Variations on a theme

There’s a topic that has been roiling around inside me for awhile. Sometimes I get really worked up about it, other times I just watch stuff with the topic in mind – a kind of curiosity-inspired observation. The topic is really a question, and it’s definitely a timely question. (I almost said a topical topic.)

How different are we, really?

We live in an exaggerated states of polarization. I firmly believe that this polarization is a fear response that has been overfed. I also believe that our inherent differences are magnified, which leads to big discrepancies in our circumstances. I guess I need to explain this.

First, I know that semantics are important in this discussion. I think it’s very important to add in a word, partly because adding in a third option gets us out of black or white thinking and partly because it helped me enormously.

The word is “variation” – like a variation in music; riffing on a theme or a melody. We have to train our brain to look for variations rather than differences. It’s that whole confirmation bias thing.

Second, I’m going to use the topic of gender for purposes of discussion. It could just as easily be ethnicity, religion, politics, color, or a myriad of other descriptors that we use as differentiators, but I need to pick something. And I’ve been surrounded by experts who love to talk about the differences in ways that seem Victorian to me.

Okay, here we go…

When we see differences, we use them to see causes and build explanations. We have been so heavily conditioned to see gender-based differences that we take them for granted. We rarely think to question our assumptions, we call them facts, and they are added to our social conditioning.

Here’s an example. For years research aimed to understand differences in mapping brain functions. A handful of researchers interpreted their findings as showing a causal relationship existed between the mapping results and gender. These findings were published, which led to more research and more findings being published that supports an interpretation of causality.

This lines up perfectly with all the patriarchal conditioning in western science, so it is part of the cognitive bias. But very recent findings, conducted on a more diverse sample base, have shown a stronger correlation to brain size than to gender. I could pack so much more data into this, and I’m so tempted, but it would detract from the point I’m trying to make.

When we see variations, we react very differently. Let’s take cilantro. Some people like it, some hate it. There’s a genetic cause. We don’t really think of it as a big difference, it’s just a variation. Because it’s not a difference, it’s not the basis of any kind of persecution, discrimination or categorization. Maybe because it’s not readily visible, you say? There’s definitely something there, but it’s a rabbit hole I don’t want to follow today. So let’s go with handedness, which is generally understood to be a combination of genetics, inheritance and environment, and we pretty much treat it as a variation.

Historically we have used differences to justify discrepancies in circumstances. (You know, like gender or color-based wage gaps.) Not so much variations. Maybe we’re hardwired that way.

So how different are we, really? How much is just conditioning?

Here are two ideas for action:

  1. Why not try thinking in terms of variations instead of differences between us and see what happens?
  2. Root out errant social conditioning like a truffle pig.

I like #2. It’s bold. And I’m not just pointing it at others – I’m looking inside, too!

In the meantime, remember these things: You are loved. We are all loved. Let’s all be kind. And in all things – progress, not perfection!

Love and light,



By the way, the historical patriarchal thinking is toxic to everyone!

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  1. Madison January 20, 2022 at 10:51 am

    Fascinating to learn about how research can be swayed by our cultural influences and social conditioning!


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