David Shechtman discovers that the only way to address the issue is to replace fear with relationships.
A few days before the grand jury’s decision in the Ferguson, MO situation, I listened to a fascinating podcast about the changing nature of Islam, particularly in America. The episode, put out by Krista Tippett of onbeing.org, consisted of an interview with Reza Aslan, an Iranian-born author and scholar who regularly advises the highest levels of American government on issues related to global Islam.
Aslan patiently and deliberately answered each question presented to him with aplomb. Yet at one point, seemingly concerned that the interview was skirting a key point, he made the following comments:
“But I do think that in that truth is also the answer, because as any social psychologist will tell you, minds are not changed, perceptions are not transformed by data. I think that there is this knee-jerk response, particularly from liberals, to bigotry where they will say that, well, bigotry, it’s just a result of ignorance and that, if you just simply gave a bigot proper information, he would no longer be a bigot. That’s a nice idea. It’s just not true.”
I was glued to my seat. Suddenly, and forcefully, many of the key thoughts that I have had about many cultural and social issues in the world had voice. Information alone, even compelling data, doesn’t change beliefs.
But what Aslan went on to say next, rocked my world. And, in light of recent events in Ferguson and the resulting media swirl, I’m genuinely concerned about what happens next to American society, already so fragmented, polarized, and rancorous.
He went on to say:
“You show all the numbers that you want to, about the — the reality of Muslims and Islamic life around the world, and it wouldn’t really make a difference, because the person who has these anti-Muslim sentiments is reacting from a place of fear. And so the only answer therefore is, to replace that fear with relationships.”
It was the last part of his comments that grabbed me. Fear is impervious to information, so the only way to address the issue is to replace fear with relationships.
My worry is that the swirl of events about Ferguson is having the opposite effect. Fear is generating more fear, which is being followed by a hardening of opinions. And hardened opinions fueled by fear are not only blind to information, they are also impervious to common sense.
I see rampant confirmation bias (Wikipedia: “The tendency to search for, interpret, or prioritize information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses.”) in the reporting of these events. High-profile sources that traditionally align with conservative political beliefs seem to view the events in Ferguson as confirmation that police are heroic and and young black men, such as Michael Brown, are usually up to no good. The media sources on the liberal side, then, seem to view the same events as confirmation that police are racist and the justice system is broken or out to get minorities.
Therefore, in my initial reading of the situation, the people who already didn’t care for black culture now have more evidence to support their position and the people who don’t like the established criminal justice system have more evidence to support their opinion. This result, if it holds, horrifies me.
It horrifies me because fear-induced polarization does nothing to improve the current state of our culture. It does nothing to prevent the next tragic loss of life. It does nothing to integrate the large, multicultural fabric of twenty-first century America.
What does? Relationships. No amount of data will convince either group to see the other side. It’s not more data or new information at this point that we need (although police body cameras would be useful in the future). We need relationships between people who distrust and often fear one another. Nothing else will work, certainly not a retreat to an echo chamber that confirms our deeply held beliefs.
Even protest—something I fully respect and support–won’t encourage relationship building, especially not acts of violence or property destruction.
Although I’m disgusted by the events of and reactions to Ferguson, I do believe that we can make something positive out of what occurred. It’s not too late. We can address the sadness and horror over the situation by reaching out to and engaging with people who aren’t likely to agree with us. I’ve already started. I’ve talked to quite a few people about what happened. Some of them share my opinion and some of them don’t. Most of these interactions have been awkward, especially at the start of things. But what has happened after the initial awkwardness has been incredible. Discussions about police brutality and wayward youth have shifted to education and family. Sounds bites have transcended into hopeful declarations about a preferred future. I’ve gotten to know the people I talked to better and they’ve gotten to know me.
If we allow a tragic death and a questionable grand-jury decision to harden the divisions in our already fractious culture, then we’re pushing things even further down a slippery slope.
I don’t want to read the grand-jury testimony; I want to interact with young men who feel alienated by our criminal-justice system. I don’t want to go to a series of blogging portals that espouse my existing opinion on the Ferguson situation; I want to go to sites the encourage honest debate or even take the other side. I don’t want to see the situation as further confirmation that one group or another is bad or wrong; I want to explore the side of this country that I rarely or don’t see.
The greatest threat to America post-Ferguson is retreat. If we retreat to our corner, filter out what what don’t want to hear, and embrace what we already think, then we all lose. The primary responsibility for repairing and improving this country is ours, not the media and not the political establishment. Everyday people dictate the path of our country. Deeply held assumptions and beliefs guide day-to-day decisions. Maybe if a police officer checks an assumptions and decides a different action in the moment, then fewer young people would die?
Each of us has a choice to make based on these events, and this choice may going a long way toward determining the future of America society. What kind of world do we want to raise our children in? How integrated do we want to be?
I choose relationships over fear.
Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP — People stand in prayer after a peaceful march in Ferguson, Mo., to protest the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown