Thursday, March 30, 2017

Chapter 3-4: Discrimination, Bias, Prejudice: A Brief History of Social Othering

 We've talked about the challenge of living and meeting our basic needs.  We've talked about how other people's responses can make things worse.  Now we're going to talk about the ways that entire groups or cultures can make things worse for social outsiders.

History is replete with the stories of challenges that individuals and groups have faced and managed to survive.  In fact, history is largely about keeping these collective survival stories alive.

Effectively, this insures that everyone of us is going to grow up with a chip on our shoulder.  There is going to be some tragedy or vulnerability that 'people like us' have faced in the past and, therefore, are carefully on guard against for the future.

No less important, given the overall impoverishment of our relationships – socially, culturally and internationally -  it is practically guaranteed that this chip is going to involve other people.  Maybe it’s the neighbors down the road who beat up or killed Uncle Bennie.  Maybe it’s the side of the family that forged Grandma’s signature and ended up with all her land.  Maybe it’s people up North, down South or on the other side of the world who started, won or lost a brutal war.  Maybe it’s people of a different class, color, creed, gender, identity, orientation, race who are using us, abusing us, wasting our hard-earned resources or keeping us down.  Maybe it's folks who don't speak right, dress right, look right, move right...  Maybe it’s simply the diversity of someone else's needs or values that is upsetting the apple cart.  Maybe it's emerging circumstances that are not exactly the same, but still similar enough to kick off survival reactivity and – from our perspective - threaten the values or resources we believe we need to live safely and well.

The potential reasons are practically endless.  As a practical matter, popular prejudices change all the time, depending on individual, family and cultural experiences and their evolving needs and views.

The take home point is this:  For almost all of us, there are other people who have some kind of special advantage that we lack.  Equally important, the folks with this kind of social or cultural power or privilege almost invariably make our lives worse instead of better.

There are a lot of ways this can happen.  They may highlight our vulnerabilities or even intentionally prey on them. They may judge or exclude us to advance their interests or agendas.  They may set us up, put us down, keep us out or shut us in.

Whatever way they play it, however,  they seem to always end up on top.  When push comes to shove or resources are scarce, they have the wherewithal and use it to use their advantage and our disadvantage.

No matter how much fairness would seem to cut in our favor, they end up first and we end up last. They may have tons more than they need, while we are just barely scraping along.  Yet, they feel entitled to not even notice.

That's what power and privilege tells you:  It's ok that someone doesn't have their basic needs met, because they deserve to be where they are by virtue of who they are - and vice versa.   

It's another way of saying, 'to the victor belongs the spoils.'  The groups that have won the social, political and international battles of the past, claim the privilege to stay on top.  Usually, they also have the social means and power and means to keep it that way.

As a practical matter, these battles are traumatizing for everyone.  They keep us constantly on guard and having to watch our back.  If we have stuff, we're always worried about losing it.  If we don't have stuff, we're always worried about getting it.  Either way, the basic human needs are non-optional for all of us. None of us can endure a constant state of fear that our basic needs might not be met and still live well and be well.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg.  The reality is that many of us are not just growing up with a chip on our shoulder.  We are growing up buried underneath a ton of bricks  - with no meaningful hope of ever digging ourselves out.  

And its not just us.  -- It's our families and our communities - often even entire cultures and nations. In reality, vast numbers of us on this planet are trying to survive without anything near the bare minimums of material, social and developmental resources that every single one of us needs in order to feel well, live well and be well.

Can you begin to imagine how much desperation, fear and mistrust this creates...?  

Or, maybe you don't have to imagine it because you have lived it.  You know all too well what it's like and how unbearably back-breaking and heart-breaking it has been for you, your family, your neighbors, your people....

Few of us can transcend bitterness and envy over the unfairness of seeing others gorge themselves to excess while our families starve on the streets.  Recall the story from the French Revolution about the monarch who lost her head:

Queen:  Why are there riots in the street?  
Advisor:  Your Highness, the people have no bread.   
Queen:  Well, let them eat cake!  

If you need a recipe for the retaliatory violence of terrorism you don't have to look much further for the emotional ingredients than that.  Yet, this kind of oblivious insensitivity is going on every day in America and around the world. It is going on across race, religion, class and gender lines, across abilities, across sizes, across partner preferences, across ages - and that is only to name only a few of the most common sources of social disparity.

It's a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle.  Many of us are born into it.  For others it is a matter of choosing our truth, or the hand we were dealt, or life choices we made perhaps even before we understood the implications.  Whatever it is, we inherit the trauma of prior generations - and the social ranking systems that emerged from this.   Embedded in the collective memories of our families, communities and cultures, are the emotional footprints of the disasters our predecessors justifiably feared, along with the social mores that were evolved to address them.   This is our family and cultural legacy, even if the originating dispute or bloodshed is now centuries old.

 What keeps the cycle going is how we treat each other. Undoubtedly there is room for self-reflection and moral growth on both sides.  At the same time, many of us who ended up with front row seats could stand to do some accounting.  True, we probably paid the going rate for our tickets like everyone else.  True, we are entitled to the fruits of our labor like everyone else.  True, we and/ or our ancestors probably made various efforts and sacrifices to make it possible for us to enjoy the show.  

At the same time, there is a limit to the degree to which we can reasonably exploit our advantage. All too often, those of us in the front row are standing up without any awareness that we are totally blocking the view for others behind us.   Yet they, too, paid for their tickets and also want to see the show.  All too often, we are talking and making a racket and carrying on our own conversation - because after all we have seen so many shows and this is just one more.  Yet, no one else can hear above our clatter - and this includes people who may have paid a huge percentage of their income for the privilege of being at the only show of their life time.

While this is just an analogy, it points out the need to be put ourselves in each others shows and begin to appreciate what a burden or opportunity might mean for someone else.  In a word, it is really easy to forget - especially from a seat of privilege - that life, while hard for everyone, is unbearably harder for those in the back row.  It also behooves us to consider how our actions might look to those who never get to see the show - only our back sides.

Every minute that we front-seaters continue to over-draw our balance of goodwill, we are generating a liability of resentment and frustration that somehow, some way, will result in turned tables and pay back.  In the words of Dr. King:  The arc of history may bend slowly, but bend towards justice it does.  Another way of saying --  Maybe we get tripped in the aisle.  Maybe someone throws a tomato. Maybe a fight or a riot breaks out.  Maybe someone brings in a gun or a grenade.

In the end, it's a game with no winners.  As long as some of us have more than enough, while others of us have way too little, none of us is going to be safe.  Nor will our world or planet be safe either.

No less important, as long as some of us think we don't have enough -- or that it is okay to take what we want without regard to the welfare of others -- no one anywhere is going to be safe.  This is relatively easy to see now that we are in an age of cyber and atomic wars. But it probably has been true for thousands of years.  It became the way of the world the moment humanity - armed with such attitudes - started traveling the world.

So, if we have learned nothing else from the painful experiences of our past - from slavery to genocide to riots, wars and Wall-Street - let us at least learn that.   If we don't get a handle on our collective mistrust and maltreatment, our days on this planet are numbered. We are all affected, everyone, everywhere, by whether there is peace on earth.  It's only a matter of time.

Below are some common examples of the social othering (discrimination, bias and prejudice) that many of us have endured.  You may also have some of your own to add.


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