Roosevelt in ‘The Strenuous Life’ notes that people must have a common place to meet to discover that others are just like them. This discovery is imperative to fight racism, sexism, classism, and any other kind of prejudice.
He warned of a nation in which classes stick to classes; professions to professions and religions to religions. When we have the opportunity to know people from all walks of life, we discover that our similarities are based on our values and beliefs- not our race or our income bracket.
As humans we are inclined against this. Another reason to be so wary. We naturally form ‘us’ and ‘them’. In my psychology degree we learned about the formation of ‘in groups’ and ‘out groups’. This is at play starting in grade school with the ‘cool kids’ and continues on into adulthood.
The problem is that our brains don’t make these divisions logically. We use cognitive shortcuts and assumptions which result in judgments based more on mental laziness than in fact.
Take stereotypes. These are mental assumptions designed to keep us safe when operating with minimal information. The example I learned in school was of walking down the street and happening on a stranger. Imagine you see a person walking towards you; heavily tattooed with a hood pulled up.
Your brain makes a rapid judgment that this person has characteristics that indicate a threat. You decide to cross the street as a result.
This decision is based on very minimal evidence. It is simply your brain trying to keep you safe. However rather than recognizing this fact, very often we will be convinced the person is in fact dangerous. We conflate a mental short cut with fact.
Challenging the bias
So why does this matter for community?
Well because if we later meet this person at a soccer match or a chamber of commerce meeting, we will be very likely forced to alter this stereotype. Especially if we speak to them and find they hold similar thoughts and opinions. If however we have no space to ever meet this person again, we retain our same belief in their danger to us.
This is how we end up with a divided society. It is also how we keep from ever finding our people. Those who share our ideas and our values- not our zip code or employer.
Meeting new people (hopefully) forces us to challenge our biases and assumptions.
However, this doesn’t happen naturally. We are inclined to confirm what we already believe (the confirmation bias). However, if we keep our minds open we can challenge our lazy brains.
This is imperative for a healthy and whole society.
So how do we do this?
1) Seek to challenge your assumptions. If we go into new situations seeking evidence to challenge our biases, we will very likely find it. However, we must prime our brain to act in this way, rather than under the confirmation bias.
2) Meet new people. This entire month is about creating community. We don’t do this by staying at home and talking to the same 4 people. Make a conscious effort to meet your neighbors, to talk to people at the gym, to join a book club.
3) Recognize what your brain is doing. When you see a person from a different group, notice what your brain says about them. When you hear a person of different political stripes talking, what is your reaction? When you see someone of a different religion, what do you think about them? So often we think without noticing or questioning the validity of the thoughts. This is your opportunity to do just that.
As always be compassionate. If your brain comes out with things that are awful, that is likely the result of learning and these mechanisms. You have the power to question and to change your mind. Use it.