I’ve been on a personal journey for the past few years. I think it started because as I became more of a participant in the global community of my peers, I started to be more and more exposed to people with different backgrounds and perspectives. And some of those perspectives pissed me off. They were obviously wrongheaded and stupid. They were judgemental. They were threatening. Sometimes they were full of anger, profanity, and bile. They suggested that I, and people like me, were actually bad people. They went against ideals I held dear. They made assertions about society that seemed patently false, assertions that seemed so stupid and ignorant that they made me mad. They accused me and people like me of having biases I knew I didn’t have.
But sometimes these things were said by really smart people. People I respected. So every now and then, I’d try and understand the mean, crazy, stupid stuff they were spouting.
And a funny thing happened: a lot of it started to seem a little less crazy and stupid. Sometimes it still seemed mean, but I could almost begin to understand why they were being so mean. I even started to get angry along with them, instead of at them.
I started learning things about other people’s experience of life. I started realizing things that, in retrospect, seem like they should have been obvious, about how differently life can be for folks in the same country, the same state, the same town, even the same job.
I learned that people with careers almost exactly like mine could have life experiences that were wildly different from mine. I learned that just being smart isn’t enough to extrapolate what someone else’s life must be like. That despite my outsider’s sensitivity to invisible systems, there were systems I was still blind to, because it’s hard to be consciously aware of systems that have supported and affirmed you your entire life. That even when you are aware, it’s easy to underestimate the power of those systems unless and until they work against you instead of for you.
I learned, over again, that hardship is relative, and that “things are tough all over” is a rude oversimplification.
I learned that there was a lot of history that I’d missed. And that not coincidentally, it was all history that would have made me less comfortable with who I am and where I live, not more so.
I learned that “bias” isn’t an epithet. That it’s simply something everyone has all the time whether they like it or not, whether they admit it or not. And that even knowing about it doesn’t neuter it.
I’ve learned that as individuals and in groups, we have powerful defensive mechanisms against uncomfortable conversations. And that there are a thousand ways we unconsciously derail those conversations and guide them back to safer ground, ground where we feel confident again.
I’ve started to recognize the incredible weight of comfort, especially if it’s the comfort of someone who happens to be sitting on your head without realizing it. In the end, I’ve started to be uncomfortable with comfort. To be suspicious of complacency in any form. And that’s, well, an uncomfortable place to be. Which kind of sucks. But I think it is slowly helping to make me a better person than I was. I think it is increasing my capacity for empathy.
I’d like to invite you along on this journey. Here’s a way to start:
If, in the course of your life, you hear something regarding current events which:
- Confirms your suspicions;
- Makes you want to nod along;
- Gives you a sense of satisfaction, as if justice has been done;
- Makes you feel like a good person, in good company;
- Gives you a sense of schadenfreude, the feeling that bad people have gotten their just deserts;
- Confirms your intelligence and good judgement;
If you hear something which gives you any of these feelings, question it. Resist it. Seek the piece you are missing. Look for the counter-argument, and try to understand it.
Conversely, if you hear something which:
- Makes you uncomfortable
- Makes you look bad
- Suggests you are ignorant
- Makes you angry or indignant
- Makes you feel judged
- Is obviously wrongheaded, even though it comes from a smart person
- Lumps you in with terrible people
…if you hear something that gives you any of these feelings: dig in. Be present with those negative feelings, acknowledge them, and then dig deeper. Try to understand the words that piss you off, that make no sense, that deny everything you hold dear. Instead of arguing, say “what makes you say that?”. Be patient. And be prepared to absorb a lot of new information, in areas where you thought you already knew everything of note.
That’s my invitation. It’s not a pleasant path; I can tell you that even as someone who has only taken the first step. It’s a journey full of body blows to your pride; of depressing realizations; and of emotional pitfalls, like the temptation to lord it over people who aren’t as far along as you (guilty!).
But I think it’s a worthwhile journey to take.