My parents were raised in a Chicago Slovak neighborhood, in a city of ethnic neighborhoods. They lived in a place where you could converse in Slovak, shop in Slovak stores, and attend a Slovak Catholic Church. Adjacent to the Slovak neighborhood was a Polish neighborhood where similar services were available but in Polish instead of Slovak. These countries touch each other on the European continent but are separated by state borders. Similarly, old Chicago neighborhoods touched each other but were separated by cultural borders. People were expected to marry someone from their religion and cultural background, which is precisely what my parents did.
During the first half of the last century, women were told that they were incompetent to hold positions of importance. Nevertheless, women performed a vital role during WWII by working in responsible positions. The war would not have been won without their efforts. However, after the war was over, they were expected to adopt their prior limited roles.
During World War II, propaganda was used to unite US citizens. One method of propaganda was to create grotesque caricatures of our enemies. Especially notable were those of the Japanese where the physical differences between Asians are whites were so exaggerated that the Japanese looked more monster than human.
I was raised in a neighborhood that was mostly blue-collar, mostly Catholic, and completely white. When I was a child in the 1960s, there was a great fear of blacks. A fear justified by stories of violence and immorality. We were led to believe that the integration of our neighborhoods would result in them becoming ghettos. This fear played out in the high school that I attended, which was ripe with racial conflict and violence. That violence was a product of our fear, but we were led to believe that it was proof of our false conjectures.
Unlike my parents, my generation melted more into the American fabric. My wife is Swedish and was raised in a Protestant tradition. My siblings married spouses who were Irish, German, and Polish, respectively. Our parents believed that it was necessary to marry their kind. However, my generation found that “our kind” had more to do with values rather than ethnic heritage.
My colleague Glenn was a Psychiatry resident whom I trained with during the 1980s. He attended a prominent pharmacy school in Iowa before he decided to seek a career in medicine. He told me of an experience that he had with a college roommate. One day his roommate asked Glen a favor, “I never met a real Jew before, can I see your horns?” His roommate was completely serious.
While attending medical school at Northwestern, I became friends with a kind and thoughtful fellow student named Todd. We never talked about religion, that is until one day. On that day, this smart and kind man told me in earnest that he knew that the Pope had a massive arsenal of weapons hidden in the basement of the Vatican. “Someday, the Pope will give a secret signal, and all Catholics will rise up and attempt to take over the country,” he told me sincerely. I was glad that I did not tell him that I was Catholic.
My friend Tom, who grew up in Poland, said that homosexuals were hated and rejected there. He was taught that the gay agenda was to convert straight children into a gay orientation. As a child, he had a genuine fear of this group based on this lie.
Our highest officials tell us that all Muslims are terrorists and should not be given the same rights and privileges as others in our society.
I am writing this post from Starbucks, where I have a direct view of the street. Outside I see a Hispanic woman wearing a safety vest and wielding a leaf blower. She is working purposefully as she cleans the sidewalk that I will be walking on in a few minutes. I am told that the people of her race are lazy, drunken criminals. It does not appear that she got that memo.
What is the common link between all of these diverse groups? The common link is that in some minor way, they are different from the group in power and that these differences are enough for denial of their human rights.
In nature, other organisms exhibit destruction based on differences. Advanced species like chimps wage war on other chimps, as do lesser species like meerkats. Ants and bees, destroy insects from other colonies. Lions, bears, and even horses kill the offspring of other males.
Plants, including walnut and pine trees, secrete agents that prevent competitors from growing near them. Other plants go a step further by secreting chemicals that directly attack the roots of living neighbors, killing them.
Some researchers feel that the distrust of others has a genetic component. However, others believe that distrust is entirely a learned phenomenon. I am in the first camp, as the traits of trust and distrust would seem critical for the survival of early humans. If primitive humans had an inherent mistrust of individuals who were different from them, it could provide a survival benefit.
Let me digress. Have you ever fallen in love? Think back to one of your high school crushes. The object of your affection could likely do no wrong. Their flaws were minimized, and their strengths were magnified. You probably had an intense interest in their behaviors and a strong desire to connect with them. Most adolescent crushes last from weeks to months. Most “post crush” individuals wonder why the former object of their affection has suddenly developed clay feet.
