Some time ago, I watched an episode of the SBS documentary, Untold Australia: Strictly Jewish. The episode followed an ultra-orthodox Adass Jewish community in Melbourne, Australia over the course of a year. The Adass Jews have nurtured a close-knit, insular and self-sufficient community in the inner-city suburb of Ripponlea—with its own schools, shops, telephone directory and even an ambulance service.
The Adass Jews observe traditional rituals like Shabbat, Passover, and Sukkot to the letter, and for the most part shun technology and secular media. They are fully committed to the commandment to be fruitful, and as such—after the sexes are segregated for most of their youth—marriages are arranged, and a gaggle of children and grandchildren emerge. Their families are big and noisy; their dining tables long and lavishly decked out.
Isn’t it amazing to think of these Adass children, growing up in a world nestled within worlds—cosy in their single-sex schools and synagogues and busy homes—striving to live a good life against the backdrop of God and the Torah? They carry on a narrative that goes back for generations and centuries. They exist within a bubble, yes—but don’t we all? We exist within the bubble of our own families, religions and cultures. We think we see the world, but we don’t. We see our world: a blinkered view. Before yesterday, my world did not contain the Adass Jewish community. Now it does, and it is richer for it. But there are so many worlds that have not yet overlapped with mine.
There are different spheres that is perhaps more familiar to us. In the sphere of social media, likes are currency and followers define status. The language is one of flat-lays, selfies, hashtags and emoticons. Self-worth (I say this tongue-in-cheek; I too am well-versed in the skilful application of filters) is bolstered by a stylish and utterly unrealistic presentation of one’s keen fashion sense, food adventures or travel escapes.
There may be very few similarities between Instagram and orthodox Jews, but both are subcultures with an in-group speak and an in-group thinking.
I don’t believe subcultures, whether secular or religious, are essentially good or essentially evil. We all exist within subcultures, and they all distort reality in some way—or rather, they present us with their own realities and give meaning and structure to our lives (the meaning of serving an ancient God, or the meaning of catching someone’s attention for long enough that they double-tap your picture…). Certainly, in-groups play a role in fostering a sense of self identity and social identity: they help us to know who we are and where we stand in relation to others.
The danger, I think, is when we allow our subcultures to become consuming. If we surround ourselves only with people who see the world one way, we don’t grow. We put ourselves in a cage and allow the goals of that in-group to define us. This would be especially sad if the in-group discourages you from attaining a full education, or preoccupies you with a steady stream of hyper-filtered, unrealistic, unattainable and ultimately irrelevant goals.
Identifying with a social group also predisposes us to in-group bias and prejudice. It’s comfortable and reassuring to spend time with people who share our views and speak our slang. It’s easy. You don’t have to explain yourself; you don’t have to deal with odd opinions or odd accents. Then you start seeing the out-group—people who aren’t like you—as foreign, weird, dumb. Then you start to disparage them. Loathe them. Fear them.
How do we counter this instinctual prejudice? The first steps may be as simple as communication, outside our typical groups, and empathy. Talk, ask questions, listen with an open mind, and be slow to judge.