Racism and the Sheltered Life

Many years ago, when I was in college, I was talking with an acquaintance. I wouldn’t have exactly called us friends because we had nearly nothing in common except that we attended the same school. But she intrigued me. She grew up in a very wealthy world and lived lavishly in a way I had only seen on TV. It’s not like she was wearing ball gowns or anything; in a picture she’d look like a normal preppy college kid. But it was the way she carried herself, the sense of simply believing, entirely, in her own self-worth that struck me. I wondered – how does someone have that? Is it confidence? Is it arrogance? Is it ignorance? But it was when it turned ugly that I realized the individual and widespread implications – She explained to me once while she was boarding a bus, “I won’t ever have to deal with those people so I don’t have to learn about them.” She was referring to people of color.

If there was one thing I learned in my college years, it was this: The rich kids were as ignorant to the ways of the world as I was. The only difference between us was that I expected to be ignorant and they didn’t.

The privilege of being born into a society space that exposes you to great things is that you are aware of what you can see, do, accomplish, achieve, and who you can meet if you have the funds to allow you entre. This exposure can unwittingly, however, give one the false impression that you’ve somehow earned it. In reality, a child is simply born into it or not.

Conversely, the privilege (though I didn’t see it at the time) of being born into a society space where your resources are constraint forces you to be creative, determined, and resilient. It can, however, unwittingly, also make you angry and frustrated that some people send their resumes to their parents’ friends and get jobs right away while the rest of us send ours into the great abyss of thousands of others.

It’s unfair. It’s also reality. But I think the lesson I learned as I graduated was that we are all ignorant of others’ experiences unless we connect by happenstance and then take the time to understand. So the question is: What right do we have to live in our own bubbles and what expectation do we have to learn about the diverse country in which we live?

The answer is both. We live in a free country where one can be friends with anyone they like or live as a recluse and avoid people altogether. However, the point at which that seclusion of thought, belief, or action allows us to demonstratively personalize superiority over others is the point at which we have an obligation to better educate ourselves on the world around us.

Ignorance is not an excuse for insensitive behavior – it’s a self-comforting state of being, perpetuated by fear.

We must learn to open our minds and hearts to the diverse nation around us, recognize that racism and other forms of discrimination exist, and educate ourselves on both the underlying reasons as well as the ways we can promote harmony and respect. The nation that values diversity will be the nation that attains the most exceptional and effective state of action and thought. The nation that ignores the divide will see a power differential that favors a small group of people for a period of time but that crumbles once the have-nots organize and defeat.

Photo by Matteo Paganelli on Unsplash

Political Control – Being in the ‘in’ crowd

Can you run for office if you’ve never run before? Do you need to start with a local office? How much money do you really need? $1B is the estimate to run for president. So how do we change the system if the barrier to entry is this high?

The only way to change a system that has run this long and that has so many people vested in it staying the same is to 1) change the infrastructure, 2) change the parameters, 3) change the stakeholders, and 4)  find a daring person or group that is willing to lead the charge. Let’s review them in order.

Changing the infrastructure in this case means figuring out how the money is spent because if it’s the money that’s creating the barrier, the apprehension to run, and giving control to only those in the ‘club’ then it’s an important point. In this case, the money is primarily spent on advertising and salaries. TV ads are the most costly and salaries and contracts to big marketing and research companies can add up. So basically, the internet and social media have enormously affected this space. There are templates for making marketing materials. Sure, custom is generally better but the templates are very low cost or free and get you 90% of the way there. You tube allows for free ads – yes, you’ll have to be interesting enough for people to share them but if you’re not, then why are you running? And social media outlets allow one’s message to be shared for free. These advancements in infrastructure are game changers for politics. They create the opportunity for anyone to run – regardless of the amount of money raised.

Changing the parameters basically means changing the way the game is played. In this case, it means changing the way one approaches the problem set. So typically, the way the candidates run is to give speeches that are all essentially the same and say short phrases that reflect the party’s general platform. There is an assumption that people vote not based on whether or not you can do the job but instead based on whether or not you are familiar to them or in their party. It would be necessary for someone to convince the public to vote based on content and capability rather than name recognition and party affiliation. In the upcoming 2020 election, there is much discussion surrounding the way politicians message and questions about whether or not they know how to do this job beyond the campaign. In truth, when we primarily hire people whose skills involve raising money and giving speeches but who have never worked in the executive branch, have never represented the U.S. internationally, and have never worked with the military – it is a tall order for them to learn all of that in a short amount of time and execute effectively.

Next you have to change the stakeholders – these are the people who want someone to run. For the longest time, it’s been only those with large pocketbooks that controlled the messaging and therefore control the votes. But with increased access by everyone, and the ability to raise money online – there is a significant chance that the ‘stakeholder’ controlling group has widen substantially. This also opens the door to someone competent at the job, versus a skilled politician.

Finally, you have to find a daring individual or group to take action. I think this is actually the hardest part. The changes to the system are already in place. But you still have to find someone willing to take on the media, quit their job and travel the country, and get on TV every chance they can.

Our nation needs the individuals who have experiences needed to lead, rather than the skills needed to argue, to take the leap and rise to the top. Win or lose, they will succeed in helping evolve our system of leadership and that is a significant benefit to our country in the long run.

Politics is also not a weapon

In “Your political beliefs don’t justify racism”, Andrew Wang discusses an incident that involved several teenage boys wearing shirts to celebrate throwing Mexican immigrants over the wall and his school’s response of discussion about politics without an actionable plan or clarity of positions on the matter.

