Identity in the 21st Century: Byrad Yyelland at TEDxEducationCity (2012)

Translator: Jorge Bravo
Reviewer: Sebastian Betti When I was in University of Saskatchewan,
as an undergraduate student, I was involved in a group
project like many of you have been involved,
and our study was gender. We wanted to look at how gender
is portrayed through clothing. And so you can see on the screen
some pictures of women. My group was three women and me,
which is very typical in sociology, usually more women than men. And so we thought we would
study gender identity by looking at how we express it
in our clothing. And therefore, we would send
one of the women downtown dressed like a man,
until we began to realize this happens every day
in business world, where in fact, women often have to dress
like men to get respect. So the group got together,
and one of the women said, “Well, you know, my grandmother
has a dress that might fit Byrad. Maybe he should go downtown.” Now, this is not her grandmother,
it’s a reasonable facsimile; and this is not the dress, it’s a
reasonable facsimile. (Laughter) But we toured the
University of Saskatchewan. I would go first,
they would follow behind and then interview people:
“What did you think?” University of Saskatchewan
is 20,000 students. It’s a big university. And then we went downtown,
in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Three weeks before Christmas,
is very cold. I learned dresses are
not nearly as warm as pants. I also learned dresses
don’t have pockets. As a man, I’m used to putting
my hands in my pockets, especially when I get nervous. But every time I did that
they would slip off. And I found myself, just sort of
incidentally slipping into poses that are often very typically
related with women. (Laughter) (Applause) That apparently was
the power of the dress. Fashion students can relate. I also learned you get in and out
of a vehicle very differently. With pants, you open the door,
step in, boom, shut the door; step out, boom, shut the door. With a dress, however,
you open the door, slide, (Laughter) step two, you swing and shut the door; to get out, open, swing,
slide the door shut. Now, as a sociologist and
with a psychology background, I’m interested in those things. I’m also interested
in your reactions right now. There is some humor,
there was some surprise, there are some faces going, “Oh, this is
beginning to creep me out.” (Laughter) That is natural.
This is very typical. As we deal with the other,
the other person on the stage when they begin to challenge how we think, it interferes with our sense of understanding. And this is my challenge to you today:
to rethink what seems obvious. We think about our clothing,
we think about our food. We think about where
we are going to go. We rarely ever stop and think
about what we are thinking. But we are thinking about ourselves, and we are thinking about others, all the time. One of the problems,
evolutionary psychology tells us, we have a natural tendency
to view the other as bad. Whoever is different from us
is not as good as us. We are comfortable with us. Remember the video we saw before
about groups of similar taste. We are comfortable in
a group of similar taste. Little children have boys against the girls,
little kids against the big kids. We tend to group up with
those we are comfortable with. Because they are us,
they are safe. We know them. They are natural;
they are normal. But “them” is different. The group that is not like us
is the exact opposite. We instinctively go to
this understanding that they are somehow
evil or dangerous. Evolutionary psychology would suggest
that this protects the species. And it makes sense.
If two cavemen see one another; one doesn’t look the same, my question is, “OK, does this guy eat plants,
animals or maybe people? Is he going to come
to my cave and kill my people? Maybe I should kill him first,
save everybody a lot of time.” It’s amazing how many politicians still have
that mode of thought. (Laughter) Trouble is “them” thinks “them”
is “us” and “us” is “them”. So now, how do we come together
in the 21st century where, as you look around the room,
people of many different cultures are already sitting side by side? And this is only going to increase. We have this mental first step
we have to get past. Our second issue is once we get an idea
in our heads, we tend to keep it. It’s very difficult to get beyond that. And just as we see different people as bad, we tend to see different ideas as bad. Where do we get ideas?
We pull the data in. The data comes in through our senses. Everything we touch, see, smell,
hear, and so on and so forth, it all comes rampaging in,
where our brains have to grip it, collate it, combine it,
somehow make sense of it. But as we do that, each and every one of us
has unique very different lives. And so what is important to me,
at this particular point in time, is not necessarily as important to you,
at this particular point in time. And so each of us develop
very unique understandings. We remember some things, we focus
on some things, and we forget others. We literally develop our
understanding of reality in our heads. And because each of us has a slightly
different understanding of reality in our heads, each of us has
literally a different reality. Because what is in your head,
is what’s real for you. If you’ve ever had a conversation
where you both said the same words, and you both walked away, and you both
had radically different ideas over what just happened
in that conversation, this might be one explanation. This is not done alone.
We interact with others. We have to have some kind of an idea, or we can never have a society. So we have to have some idea we all embrace, and typically a series of ideas. We’ll build our constructions
of reality with minor variations, usually. Some people suggest the real
definition of insanity is simply a construction of reality that
everybody else disagrees with. It does not say it’s wrong.
It’s just different. But we fit together, we maintain
our constructions of reality and we work very diligently to do that. We support them, but they are fragile. And you and I instinctively know that. They can be upset so very, very easily, amazingly easily, when you
stop to think about it. The simple greeting, “Hi, how are you?”,
when you leave out a couple of words “Hi!” and
the other person says, “Good!”. And you both panic because
now nobody knows what to do. You try and put it back together. “Good. Ah, good day.
