April 13, 2015

Seeing Others as Us

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

In 2012, there were over 1,000 documented hate groups in the United States. A hate group is pretty much what it sounds like: a collection of individuals who come together based on their shared animosity toward others. Whether they focus on race, religion, sexual orientation, or nationality, these organizations mobilize around a clearly defined difference that they perceive to have with other people. Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Brotherhood, Westboro Baptist Church, and the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, use these differences not only as a basis of their hatred, but also to justify acts of hostility, aggression, and violence against those they deem to be “outsiders.”

Although most of us would acknowledge that the attitudes and actions of these hate groups are extreme, few of us are immune to engaging in similar but less severe forms of selective separation.  An example that many young people can relate to is the scene in the movie Mean Girls when Cady (Lindsay Lohan) is introduced to the seating arrangement of the various “tribes” in the high school lunch room.  Cady quickly learns that everyone sits with people who are deemed to be just like them: preps, nerds, Asians, Blacks, wannabees, burnouts, band geeks, etc.

 

The cafeteria scene is memorable because it resonates with our own experiences. Initially funny, the scene quickly becomes somewhat disheartening when we realize that our social lives are often based on these arbitrary and somewhat juvenile distinctions. I think back to my time in high school with both embarrassment and regret over all of the kids I did not interact with simply because my group of friends thought they were too different than us. Whether it was because of how they dressed, how they spent their free time, or what type of students they were, we categorized them as “other” and therefore did not cultivate relationships with them. 

This practice of delineating the in-group from the out-group is not just common in educational settings. Throughout our lives, we regularly and unabashedly organize the world into two camps: those who are like us and those who are different than us. Most of us do not do this to the same violent degree as hate groups; however, all of us still use these subjective distinctions to discriminate, pre-judge, stereotype, exclude, and dismiss others—whether we know it or are even willing to admit it.

The fact that we socially construct a mindset based on difference was the topic of my last blog, “Why is the World so Screwed Up?” In that post, I argued that much, if not all, of the problems we are facing in the world relate back to a dualistic orientation in which we create neat and tidy silos of thought: me versus you, us versus them, self versus other. This dualistic orientation becomes the foundation for violence, greed, animosity, and destruction. Once someone or something is seen as distinct and separate from us, it becomes much easier to justify debasing, denigrating, and even destroying them.    

One of most disconcerting examples of this dualistic orientation revolves around religion. Throughout human history, religion has consistently been used as a wedge that has driven people apart, and these divisions have resulted in a tremendous amount of pain, suffering, oppression, and bloodshed. And for what? For competing sets of socially-created belief systems.

Many individuals around the world will categorize you as a sinner or an evildoer condemned to hell if you don’t follow the precepts of their religion. In some instances, the consequences of having different religious beliefs are even worse. You may actually be shunned by family and friends, persecuted by the state, or killed, as in the recent examples of the 147 Christian students murdered at a university in Kenya and the fatal stabbings of atheist bloggers in Bangladesh. But isn’t it perplexing that so many religions promote a dualistic orientation even though almost all of them espouse some version of the Golden Rule: treat others the way you would want to be treated?  

The problem with religious groups and others who are deeply attached to a dualistic orientation is that when we are socialized to focus so much energy on our differences it becomes difficult to acknowledge our commonalities. A few years ago, I developed a classroom activity called The Similarities Project in which I try to help students de-socialize from thinking in terms of differences and re-socialize them into thinking in terms of things we share. Working first in groups of two, and then joining together cumulatively into groups of 4, 8, 16, etc., most students have trouble identifying more than ten similarities they have with others. Very few of them come to the realization that all humans, indeed all sentient beings, are much more alike than they are different.  

Recognizing the many ways in which we are the same is the first step in freeing ourselves from the dualistic orientation. Once these socially constructed divisions have been exposed and re-imagined, we can begin to work collectively to stop demonizing others and start humanizing them instead. Some great work in this area has been done by organizations such as Seeds of Peace and The Peres Center for Peace. These groups bring together young people who often grow up learning to hate and fear each other as enemies such as Palestinians and Israelis. By participating together in sports, the arts, camps, and educational exchanges, these children are able to “mitigate fears, break down emotional barriers, and create unprecedented cross-border and cross-cultural dialogue.”

Another noteworthy initiative can be found in the work of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes (NCAVA): Using a victim empathy approach in which the potential harm done to victims is emphasized through role playing and discussion, this program aims to prevent off-field violence by personalizing the consequences of aggressive behaviors. In coming to deeply understand the experiences of another person, and especially how their actions may negatively affect that person, these athletes become less likely to engage in aggressive and abusive acts toward others.

In all of these examples, the aim is to help people see the common humanity in those who they may otherwise denigrate simply because they are different. It is important to point out that breaking down dualities is not about trying to cultivate uniform sameness; differences can and should be celebrated. In fact, one of the greatest things everyone has in common is that we are all somewhat unique and different. But instead of using these differences as a basis for hateful and violent actions we could be using them to grow, to learn, and to make our lives richer.

With so many daily examples of hatred occurring at the both local and global level, and with our own proclivity for emphasizing the differences we have with others, it may seem hopeless to try to transform these dualistic mentalities. However, I have a great deal of optimism. I am particularly encouraged when I hear the stories of Tim Zaal, Christian Piccolini, Frank Meeink, and others like them who have renounced their membership in some of the most notorious hate groups and now embody compassion, understanding, and acceptance. If these individuals, who lived hate-fueled lives of anger and violence, are able to see the humanness in others then surely we all have the potential of seeing others as us.

Comments

As someone with high functioning autism, I typically find it very difficult to find belongingness and inclusion in social groups. Perhaps precisely because of my social disability, I find the topics in this article, and the previous one on “Why...” very interesting. Before I was diagnosed with ASD, I truly believed that underneath it all, people were mostly similar, even if you had to work to find common ground. Now I am not so sure about there being underlying universal truths that are the same for all human beings on a deeper level. New research into the brain could reveal differences that have biological basis, like autism, that affect our social relationships even when the differences in brain “hardwiring” are slight.

The idea that we could all get along if we could all see “self” in others more, as in Martin Buber’s concept of “I” and “Thou,” may be of more limited use than we would like to admit to in creating peaceful social order. Just as being intelligent and educated doesn’t necessarily make one kinder, or more responsible toward others, neither may the ability to see “self” in “other” make one less likely to engage in oppressive and/or violent activity. In some special cases, it may even make violence more likely if someone over identifies with another person, as with someone who has mental illness.

So what can we base efforts toward inclusion on? Do respect and compassion have to depend on first seeing others as more similar than different? Or is a climate of acceptance better served by a society that demonstrates valuation of ideals such as compassion, respect and human dignity in tangible ways like providing shelter for homeless people or care for the sick?

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