Us versus Them: Bridging empathy gaps [Part II]
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Making Them like Us
Research suggests that fear is a primitive emotion, a biochemical reaction; besides also being an emotional response to personal experiences. Assuming that this biochemical reaction stems from the instincts within our Reptilian Brain that primarily governs self-preservation in the combative sense of the term, it might seem obvious Why and How it is easy to perceive anybody who is not ‘like me’ as a threat that needs to be eliminated.
And even if I want to make a distinction and claim that I am not barbaric and bloodthirsty, it remains that the alternative to Othering that got popular hasn’t been the most helpful either!
Mainstreaming – the notion of incorporating The Other into the dominant group – is a concept that can be understood in the context of education as well as in the context of gender. Mainstreaming tends to bear upon itself the ‘halo effect’ and gives most folks the impression that the dominant, majority group is keen on accommodating the non-dominant, minority group, i.e. The Other.
However, what mainstreaming does not do is that it does not provide a level playing field for Us and Them. If anything, its willingness to accommodate The Other actually implies that the non-dominant group adapt to the ways of the mainstream, the dominant group. Nowhere does it even hint that the dominant group would learn and understand more about the non-dominant group and their ways.
Mainstreaming suggests making Them become more like Us.
Because… it seems that if you’re not ‘like us’ then you’re not ‘with us’ and if you’re not ‘with us’ then you’re against us!
This is glaringly evident especially within all initiatives geared towards ‘mainstreaming’ indigenous communities which does nothing more than erase away cultures that do not fit into the morally considered acceptable ways of the mainstream. In this instance too, when the indigenous communities resist against the erasure of their culture, they are subjected to the process of Othering. This specific brand of mainstreaming owes its origins to the concept of the White man’s burden – look it up if you hadn’t heard of it until now.
Mainstreaming suggests, rather covertly, that there is no room for heterogeneity, for diversity. Mainstreaming – despite its generous garb – upholds the narrative that the dominant group is the rescuer and the non-dominant group is the rescued. That the rescuer by virtue of its role is the superior one of the two.
In other words, mainstreaming – though a leg-up from segregation - does little or nothing to dismantle the ‘Us versus Them’ narrative.
I’m reminded of the following words by Dr. D. L. Stewart:
Diversity asks, “Who’s in the room?” Equity responds: “Who is trying to get in the room but can’t? Whose presence in the room is under constant threat of erasure?”
Inclusion asks, “Has everyone’s ideas been heard?” Justice responds, “Whose ideas won’t be taken as seriously because they aren’t in the majority?”
Diversity asks, “How many more of [pick any minoritized identity] group do we have this year than last?” Equity responds, “What conditions have we created that maintain certain groups as the perpetual majority here?”
Inclusion asks, “Is this environment safe for everyone to feel like they belong?” Justice challenges, “Whose safety is being sacrificed and minimized to allow others to be comfortable maintaining dehumanizing views?”
Towards an ‘Us and Them’ world
I want to believe that as a species we can override our primitive wiring or at least stop claiming that to be the sole reason why there will always be a Them and an Us. But given the stronghold competition and divisiveness have over the macro-narrative, I have been attempting to buy my peace by:
better understanding some of the concepts and frameworks that govern and influence us. At the very least, it empowers me with language to identify historical as well as current goings-on, whether in boardrooms, classrooms, living rooms, or even Z security meeting rooms. Which though isn’t exhaustive, is what I have tried to lay out before you so far, and
attempting to map out alternatives that minimise separateness, in intent and action. Us and Them.
Suggestion #1: Bridging the awareness gap
Much of what I went about looking into and laying out through this post is actually Grade XII/+2 Sociology syllabus from back when I was a pre-university student. Except, I didn’t have the life experience to understand that terminology, to see it for how it panned out even in real-time right in front of me.
You could say that earlier in the post when I mentioned stepping back as a measure to counter doomscrolling, I ended up stepping back a decade and a half, right to my junior college days!
But the point I’m trying to make is that while not every one of us has the clout to influence world or even national politics towards harmony and solidarity, there is space for us to reclaim it within living rooms and perhaps even board rooms.
What if, for the sake of an argument, we made an academic exercise out of understanding more about the injustices and violence around us?
What if, instead of getting carried away by sensationalism we made an effort to look beyond shock-value instigated by media?
What if, we tried to understand motives – especially the ones that seem to run counter to the ideas of solidarity and community?
What if, we tried to know more about the histories of our own families? Would it help us better understand and perhaps even appreciate how qualities such as goodwill, courage, cunningness, delinquency, among others find themselves scattered in equal measure even among self-professed ‘good families’ like us?
Suggestion #2: Bridging the empathy gap
Let’s not forget that for all the arguments that favour humankind’s innate desire to view The Other as a threat, there are enough arguments to support humankind’s innate desire for connection too.
Which then begs to ask the question: How much of our supposed desire for separateness is a biochemical response and how much is learned behaviour based on our upbringing and our early influences? The good old ‘nature versus nurture’ argument - another false dichotomy, if you will…
Most of us would have had some experience with being made to feel like we didn’t belong to a group. What if, instead of ruminating only on the hurt, we channelled it to be receptive towards someone else we might have otherwise considered casting into an out-group?
For instance, we know that school playgrounds can be cruel. Some of us know what it’s like to not even be considered ‘ कच्चा लिंबू ’ enough to have a fleeting chance at being considered part of a team.
Not that classroom politics with its focus on claiming the spot of being the teacher’s favourite was any less tormenting.
Furthermore, if you didn’t excel at academics nor at any extra-curricular activities in equal measure, where did you belong?
That’s the mildest version of an out-group that I’ve experienced.
Maybe you’ve felt left out elsewhere?
And maybe you’ve also experienced being welcomed in other arenas of your life? What does belonging to that in-group feel like to you? Who else might not have had the opportunity to enjoy what you did?
So, I’ll repeat the question I’d asked a little while ago: What if, instead of ruminating only on the hurt, we channelled it to be receptive towards someone else we might have otherwise considered casting into an out-group?
Before drawing this to a close, let’s also understand the concept of empathy gaps – a cognitive bias that blurs our ability to understand mental states other than the one we are experiencing in the moment.
Empathy gap suggests that when I’m feeling relaxed and calm, I’m less likely to accurately assess how I would behave or react when I’m angry and upset. And the same is true for vice-versa.
Now empathy gaps also manifest within in-groups and out-groups; meaning, we’re more forgiving towards members of our groups and more punishing in our attitudes towards members of out-groups for similar actions.
So, here are a few more questions for you to consider:
What does leaning into connection and belonging – in spite of the odds, in spite of the differences - look like for you?
More importantly, what would it mean for you to un-learn what you’ve believed to be true about yourself and your intersectionality?
And where would you like to begin first, deconstructing and then dismantling your narratives…?
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