Good to see you. Have a good life.
See you.” Why is it such a big deal?
Here is something. Say the word “why?”
three times to somebody. “Hi, how are you?”; “Why?”;
“Ah, I don’t know, I thought I would ask”;
“Why?”; “I don’t know. Is this that a joke?
Am I on TV?”; “Why?”; “Now, you’re bugging me.” We will very quickly move through
various steps because we are panicking. And as our understanding
of reality is impacted, by what other people do and by
what we do, we have to fight back. We have to try and put it back together,
so we can deal with it. The steps I mentioned earlier,
the steps I just went through momentarily ago: surprise, humor,
and then they get very, very negative, if we continue. If you stop, it’s a joke. If you go much further,
it’s not funny anymore. Why? Why is it such a big deal? ‘Cause we don’t like it. Very typical scenario: round person
married to slim person. Slim person says, “You’ve got
to eat less chocolate, you’ve got to go to the gym more,
you’ve got eat more vegetables, more broccoli, more cauliflower. All those things that people
are supposed to eat.” My feeling is: you are what
you eat, you wanna be sweet, you’ve gotta eat sweet,
my friend. (Laugher) (Applause) Here is what happens: big person
loses weight, little person says, “Oh, honey, you work so hard.
You’ve been doing so well. Have a couple of candies.
I know you love these.” They don’t recognize themselves
what they’re doing. They mean well. Interpretive sociology
would suggest the reason they’re doing this, is because
their definition of reality says “I’m the slim one.”
But you cannot be the slim one if the other is not the round one. You must make this one round
or you are not slim. (Laughter) And what we’ve seen happen,
more than once, is if the round one gets slim and stayed slim,
the slim one will divorce and go find another round one — (Laughter) —
and then say things like, “You’ve gotta quit that job, you’ve gotta go
to the gym more, you’ve gotta work out.” It seems silly, but it’s our
construction of reality because when you change you,
you change how I see you and because how I see you
fits together with how I see me, then that
changes how I see me. If I don’t know who you are anymore,
I don’t know who I am. And that is a deep existential fear. (Applause) Within the Arab Gulf, within the world,
within higher education, we are moving increasingly into multiethnic, multireligious, multicultural, multi everything. But we’ve got these problems. We recognize now already
that we try to fit together, but our brains automatically
go to “different is bad.” “How do you know?” “Well,
they are different. Wake up!” And we know it’s difficult
to change this idea. However, there is good news. Interpretive sociology teaches us that this construction of reality process
is just that: a process. When people say, “No. This is who I am.
This is who I was born. This is who I am, I’m going
to be this until I die.” Well, what I would suggest to you is
this is who you are at this second in time right now,
but every second we continue constructing,
we continue building, and you can grow, and you can move
and you can shift, like the sands running down the dunes. The dunes look impermeable,
but when you look closely, you see the wind always moves the sand, and over time they can move a lot. Sometimes if there is something big,
they’ll shift very soon, but they do continue to shift. When things are in motion,
you can steer them, you can move them where you will. And our ideas are the same.
Recognizing that you may feel discomfort when you recognize somebody new,
recognizing that there is a tendency to keep that thought in your head:
that’s two steps. Step three: recognize it’s
all part of the process. Don’t let it blow you
out of the water. It’s fine. It’s mental inertia. Getting up off
the modulus, it’s physical inertia. It’s not easy, but when you get up, then you can walk around
and life is exciting. Same thing with new ideas.
It’s inertia. That’s all. We can get together,
we can embrace one another, we can live an exciting life. And before I leave, I’d like to share
one more suggestion for you as you begin to challenge
some of your thoughts. There is an old saying in Canada,
where, by the way, many of us do believe water
should be a human right. But there is a saying,
“You know who your friends are,” which is short for
“You know who your real friends are in a time of crisis,”
because what sometimes happens is you have a crisis and then some people who were close to you,
don’t come with you. Or you have a major life change,
and previous friends, previous relationships
tend to fall by the wayside. And that leaves us feeling hurt,
and sometimes cheated. It was a fraudulent relationship. I would suggest to you,
it’s not fraudulent at all, I think this was a good relationship; this person did care for you.
It was real. It’s just that you moved further
than they could, at that particular time. So maybe when you think
of these past relationships, you can think with a little more warmth, a little more love,
and feel better about them. These are not bad people; these are not narrow
or superficial relationships. They were real until they
hit a breaking point, and then their particular construction
could not embrace yours. That’s all. Something to think about. (Applause) I can tell by this enthusiastic response,
by listening to you, by knowing many of you as I do, that
as we move forward into 21st century, deeper into 21st century,
as we embrace more cultures, more identities, as we rearrange our own identities in this alchemical soup, we don’t know where we are going,
I know you are in charge and I am completely confident in you. Thank you very much. (Applause)

9 thoughts on “Identity in the 21st Century: Byrad Yyelland at TEDxEducationCity (2012)”

  1. Wow! Time warp! I am a returning student (working on a Bachelor of Social Work degree through U of R) currently writing an autobiography for my Indigenous Studies class on Oral Tradition and referenced how Byrad inspired me to major in Soc back in 92 at U of S. I did my first big paper for him on racism and received it back with the words "Brilliant, superior work! 96%" handwritten in red pen. Watching this video was just as enthralling and charismatic as one of his lectures then. Great orator!

  2. I, too, had the privilege of having Byrad as a professor (in the mid-90s).  His lectures were always fantastic.  It was great to hear him speak again.


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