Through our class readings (and listenings) this week I must say I really enjoyed some of the perspectives Mahzarin Banaji shared in ‘The Mind Is a Difference-Seeking Machine’. With most things, I often believe people’s thoughts/feelings/predispositions can be explained by better understanding either their experiences or how they look at and interact with the world around them. I think the same can be used, to some degree, to explain why people exhibit racist ideals or fail to practice inclusivity.
I kept finding myself thinking back to a cartoon I saw a few years ago made by Zen pencils illustrating a quote by Mark Twain, see below. Here an individual trades their idealized symbols of hate for momentos after traveling the world and expanding their narrow world-view through experiences and understanding. I think the last part is especially important, as understanding breaks barriers and builds bridges.
I believe Ms. Banaji agrees, as she commonly discusses how a lack of understanding leads to misconceptions and even hate. Taker her example from an Eastern European country where ‘a survey was done where they were given a nonsense name of a group and asked, “How much do you hate them? How much would you like them not to come to our country?” They got large numbers of people saying, “We don’t want them here, we really dislike them, they’re filthy and mean and nasty.” And they didn’t exist. That was a made-up name.’ A lack of understanding and familiarity allowed this made up group to become something to be feared and avoided, even though they didn’t exist.
I think it is human nature, some leftover survival mechanism, to be wary of the things we do not understand or are unfamiliar with. I also do not think it is inherently bad to be hesitant, as danger does exist. The same idea applies to why you don’t get in a car with a stranger, or why some people carry pepper spray with them – not everyone’s intentions are pure. I do not think anyone would disagree that terrorists (whether domestic or foreign) are bad people and are to be despised. The problem is when a minuscule fraction of a group is used to shape an opinion on the whole.
People like to put other people in groups, I think it’s just a rudimentary way of keeping track of things. People I like, people who root for x team, people who drive y make of car, people who like to hike, people who voted for z political party and so on and so on. I do not think the action is necessarily wrong or right, it just is. However, a problem arises when these groupings are used to shape ones larger world view and attach judgements to people who we ‘think’ fit into various categories. Ms. Banaji pointed out an example of the power of these groupings in how you dissipate fear, stating “we discovered is that fear reduction is deeply based on who that other is. You will reduce your fear towards previously fear-producing others if they are members of your group. For whites, you lose fear to white faster than to black. To black Americans, you lose fear to black more quickly than you would to white.”
To me this circles back to understanding. We are more ready to accept and forgive (and to some extent re-categorize) what we understand than what we do not. Quite simply, most of us fear the unknown and to quote some wisdom from a well-known green master ….