Have you ever seen a cygnet? A cygnet is a baby swan. And they are super cute. And yet, when we talk of people who blossom into a more physically beautiful being than one may have imagined, we say that they were an “ugly duckling”, based on the tale by that name created by Hans Christian Anderson.
I find it hard to imagine that someone reading this hasn’t heard of this story. But, in the off chance that you haven’t, the story is basically about a swan whose egg falls in with some duck eggs. And when the egg hatches, all the little ducks freak out because this one duck, which is actually a swan, doesn’t look like the others. So they do what any anthropomorphized duck would do, they start seeing the worst in the little cygnet. There’s no sense of wonder or compassion. There’s only, “You don’t look like us. So you must be deficient.” Old Hans had his eyes wide open. He knew how we humans tend to roll. So he created this story for kids to cut fear off at the pass.
Anyway, it turns out that the ducks were wrong about the cygnet. He turned out to be a beautiful swan. So what’s the moral of the story? Don’t judge an ugly bird by its feathers because it may turn out that he’s more beautiful than you imagine. Or at least , that’s the moral that’s been sold to us all of these years. But I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I have another moral. The swan was never ugly. The duck’s eyes were. Do you get that?
When the ducks encountered the cygnet they judged him based on their own idea of what was normal. Rather than get to know their supposed brother for who he was or see the value in his difference, they looked at his appearance and determined his value based on the idea that because he was different, he was somehow unworthy of the consideration that they would give a duck that matched the criteria they set for duckness.
The Best at Looking for the Worst
So it may not surprise you that humans are uniquely qualified for looking for the worst in those who differ from themselves. Even when we try to condition ourselves for more receptivity to differences, our primary drive for survival leads us to discriminate. And not only do we tend to discriminate, we use our supposed logical faculties to justify our discrimination. Like the ducks who saw the worst in the cygnet solely based on his outward appearance, most of us, with very little prompting, take a minor discrepancy in our standards as proof positive of something negative afoot.
This tendency is something that scientists quantified in what is known as The Blue Dot Test. In this test, scientists showed people a series of dots, some blue and some purple in equal measure. All they had to do was count them. In the beginning, people did pretty well but after a while, they started to see more blue dots than purple. Even when they were told that there were less blue dots, they still witnessed more blue dots. And even when they were literally paid to pay closer attention, they still saw more blue where in fact there were more purple ones. Essentially their criteria for what qualified as blue was expanded by their expectations. Now some people might not see how this test shows anything about the human capacity for discrimination and false equivalency. But when you consider that the same scientists took this experiment to the next level using threatening and non-threatening portraits of faces and ethical and non-ethical experiments and witnessed the same tendency of humans to see what wasn’t there, you can see the correlation. Just as they started to expand their idea of what qualified as blue, they expanded their idea of what qualified as threatening and unethical. To get a better picture, see the video below.
So what’s the moral of this post? Well most specifically, I would say that it is don’t always believe what you think when encountering difference. As our society becomes increasingly complex, reliance on simplistic evaluative processes will ultimately do a lot more harm than good in creating equitable relationships. The new frontier in consciousness will require that some of us build a higher capacity for cognitive dissonance and the discomfort associated with it so that we might be able to investigate our motivations when encountering difference. Otherwise, we will find ourselves to be duck-brained in the face of the many swans life has to offer.