(Lack of Understanding leads to Fear,) Fear leads to Anger, Anger leads to Hate…

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 ….

26 Replies to “(Lack of Understanding leads to Fear,) Fear leads to Anger, Anger leads to Hate…”

  1. Thanks for this post! I really appreciate the cartoon you posted and really agree with the main idea that when you allow yourself to be exposed to other cultures and groups, your understanding and appreciation for groups different than yours grows. My one question related to the cartoon is this: how do you convince someone to take that first step? We can’t necessarily go buy every white supremacist we know a plane ticket (even if we did, many of them probably wouldn’t take it). Instead of sending people somewhere else, how can we address them where they are? Would love to hear your ideas; thanks again for the post!

    1. Thank you for your comment! You raise an excellent point and one that I feel leads to a really interesting discussion. I’ll be frank, I do not have the answer, but I do have thoughts on the matter. I considered putting them directly into my blog, but didn’t want it to get too long winded… instead enjoy a long winded comment.
      I think you frame the question extremely well… how do you get someone to take the first step sometimes without even going anywhere? I think the general approach to getting people to experience/explore a different world view can be broken up into two major categories: access and (open) mindfulness.
      Of the two, I think access is the easier to acknowledge. You’re very right, we can’ just fly all the various hate groups around the world until they are no longer filled with hate…. though a TLC show like trading spaces for hate groups would be potentially interesting… its just not really possible. Luckily, I think we don’t have too. Other countries might be different, but at least in the US you don’t have to really travel very far to experience a new culture or group or anything. The access is, in most cases, right around the corner. I grew up in an extremely homogenous, small, rural town in Western Maryland – admittedly most everyone I went to High School looked like me, spoke like me, and though I never really prescribed to a similar political or world view as my peers they did among themselves and their families. I would say even today most everyone I grew up with live in the same 50-mile radius that they grew up in. The few individuals that moved away, either for school or opportunity, never really came back. I am not saying these people are bad people, they are not, but it speaks to how these cultural/societal echo chambers can form and perpetuate – and it’s not just reserved for rural America. Regarding my point on access, even though I lived in this smaller town, Baltimore/DC and the cultural opportunities (museums, food, festivals, people) they provided were only 60 miles away, yet most of my peers have never been. The access is/was there, why not take advantage and that first step? Even beyond the physical access, we live in world connected through the internet with infinite access to ideas and information. The sheer ability to learn about a new religion, or culture, or county is unlike anything previously experience in human history, and yet most do not take the first step. Why?
      I think in both cases its falls into the second category of mindfulness. To do something you have to want to do it and more often than not those with a narrow world view aren’t motivated to understand. Personally, I do not think there is much anyone can really do to change someone’s mind who is adamantly decided. Instead, I think the best course of action for combating narrow-mindedness is to identify what leads to it in the first place and start there.

      Again I do not have all the answers, I might not even have a single one, but when I think about what forces people to close off their mind a number of things come up.
      I think a big determinant is personally experiences, if a person like x did y to me then other people like x are expected to do y again. Obviously there are fallacies here, but I think people generally make these associations and stick with them, especially if they feel personally validated in doing so. To combat this, we could all be better served to be a little nicer to each other and be cognizant of the types of stereotypes we might possibly reinforce through our actions.
      In the absence of personal experiences, I feel most integrate the experiences of others into their perceptions. I think this is especially dangerous with news outlets commonly focusing on the negatives or pandering to their base viewer. Personal views on entire groups of people can be formed based solely on the actions of a few… and sadly I do not know how best to counteract this, except by sharing positive stories and doing positive things.
      I also feel like how we interact with people largely influences people’s perspectives. Arguing, and perpetuating the Us vs Them mentality only, in my opinion, reinforces the same ideologies that are used to justify a narrow minded viewpoint in the first place. Making discussions competitions with winners and losers in a society were few people like to loss and even fewer people like to admit they are wrong gives no alternative but to double down and push back.
      I think to achieve real change we have to reassess how we communicate and interact with the people who we want to help see the world differently. You asked how we get someone to take the first step, and I don’t think the answer to that is by telling them they have to, but by showing them why they should and how to do it.

      1. Hi Matthew,

        First, great post. It felt like a bonus to get to read this follow-up comment. I think your post is very on-point about fear being a root cause of hate. I really appreciated this comment because it elaborates on your point in a more action-oriented way while talking generally about changing how people think. So knowing what we know about human nature in general and encouraging mindfulness/openness, how do you think you will change your teaching pedagogy to foster an inclusive classroom space while also exposing your students to new ideas? Are there any strategies for your discipline that you are thinking about deploying?

        1. Hey Sara,

          Thanks for the kind words about my post and comment! Thank you for yours! I would say that most of the classes I envision teaching in CEE don’t really have major sections or ideas that might make inclusivity extremely difficult (learning wastewater treatment is a bit less divisive than say the west african slave trade). Obviously, I think you would still like to incorporate a student/learner-centric approach and draw in as many students as possible to be passionate about our course topics, but I do not anticipate having to broach as poloarizing topics as some other discipline may.

          I would say from my (and my peers) experiences the closet thing Environmental engineering has to these type of hot-button issues is Climate Change and maybe Wastewater Reuse. However, in most cases the students have seemed to be more interested in learning about these topics (they are taking an environmental engineering course after all) than say an average citizen who might be opposed.

