It's not always pretty when you try to understand people different from you
Read any contemporary protest sign hoisted high above a fiery crowd marching in the name of unity, and you’re likely to see the following phrase over and over:
“Love Trumps Hate.”
Love trumps hate. Meaning down with bigotry. Meaning equality for all. Meaning a willingness work alongside people different from us to achieve the common goal of a bright and happy future.
Yet, in the midst of our country's increasingly intense political and ideological divides, it’s unclear whether we really understand what that phrase means.
While “wokeness” is wholeheartedly encouraged, and being accepting of all types of people is a praised and valuable personality trait, reaching across the aisle to find solutions to mutual problems doesn’t always go smoothly. Making an earnest attempt to “trump hate” with understanding and empathy can actually have the opposite effect — it can inspire hate of its own amongst the people in your group who feel you are betraying them by engaging with different types of people. This is especially true when the people on the receiving end of said understanding and empathy are from the ultra-conservative or alt-right communities.
The most recent case of this paradox is Laci Green, a feminist YouTube star and social justice warrior (SJW) who recently incited a particularly illuminating controversy over a video she released called "Taking the Red Pill?”
The video shows her reaching out to several anti-feminist, anti-SJW YouTubers with documented misogynistic, transphobic and even white supremacist views — most notably ‘anti-SJW’ personality Chris Ray Gun, with whom she has a relationship — in an attempt to find out where they were coming from.
Green did this not to validate bigotry or push a conservative rhetoric on her audience, but because she felt that listening to people with opposing viewpoints from hers was a healthy way to make sense of people she considered irrational.
As she says in her video, “They make some interesting points. Sometimes, I’m like ‘Yeah, I agree with that.’ Other times, I disagree. I still feel like it’s beneficial for me to listen and consider another perspective. It helps me learn.”
This truly confused people.
Her feminist friends told her that talking to problematic “antis” was worthless, and that she was “engaging with bigots, validating their perspective and offering a platform to bullies.” The social media k-hole responded similarly.
The backlash against Green's attempt at some sort of social and intellectual reconciliation brings up some fascinating questions about the double standards we hold each other to. When we're supposed to be accepting, how much acceptance is too much? And what's the right way to go about trying to accept someone different from you? During a time where social media gives bigots a platform and a loudspeaker to spread harmful rhetoric that further divides us, who deserves understanding and empathy, and who doesn't?
And, above all, what are we actually so afraid of when it comes to understanding people who are different from us?
So many questions with this one. For guidance, we turned to expert communicator and psychotherapist, Debra Silverman, M.S.
“I am a firm believer in hearing the other person’s point of view,” she tells me when I ask her whether everyone deserves a voice, even when that voice is tainted by difficult, harmful or untrue beliefs. “However, doing that is scary because we believe in our point of view being the only point of view. It’s a closed system.”
We think like this — she explains — because binary thinking promotes comfort. Ascribing to absolutes (conservatives are bigots, liberals are too sensitive) gives us a predictable framework in which to live, something we need for survival in such a vague and uncertain world.
These absolutes give us the illusion that we are safe. Therefore, people who challenge our point of view — or our group's point of view — also challenge that illusion. And that's threatening.
“Group identity is an important part of a person's self-concept,” writes Adam Maher, a clinical psychologist in Denver, over email. “People are motivated to maintain a positive group identity by viewing their group (and therefore self-identity) as distinct and more positive, than other groups. Learning about other perspectives may be viewed as threatening, either to the self or other group members, and therefore may disrupt these distinct individual and group identities.”
Additionally, he explains, the more people have to fight to maintain their own beliefs and identities, the more likely they are to be threatened by others'.
“The more people suffer from something, the more positively they evaluate it,” he says, pointing out that this is the crux of cognitive dissonance, a phenomenon that occurs when someone has two incompatible thoughts and attitudes. “This may be applicable to unpopular and even bigoted beliefs; because people may have had to defend their attitudes, the more reinforced this attitude may be.”
