My college major was originally going to be behavioral psychology, but along the way I switched to communication. The disciplines share a lot of ideas, particularly in the areas of imprinting, and the ways we react to fear.
As small children, we learn to associate positive or negative consequences with various behaviors, so we discover which actions are socially appropriate, and which are not. This is fine, as far as it goes: if I do “X,” I get praise, whereas if I do “Y,” I get a scolding, or I hurt myself somehow. But I’m sure we can all identify instances where people were taught differently from social norms, and were rewarded for behaviors that many of us would consider “deviant.” The recent Oxford school shooting comes to mind, where the parents apparently enabled the child in obtaining a handgun and threatening his schoolmates.
As a culture, as a community of humans sharing space together, what do we sanction, and what do we punish?
Animals typically narrow their social preferences to those who share their immediate surroundings. Humans do this too, of course; we learn to feel comfortable with those who look and behave like we do. Difference, again, is considered “deviant,” and therefore threatening. This is all happening at a subconscious level, and once we become aware of these tendencies, we can choose to behave differently. Those who ridicule “wokeness” seem to take issue with this kind of self-examination, this call to reflect on what we’ve been taught, and whether we are conscious of the outcomes of our choices.
Animals are typically motivated by fear, including the human animal. Difference seems threatening, difference makes one an outsider to the community, difference triggers rejection – for those who are unwilling to reflect on their fear, their insider status, their privilege. As I tell my Intercultural Communication students, it takes courage to interact across difference; you have to be willing to feel scared, to be rejected, to make mistakes, to be embarrassed, to get it wrong. You have to be willing to hang in there and keep trying. You have to be willing to do the work.
Let’s never give up trying.
I belong to a number of social media groups, particularly on Facebook. From time to time, things can get heated. This week, two very active members have departed from one of these groups, and they left with a bang, not a whimper. Both of these people chose to unleash their frustration and anger, then announce they were leaving. They were quitting our sandbox, picking up their toys, and going home. So there!
Their frustration was rooted in the fact that other members didn’t agree with their views. Tensions were rising, no doubt due to the “disinhibition effect” – our tendency to act more freely when we can hide behind anonymity. Add to that the irritation of being unable to change people’s minds on deeply personal issues, and you can have a recipe for disaster.
The moderator did her best to keep things civil, but in the end, these two individuals chose (separately, on different occasions and due to different issues) to pitch a fit and flounce out of the room. Some members said “good riddance,” while others wished that fences could be mended.
When do you walk away from a contentious situation? It’s a tough call, that requires balancing stress levels, effort, and the importance of the issue. At some point, you might decide that the drama isn’t worth the aggravation, and that for your own sake, you must remove yourself from the situation. That’s valid. We’ve all done it.
It takes courage and fortitude to hang in there when you find yourself in the minority, to remain calm, to search for different ways to explain your opinion. Sure, we’re more comfortable around “our own kind,” and it’s a lot more enjoyable to keep company with those who think as we do. To stay is to be vulnerable, to open ourselves to attack. That’s not fun.
But we just might learn something.
I’m not saying that anyone should stay in an abusive situation. I’m referring to these online arguments where it’s so easy to walk away, to “hit and run,” to unfriend someone because we see the world differently. While I might never see the world your way, I can developing my critical thinking skills, my tolerance level, and even arrive at a deeper clarity of my own beliefs by listening to what you have to say.
Let’s stay engaged, if we can. Yes, we must look after our own stress levels, but taking a break isn’t the same thing as walking away completely. We live in community with others – yes, even with “them.”
We’re divided, but I still have faith that diplomacy matters.