My response to politics used in this vein is similar to my position on how religion is sometimes used (see Religion is not a Weapon). We must clarify the definitions of ‘difference of opinion’ and ‘harm’. The origins of political parties date as far back as the 1600s (see scholastic origins of political parties) intended to help bring organization and structure to political activities so everyone could have a voice, or at least a representative of their views in meetings. However, during the American Revolution, these parties, or factions as they were sometimes criticized to be, were not entirely philosophically supported by our early leaders. Yet, they supported them in action, nonetheless. Why?

Well, we can’t be sure of course at this point, however, if we consider science, we can garner some ideas. First, our brains can’t handle and overabundance of information all the time. We need metaphorical bumpers or filters if you will. Otherwise, we become overloaded and overwhelmed. Heuristics, or the ability to group things, ideas, or issues, can be very helpful. Political parties allow us to do this. They essentially ‘bundle’ positions for us in what we now call platforms. Second, we all have the need to be heard and there is strength in numbers, as they say. So it is no surprise that we’ve grown to group people together behind a set number of policies to support. Third, most people want to feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves. Political parties both provide a sense of belonging to a club while simultaneously allowing people to feel part of a movement.

All of these pieces, make it near impossible to break up the party system – because when biology is the foundation for its usefulness, humans will perpetuate its existence.

So next time someone asks you why we can’t get rid of the parties…well, you can simply say…our bodies need it. 😉

But that said, does it give us the right to wield our beliefs as a blanket justification for anything we say or do? The answer is emphatically no. This is a common issue in psychology as it is not infrequent for someone to justify harm to another, to oneself, or to account for atypical behavior as being because of some personal belief. Everyone is entitled to their beliefs. People can have a difference of opinion. We can exercise our First Amendment Rights. But we cannot use such beliefs, opinions, or rights to justify the infliction of harm on oneself or others.

The difficulty comes when we try to define where that line is drawn. The line is this: When what you do or say results in physical, mental, or emotional harm to others, there is no position, group, text, or belief that makes ones actions allowable.

Just as there is a difference between facts and opinions, so too are their differences between beliefs and harm. We must clarify these lines for our nation or we will predictably find ourselves in a sea of confusion where the loudest, but perhaps least informed, voices rise to the top and lead us to places we never intended or wanted.

Clarity of facts and definitions of harm must be maintained for a society to operate with safety and reason.

Political Traps

Much has been seen in the wake of the controversial confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court. There have been significant accusations on both sides of the aisle accusing the other of making this hearing into a sensational circus aimed more at playing partisan politics than focused on the confirmation or rejection of the President’s appointment.

What has been lacking in these arguments is any effort to understand why.

Why are the parties making a Supreme Court justice nomination about politics? The easy answer is to assume it’s about power of the party. The next easiest answer, and probably in tandem with the former point, is that it’s about power of the person – in other words, Senators who are individually trying to maintain or elevate their status for re-election purposes or to create opportunity to run in 2020 for President.

But those are the easy answers. What are the deeper ones?

Well the next one has nothing to do with partisan politics but is nonetheless highly emotional and also about bringing attention to a very important, under-appreciated and under-recognized issue, and that is sexual assault, abuse, and the hidden, but pronounced, scars it leaves behind. In so many of us, it was impossible to ignore not only the pain Dr. Ford expressed, but individually, the memories it brought forth. In these moments, it is nearly impossible to maintain a sense of focus on the current situation because the memories of personal experiences hinder our ability to think. We begin to see the person accused as the person that hurt us and the thought of them in power is so painful, so egregious, that one doesn’t just disagree, one doesn’t just argue, one doesn’t patiently and quietly stand by – one carries out an emotional plea hoping that the perceived injustice to oneself is rectified.

This is not partisan politics – this is a huge number of the women in our country reaching out for help – experiencing joint, national-level catharsis – and to suggest that the expression of that pain should be calm, clear, and rational in its delivery is unfair, unreasonable, and disrespectful.

So how is it that so many Senators missed this point? They are mostly attorneys, practiced politicians, and self-selected as people who can withstand and ignore a lot of negativity. To be in these jobs, they necessarily must be people who tend to calmly review reports, people, and situations with an eye for rules, legalities, arguments to win, and an ability to block out all dissention. If they didn’t have these skills well-honed and these personalities, they wouldn’t likely be politicians. Their reactions, in my opinion, are predictable. Just as an Emergency Room doctor would react to a person with a severed arm calmly and focused on assessing and addressing the situation rather than screaming in fear or paralyzed by shock – Politicians will react with focus, arguments, and blinders to dissenters under this kind of a situation. This doesn’t excuse their seeming lack of understanding but it does provide some insight. If we don’t like people with these personalities in public office, then we need to join the many people around the nation standing up to run for the first time. That’s how real change will occur over time.

But right now, there remains an even deeper, even more concerning point that this combination of situations brings to bear and this is the issue that requires the most attention. It is the fact that when we focus on only one action, one moment, one issue at a time, we miss the forest for the trees. I watched a Senator give a very long, very detailed, very supported argument about why the person would confirm Kavanaugh. However, in doing so, this person also revealed a flawed process that failed to recognize the point that with each stove-piped action, the accumulation of uneven power across the nation increases. It is the multi-situational set of issues that creates a larger, more destructive system of problems. In psychology, and I believe in business too, it’s called the foot-in-the-door technique – get people to agree to a series of small actions or agreements and then, without even realizing, they will have agreed to major purchases or changes.

Similar to the fable of the slowly boiled frog, the real threat that was missed in this hearing was that it is one more event that raised the temperature of the nation.