This is the fourth and final essay in a series called, The World in Flux, which reflects on moral dilemmas surrounding racism and how to rise above personally and collectively.

What really separates us? PHOTO/Pexels

2020 has been a dynamic year for collective identity.

There was a brief moment of global togetherness, albeit morose, as the world’s population unified against a common enemy: Covid-19.

We quickly moved into Us vs. Them for which country had it worse than others, then which region or state or city had it worse than others. The Afflicted vs. The Healthy ’til no place was deemed safe. Then it became The Socially Distanced Mask-Wearers vs. The ‘Free-to-be-Me’ Clan (non-compliers).

In both cases — the pandemic and equality — we’ve also seen The State vs. The People. We’re see it in Hong Kong’s tug-of-war for power, the politicizing of the virus response by leaders, and the usual pre-election divisiveness as candidates urge us to pick sides.

The shifting stances highlighted pitted one desirable group against an undesirable group, though all feel they are in the right. When we’re separated based on differing value sets and morality, we can judge those who belong in that other group personally.

It would be a lot easier to float downstream on the current of conformity, just accepting the platforms put forth to divide us. It’s much harder to take a breath, step back, think critically and feel fully for ourselves and then have compassion or, perhaps, empathy for the other. After all, it may be shorting how we are hard-wired.

And it’s a known fact, one that concerns employers. “The unconscious bias training industry is booming, but online tests do little to even address overt, conscious bias, Shahed Ezaydi wrote this month in Wired UK. “Worldwide, companies spend over $8 billion on unconscious bias training every year, according to data from McKinsey. The only problem is that it doesn’t work.”

IS PREJUDICE PART OF THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE?
While many of us feel united by the shared challenging circumstances of 2020, it has also polarized people from friends, family and colleagues who discovered they didn’t share the same take on matters. People have “unfriended” others not just on Facebook but in real life. Emotions are high still, and every trip to the supermarket can send fears and tempers flying.

When we have such a strong sense of righteousness, our disbelief of the unrighteous can cast us into adversarial thinking that has diminishing returns and may hurt Us more than Them in the long-run. For example, staying three metres from an unmasked person and one metre from a masked person — when the guidelines is two metres — may serve us well to avoid catching coronavirus, but it may lull us into a distrust of those unlike us. Will we carry forward such judgment?

It’s a very difficult question and scenario.

Context is everything

I’ve come to learn that everyone is not working from the same values. Maybe we all generally agree on what’s right and wrong, but context changes everything. And people can view the same moment within vastly different contexts.

I remember clearly one of the lessons in my Philosophy 101 class in college:

Is wrong to steal a loaf of bread? Yes, we all agreed.
Is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread if you are the destitute mother of three starving children? The class was divided.

The great Machiavellian debate ensues: Do the ends justify the means? Do the means justify the ends?

More than once I’ve been at a conference where the speaker said, “Raise your hand if you are prejudiced.” The speaker would wait a few moments as a few hands sheepishly would go up.

“If your hand is raised, thank you for being truthful. The rest of you are lying,” the speaker said as muffled gasps could be heard around the room. “As humans we cannot help but have prejudice because we are all born with a point of view.”

The first time I heard that I thought, What a leap! That’s not fair to accuse everyone of being prejudiced.

But now I understand, for two reasons:

  • Nature has provided us certain dispositions. I’m female. I can’t know the male experience except to imagine it or talk with those who are living it. My natural bias is the female point-of-view, which has a lot of biology and chemistry built into it. I am wired this way.
  • Nurture, of course, is the great counter and equal contributor to our viewpoint. How we are socially conditioned influences our beliefs and actions. If your parent had a consistently positive or negative experience for a certain type of person, you are likely to absorb that bias.

By nature, we all fit certain “filters” or categories. For instance, someone could describe me as a white American female, who was raised Catholic in the Northeast of America, and who is a left-handed, vegetarian Taurean. That’s eight filters right there. 

Or they could describe me as a single, heterosexual, middle-aged immigrant to the UK, and a Life Path 7. That’s another five.

And people will have opinions about every single one. There are more, too, if you want talk education, economics, political beliefs, and music preferences. Reading it without knowing me, what picture forms in your mind? Which labels could someone slap on you?

“Research on stereotypes shows that simply knowing the stereotypes of a group leads to the automatic activation of that stereotype in your mind — even if you consciously reject that stereotype,” New York University social neuroscience professor David Amodio told Psychology Today last month. “So, prejudice has automatic and deliberate aspects, and while some people reject it deliberatively, everyone has some form of prejudice.”

I’ve always thought of these ‘filters’ as a test. Like decoys that distract us to take us off-mission. As if a being of higher intelligence is observing to see if we will give someone different than us a chance.

Reducing people to labels strips us all of humanity.

What if life were in grayscale? Like the old “black-and-white” televisions were. If all these distraction filters were turned off and we could focus on the disposition, the words, the actions — the energy — of a person, rather than the external cues we use as shortcuts to figure out if we should trust and respect him or her.

Because that’s what we do. We’re hardwired for jumping to conclusions.

WE’RE HARDWIRED TO BE LAZY & BIASED
Humans’ primal instincts are built for conserving energy. That was crucial for survival when we didn’t know where or when our next meal would come. But while much has evolved over the millennia, we often take the easy (and unfair) route to figure out people and situations; to form a stance on them.

Why try to think things through — ask questions, be present, learn — when we can rely on a belief already stored so we can move on? It’s too much work to get to know someone and take the time to see the true character revealed, right? Knowing which brand someone likes, what their personal style says, what car they drive, and the visual aspects are much easier cues to figure what they’re all about, right?

We know that’s not right, but we do use all of these to size things up. It’s natural. Such a shortcut to a decision is called a heuristic, which leads to cognitive bias, which can lead to prejudice.

“We are forced to rely on mental shortcuts to help us make sense of the world,” Kendra Cherry wrote earlier this year on VeryWellMind.com. “Heuristics can also contribute to things such as stereotypes and prejudice. Because people use mental shortcuts to classify and categorize people, they often overlook more relevant information and create stereotyped categorizations that are not in tune with reality.”

Prejudice strips us all of dignity, and acting on that pre-judgment is discrimination.

CAN WE RISE ABOVE?

“While it’s difficult to remove prejudice from the mind, self-control can stop it from being expressed in behavior. That in itself is a worthy goal,” Dr. Amodio told Psychology Today. “People might think that although they have bias in their minds, they are able to act fairly and not express their prejudices. But what we find time and again — in lab experiments and in real life — is that people simply cannot control all the ways that their prejudices influence their judgments and behaviors. For this reason, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my research, perhaps ironically, is that the key to reducing prejudice is not in the individual’s mind, but in the design and implementation of policies, procedures, organizations, and structures to ensure fairness.” Psychology Today defined self-control as the ability to manage one’s impulses, emotions, and behaviors to achieve long-term goals.

Here are some ways to slow down or disrupt the combination of nature and nurture from causing us to be prejudiced in our beliefs and behaviours

  • Be aware that inherent bias exists in all of us
  • Be willing to explore our own inclinations and why we may hold them
  • Practice listening, reflecting and asking before speaking when address someone whose beliefs and behaviours are at odds with ours
  • Be curious about others’ beliefs and behaviours by seeking to understand the ‘why’ from them
  • Mix with people of diverse thought and experience
  • Make informed decisions by fully understanding your thoughts, feelings and motivations rather than reacting

Please share your tips and stories in the comments.

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