This is important in the context of social justice warriors, antis and Laci Green, because they're people who are particularly committed to propagating a certain viewpoint; one they must constantly defend in the harsh and rapid world of social media. With increased social visibility, their viewpoint becomes their identity, and so, when it's called into question by different thinkers, they can be more vulnerable to outrage and backlash than the average person who doesn't make an identity out of asserting certain ideologies in the name of justice or anti-justice.
However, the drive to see the world in binary terms and to think that our version of reality is the correct one goes even deeper. The sort of political and ideological exclusivity that creates so much derision in our culture is actually the direct result of neural physiology and brain evolution.
“Our polarized psyches are caused by developmental differences in the right and left brain,” Silverman explains. “The left brain is the linear, logical, right-wing brain. It evolved to say ‘This is the way things are, and there’s no argument.’ That can be useful for survival — all saber tooth tigers are dangerous all the time and that’s that. The right brain, on the other hand, is the more creative, liberal side that says, ‘Wait a minute, there are different options here. Let’s see how they’re all connected.’ It weighs out context.”
The only connection between the right and left sides of the brain (called hemispheres) is a thin sliver of tissue called the corpus collosum, which delivers signals between the two and creates the more incorporated version of reality you’re familiar with. Silverman says certain people have more neural connections running through this structure (women, especially), and someone with that sort of physiology — probably Laci Green — might have a greater capacity to understand the wide spectrum of human belief.
Others — possibly those who felt the most betrayed by Laci’s probing of the “other” — may have a less connected corpus collosum, and may therefore need more social and environmental inspiration to seek out different perspectives for greater understanding and growth.
This goes hand-in-hand with a growing amount of new research that shows liberals and conservatives each have remarkably unique brain structures which cause them to think and behave in certain, predictable ways.
“Psychologically, we’re just not built to be open-minded,” says Silverman. “It takes a very particular intellect that says ‘I’m open and I want to consider both sides.’ To me, that’s the way of of the future. You’re not born with the ability to listen to other people. It’s a skill that you learn.”
So, given the psychological, physiological and evolutionary difference in how liberal and conservative people’s brains approach things, do people with bigoted viewpoints still deserve empathy and understanding?
“Yes,” says Silverman. “Unquestionably. Ask the Dalai Lama. His religion is kindness. The Chinese demolished his 5,000 year old temple and built a shopping mall on it, and he still loves the Chinese. His biographer, the person who spent the most time around him, was Chinese.”
History is filled with similar examples. Daryl Davis, the black musician who notoriously convinced 23 KKK members to leave the organization, simply by approaching them from a point of friendship and genuine interest in their beliefs. Chief Niwot, who, despite complete resistance from his tribe, learned English in order to communicate with settlers, thereby brokering several major agreements that protected Araphao territory and people (although he was eventually slaughtered by white men).
“That’s the high road,” says Silverman. “Are we built for that? No. Those times when someone with a completely opposite viewpoint from yours is talking and you catch yourself rolling your eyes at them — that’s called normal. We are not built for kindness. It’s a muscle. If you look at children and you see their reactions, you can see it. We’re built to be gossipers, we’re built to be judgmental, we’re built to defend and protect and push people away. Some people have a higher intellect that allows them to supersede this, but as a species, we are emotionally retarded.”
Through all this, Green has stood her ground, remaining defiant despite the backlash. She’s also found support — albeit from a different audience than she’s used to.
“At the end of the day, we all have true beliefs, and we all have false beliefs,” she says in her video. “Skepticism is about acknowledging that. It’s questioning the seemingly unquestionable and being willing to adjust our beliefs as we get new information.”
That, willingness to adjust our beliefs as we learn more around us may be a more effective way to “trump hate” … but, if you’re still not convinced, I guess plastering a “Love Trumps Hate” bumper sticker on your old Subaru will do for now.