          For me this brings up an interesting point… I feel like generally speaking there is still a pretty large gap (even between the most reluctant college student) and an entrenched average citizen. I feel that by just being a student in higher education there is a base level interest in learning and understanding that might not be ubiquitous in every other group of people. There are certainly additional challenges in reaching college students, and harnessing that interest in learning in a productive and meaningful way, but the scale seems different than say making the change that the above cartoon illustrates.

          1. What a thoughtful post. I’m relieved to hear that students in environmental engineering realize that climate change is part of the calculus! But regardless of the specific curriculum, aren’t there practices we as educators should be weaving into our teaching in order to support more inclusive learning environments?

          2. For sure! I don’t think that’s anywhere close to debatable, and apologize if my post/comment came off that way. I very much didn’t mean to say that CEE is pure and devoid of these issues and so forth and so on, my point was more related to how it’s more difficult to foster inclusivity on extremely polarizing issues where the individuals themselves may have strong convictions. I think there is always more we, as educators, can do to help marginalized communities feel integrated in our classes. Incorporating learner centered syllabi, paying special attention to vocabulary, making sure all groups are engaged and if they arnt take the time to figure out why and fix it. I honestly think a lot can come from just being self-aware and taking an interest in the students. When I was a TA teaching my own lab I had an ESL student that I felt was struggling. It was a senior level class, and I just took my time to make sure she understood the course expectations, the labs themselves, and always offered to help explain things if she needed. Honestly, I never thought twice about it. At the end of the semester she gave me a handwritten thank you card saying that I was the only teacher/TA/professor that she had that seemed to care and that she really appreciated the ‘extra’ effort. I still don’t feel like I didn’t anything remotely special or extra.

            Fixing the classroom is a great start, I just worry that it is not really enough to strive to just create an inclusive classroom, especially in high ed. I think what I mean can be explained a number of ways, but take woman in engineering for instance. Of course, we as educators should do anything and everything we can to make woman feel (because they are) equal and welcome. Fixing this cancer is higher education is important, but it does nothing to help the countless women who never felt empowered to make it to higher education as an engineering student in the first place.
            I know what we are trying to accomplish is a great start, and within the realm of things we can directly control, but I just feel like if we created an inclusive society we wouldn’t need to distinguish an inclusive classroom from a classroom (pipe dream I guess?). Which I guess goes back to the idea/point of my post that creating an inclusive environment in higher ed, in my opinion, is almost a completely different animal than in the so called ‘real’ world.

            The wisdom of Yoda shouldnt be undersold. 🙂

  2. I also have the same question as the comment above. How do you convince someone to take the first step and how can we address people where they are? It’s difficult to break someone’s paradigm. I think that the cartoon is a special case – I have heard of people leaving hate groups due to exposure to different cultures but it is rare.

  3. Your blog post makes me think about how we view our society here in the US. Once upon a time, it was referred to as the melting pot. Then someone looked at it a little more closely and called it a salad bowl. To summarize the argument, we are more like a bunch of disparate groups living in close proximity to each other than we are a single society that combines unique elements from many different cultures. As you mentioned, I think this is a human nature thing that is difficult (but necessary) to overcome. The guy in the comic was willing to give it a shot. Your other comment replies address how we get others to be willing. Maybe what we need to do instead is ask ourselves how willing we are to be that guy? I appreciate your thoughts.

    1. Thank you for sharing! I do remember learning about that in high school (melting pot vs salad bowl) and its a pretty interesting take that has a lot of merit. I also really appreciate you identifying that the place to start is with ourselves. Obviously, we all still have room to grow, but I think by even being enrolled in this class we have demonstrated a willingness to open our minds. We can still struggle with our implicit bias, and idiosyncrasies and faults, but how how we struggle (in my opinion) is astronomically different then someone who is unwilling to take even that first step and admit they might not have it all understood. If we really want an inclusive society yes it starts with us, but those people have to be reached as well.

  4. The timing of this topic and post have been amazing. I’m missing this week’s class because I’m at a conference and so much of what is being discussed is the differences between various groups (Ph.D. engineers and technicians, and older generations vs younger) and the lack of trust between them. Most people at this conference seem to recognize a need to meet half-way and swap shoes as the old saying goes. That perspective reminds us that other people go through the same struggles we do (as well as others). For academics, I honestly think we need to go to the bars and bowling alleys more often to meet non-academics and regain some public trust. We need to entice the public into the university to see what happens in the ivory tower. Once we have that understanding of each other’s worlds I think we’ll get a lot better. Furthermore, since universities are often more diverse than the surrounding areas, it can help expose those surrounding populations to other diverse groups and slowly break those barriers.

    There was a great Heineken commercial (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etIqln7vT4w) about getting people that “hate” each other together and just forcing them to talk. For free beer (and probably other things) a lot of people are willing to talk and open their minds a bit. Plane tickets aren’t the only way to show people some diversity.

  5. Gotta comment on the post that quotes Yoda. I enjoyed the comic that you shared as well. You bring up an interesting point that “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 have always wondered if it’s possible for the world to become entirely a “first world country” type of world where our fear and survival mechanism forces fighting to happen over something. Perhaps as global society becomes more “first world” like we will focus on differences much more to distinguish ourselves. Inevitably this would mean conflict of some kinda. And the best way to battle it is how civil we are when it comes to these conflicts.

    However, on a genetic level this is interesting to think about as we don’t have a clean history yet that showcase this kind of Utopia happening.

  6. I really enjoy reading this post. Thanks for sharing. People like to put other people in groups, I think it’s just a rudimentary way of keeping track of things. I really agree with you.

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