannot be gained by reading a book or just thinking about an issue.

One has to also live and experience a particular way of life, to truly appreciate it. In other words, we all need a measure of humility, before rushing to judgment about the ‘other’.

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