A chemical storm in your brain causes a crush that clouds your judgment and artificially emotionally connect you to your love interest. Why would your brain play such a trick on you? Stated, this emotional closeness can lead to physical closeness. In other words, your brain is setting the stage for you to procreate. Humans prize their intellectual capabilities, but many of our actions are based on primitive instinctual drives.
It can be assumed that during our early evolution, resources were scarce, and mortality was high. Having a more significant piece of the resource pie would ensure a higher rate of survival, and one way to have more pie for yourself is to take someone else’s piece. This presents a problem. We are social animals who are more successful when we work in groups. Therefore, if our only drive was to selfishly secure resources for ourselves, we would lose the significant benefit of working with others. Thankfully, we have other inherent characteristics that balance this drive, including empathy, compassion, and a desire to connect. It is fashionable to think that these characteristics are taught, but in reality, they are baked into us. However, they can be strengthened by teaching. Our connecting forces balance our self-serving forces. This yin and yang combination has enhanced our ability to expand our species and thrive.
Although Homo Sapiens have been on this planet for around 200,000 years, our modern societies have only existed for 6000 years. Complex societies present their own problems and require additional solutions. As thinking creatures, we have developed social norms and established laws. Mechanisms from etiquette to governmental rule help humans work together in harmony.
In a perfect world, our innate drives combined with external forces (such as laws) would give us a utopian-like existence. However, we do not live in a perfect world. It is all too easy to channel suspicious feelings to others whom we perceive as different. The more significant that difference, the easier the alienation. Color of skin, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender, and physical characteristics are just a few of the ways that we can separate ourselves from others. However, in modern society, it is challenging to denigrate someone on such facts. Instead, negative attributes are added to justify our emotional feelings. This group is lazy, that group is dirty, etc.
Individuals and groups have intuitively used our fear of “different” in weaponized ways for millennia, and their manipulations have resulted in societies accepting and even celebrating tragedies from wars to mass genocide. Sadly, it is easy to see these weaponized forms of hate being applied in our present day.
This condemnation of particular groups can be partial or complete. During World War II, propaganda against the Japanese was so successful that little was said when Japanese Americans had their property seized and were locked up in camps.
Partial condemnation allows an individual to continue to serve society while their rights are restricted. Blacks were allowed to do manual labor, cook, and care for our children, but were denied all human rights. Women were allowed to raise families, but were not considered equal to their spouses.
Such actions keep power in the dominant group, but at a high cost to both the dominated and domineering. Increasing a pool of talented individuals allows for more meaningful and more varied solutions, as well as higher productivity. For instance, the US became an intellectual power when working classes were allowed to gain a higher education via the GI Bill. A whole country is a healthy country.
Why is it that we continue to experience prejudice and the denial of human rights, and why do these behaviors seem to be on the rise? These actions give the group in power short-term gain. Unfortunately, we are in a time when it appears that leaders are more interested in what they can get in the next few years rather than what would benefit all (including their offspring) over time. As our society becomes further fractionated into very rich and very poor groups, it becomes easier for those on top to identify those on the bottom as being different, and not as worthy. Extreme wealth provides a second set of rules making some wealthy people feel that they are not only above the law but also above any consequences,
The solution to the above problem is disarmingly simple but extraordinarily difficult to implement. Groups that are determined to be different need to be accepted as similar.
When connected with marginalized groups, most people tend to see more similarities than differences. However, forced clumsy immersions can have the effect of worsening discrimination rather than helping to heal. Our leaders need to model a behavior of tolerance, and our laws need to reflect true equality. We need to see positive models of different types of people in media, social media, and in our daily lives. Traditional ethical bearers, such as religious leaders, need to emphasize acceptance of all as a central core of their teaching. Intolerant behavior needs to be squarely addressed. Hypocrisy must be met with truth in equal force.
One of the most powerful influencers of our basic drives is social modeling. Therefore, our society must demonstrate the full acceptance of individuals who may be perceived as different. Our current model rewards people who commit criminal acts while demonizing non-conformers who live ethical lives. This must change.
Groups in the majority fear loss. Loss of power, loss of prestige, and loss of influence. However, the healthiest societies are those that maximize the talents and skills of all of their unique members.
As humans, we have to accept our primitive beginnings, but also aspire to be higher than what those traits drive us to do.
*This post represents my personal opinion.