It’s not what you think
Shaking the hand of someone you disagree with isn’t as much fun as shouting them down, but it is far more effective.
When you live in small groups on the savanna, as our ancestors did for most of our evolutionary history, it pays to be suspicious of strangers. Other groups were competition. Strangers didn’t drop by for a cup of tea and a friendly chat about our emotional well being. We couldn’t afford to see a stranger as a real person at all. It was an “us versus them” world. Fear and aggression were the only rational responses. People who did well in that world (AKA our ancestors, the people from whom we get our DNA), knew that the only safe thing was to beat strangers with a club first and ask questions later.
Fear of “The Other” is hardwired, and talking about it doesn’t help.
We may not live in small groups on the savanna any more, but our brains don’t know that. For better or worse we are stuck with our evolutionary baggage. Nothing is going to change that. When you encounter someone who your brain perceives as “other”– and by this I mean you personally, dear reader, as well as myself and every other human on the planet — all of that machinery jumps to life in milliseconds. Long before we are consciously aware of anything, our brains are screaming “Danger Will Robinson! Danger!”
Call this tribalism. Call it racism. Call it in-group/out-group dynamics. Call it identity politics. Call it polarization. Call it whatever you like. It all comes down to the same thing. When we perceive someone as other our reactions are hard wired, preconscious, and impossible to turn off.
Good intentions don’t matter. Get high and sing Kumbaya all night. Talk about it until the cows come home. Hold workshops. Post platitudes or scream about it on the internet. If you want to judge the effectiveness of those strategies all you have to do is pick up the paper. The louder the mob screams, the more ground they lose. We’ve tried those approaches. They make things worse, not better.
Quoting Einstein’s famous parable, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
There is only one solution: Humanize yourself by embracing the humanity of others.
If you perceive someone as other you will respond to them as a threat. There’s nothing we can do about that. Or is there? Take a step back and the answer is obvious. We can’t change how we react to other, but we can change who we perceive as other.
There is going on 70 years of really fascinating sociological, psychological, political and even neurological research that all supports the same conclusion: If you know and respect someone, it’s hard not to care about them. Break bread together, laugh together, talk deeply, listen, show respect (even when it’s difficult), build bridges, find common purpose and work arm in arm.
I could dig into that research, but mercifully for you I won’t. Instead I am going to share an uplifting and illustrative story of what effective anti-racism really looks like.
How did a Black musician change the hearts of hundreds of Klansmen?
Daryl Davis is a Black blues and jazz musician with a very strange hobby. He goes to events like KKK rallies not to shout or protest, but to listen, shake hands, talk, and befriend. Literally hundreds of the Klan members who Daryl Davis has become friends with have renounced the Klan. He has a large collection of their robes, including the robe of a man who, when they met, was the Grand Wizard himself.
Read that last sentence again. Then if you honestly care about fighting racism you owe it to yourself to invest 18 minutes and listen to Daryl Davis’s story in his own words.
This is not your Woke friend’s Anti-Racism.
It feels good to gang up and shout at people. The difference between the shouters and the shoutees makes it really easy to tell who is “us” and who is “them.” Our brains love that. The dopamine flows like a river.
But that is not what Daryl Davis did. There was no shouting about racism. Terms like “White privilege” and “White fragility” were never used. Daryl Davis never complained about microaggressions or political correctness. DEI workshops were not part of the program. Mr. Davis did not wear his feelings on his sleeve. Quite the contrary, Daryl Davis listened even to open hatred and tried to understand where it was coming from. There was no talk of victims and oppressors. There were no social media attacks or calls for deplatforming. There was no virtue signaling about Wokeness.
Instead, Daryl Davis treated those who were predisposed to hate him with dignity and respect. He listened. He questioned. He befriended. He humanized himself by seeing and acknowledging the humanity of others, including those with whom he deeply disagreed. In the process he did what few have ever accomplished. Daryl Davis changed the hearts of hundreds of the most committed racists in the nation.
This is what real, effective anti-racism looks like. And as Davis mentions at the end of his talk, if he can do it, so can we.