Group Dynamics: ignoring the dark side

The 18 Sept 2005 issue of the New York Times Book Review has an essay by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. titled "Forgetting Reinhold Neibuhr". [Possible paid subscription req'd].

The essay describes Niebuhr's nuanced view of original sin and, by extension, our [primarily Western] human nature.

Niebuhr emphasized the mixed and ambivalent character of human nature - creative impulses matched by destructive impulses, regard for others overruled by excessive self-regard, the will to power, the individual under constant temptation to play God to history. This is what was known in the ancient vocabulary of Christianity as the doctrine of original sin. Niebuhr summed up his political argument in a single powerful sentence: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."

I find it easy to slip into simplified and stereotyped judgments of people, ideas, and behaviors, especially when I disagree with the ideas or don't like the person. And that's when I separate myself from others in an "I'm OK, you're a jerk!" kind of way. The lesson I take from Niebuhr is that my group and collaborative activities would be less contentious and more productive if I recognized all the forces I bring to interactions and work.

I have questions: How can I be aware of all of me and engaged at the same time?
Is it easier to empathize with others in face-to-face interaction than it is online?
When are simple "us/them" distinctions useful?
Am I making too much of this?

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