On an early 2018 trip to South Africa, I had the good fortune to meet with Dr. Spiwo Xapile, who has worked diligently to end the negative effects of apartheid.
Dr. Xapile lamented: “We’re stuck! We were making progress but now we’re stuck and need to get moving forward again.”
Although he was speaking about his nation being “stuck” in its efforts to heal the wounds of apartheid, Xapile’s comments got me thinking about all the parallels between the South African challenge and problems of disparate social treatment across the globe. We spoke about this on several occasions and agreed that the root causes for “stuckness” extend around the world.
This gives rise to two questions: (1) Why has progress solving social issues slowed (and in some cases reversed) over the past 20-some years? and (2) What is the key to getting unstuck?
I believe the inability to eradicate persistent, negative stereotypes explains our lack of progress. I further believe that declining face-to-face interaction is the main barrier to eliminating those stereotypes, and that it largely results from an ever-growing reliance on impersonal, technology-driven communication.
The social issues where progress is stuck are many: racial inequities, gender imbalances, religious animosities, immigration disputes, environmental controversies, urban-rural cultural clashes, economic class conflict, political polarization, and more. A “we vs. they” mentality informs our approach to all these matters. In national and local politics and person to person, people resist talking constructively about issues. Instead, we negatively stereotype those on the other side as either ill informed or selfishly motivated.
It’s well known how negative stereotypes arise and how they can be used for one’s own purposes. The same techniques have been used for centuries, including the negative stereotyping of Native Americans and African Americans in the U.S., of Jews in Nazi Germany and elsewhere, of South African blacks under apartheid, of Maoris in New Zealand and Aborigines in Australia — to mention only a few.
One key has always been to keep targeted groups physically isolated so others do not have a chance to really get to know them. Think of Indian reservations, Jewish ghettos in Europe, black “townships” in South Africa, and redlined neighborhoods in U.S. cities.
It’s easy to hold on to stereotypes if you encounter no evidence they are inaccurate.
And, when you do not even see people, it’s easy to behave harshly. Psychologists have shown that harming people is easier the less you know them. Interviews reveal it is less distressing for wartime pilots to drop bombs on people from 30,000 feet above than it is for drone operators to direct bombs remotely from vast distances — because drone operators can actually see those they are about to kill.
Governments and others exploiting negative stereotypes used to physically relocate groups of people to achieve isolation. With the increased use of communication technologies (e-mails, texting, social media, etc.), people now often isolate themselves.
It is easy to limit most interactions to people like oneself. Doing so reinforces one’s own views and solidifies shared negative stereotypes. This is especially pernicious for young people raised in prejudiced families.
It’s increasingly common to receive e-mails from colleagues who are seated only a few feet away. Text messages have replaced telephone calls — in which voice intonations add clarity, especially emotional clarity (no need for an emoticon to show you mean to be friendly).
This dramatic shift from personal to impersonal communication is further illustrated in a January/February 2019 Atlantic story that describes how Chinese women nowadays purchase an app that sends them texts from a fake male with whom they have a “relationship” — even knowing that the other end of the text is not even “really a person.”
The desire to minimize contact with strangers is exemplified by an evolving trend for people to stand 5-10 feet behind the person in front of them in a line.
Imagine the difficulty of looking a stranger in the eye and just smiling in a social environment such as this. Parents used to admonish their children, “Never get into a car with a stranger!” Now, the warning is, sadly, “Never talk to a stranger!”
Trying to prevent every low probability negative event has a price — the loss of possible positive experiences. Avoiding contact with strangers contributes to our being “stuck” because one-on-one social interactions are essential to reducing social stereotyping.
As we stop communicating with people holding views different from our own, it becomes increasingly easy for political saboteurs (say, the Russian government) to sow discord among us.
Why is it so hard to stop stereotyping? Basic psychology tells us we are a categorizing species. Sorting out things is how our brain simplifies a complex world and facilitates survival. We categorize everything, from types of landscapes (harsh vs. inhabitable), to types of plants (poisonous vs edible), to types of animals (dangerous, harmless, trainable), to, of course, types of people.
Today people stereotype all “Trump voters” or all “Democrats.” Many go the extra step and shun others (even family members) based on such stereotypes — not acknowledging the wide array of beliefs they hold beyond their voting behavior.
Efforts to eliminate inaccurate stereotypes (and the discrimination they lead to) need to adapt to the changing environment. Though some confrontational persuasion tactics may “feel good,” they are counterproductive to the end goal.
After the 2016 election, I wrote an article criticizing some tactics used by Black Lives Matter. I was labeled a racist. What people failed to understand is that I was condemning the “tactics” of shutting down freeways, etc. — not the objective of reducing discrimination. Shutting down freeways upsets people not involved in the protest because of the inconvenience caused — sometimes major, such as preventing people from getting needed medical care.
Such reckless actions provide fodder for looking negatively at “those people,” and the news spreads far and wide in today’s wired world. Some activists assert victory by claiming, “Well, we got people’s attention.” It may have been attention at the high price of increased hostility toward their cause.
A more effective tactic was seen recently when thousands of anti-Nazi protesters gathered in Boston and peacefully displayed their predominance over a handful of pro-Nazis who had gathered. The tactic was so effective it led to the pro-Nazis canceling future public gatherings because they didn’t want it broadcast that they represent such a small part of the population.
The LGBTQ movement, too, has used a different approach to strive for equal rights. Instead of shutting down freeways, LGBTQ advocates have made a point of meeting, individually, with people so they can look them in the eye and get to know them as persons. That approach has been successful. Today well over half of Americans tell pollsters they approve of same-sex marriage.
Social psychologists cite many effective ways of breaking down stereotypes. They include: (1) working with individuals from disparate groups on projects, sharing an objective or an adversary; (2) considering “why” a person in a particular group is asserting something — not focusing immediately on whether the assertion is true or false; (3) resisting the temptation to quickly attribute to an individual member of a group the stereotypical views attributed to that group; (4) “planting seeds” for how to resolve inequities (and tending to them) rather than trying to solve everything all at once; and, critically, (5) experiencing and learning about other cultures by actually interacting with persons within them.
An example of working with those in other groups on common problems is the “jigsaw method” used in some schools, where each student in a culturally diverse group is given part of an intellectual puzzle to solve. Students are allowed to assist one another — in this way combining contributions and seeing how fruitful cooperation across our divides can be.
Given the ease with which technology facilitates isolation, it’s hard to be optimistic about our getting unstuck quickly.
Current family and social environments — such as people withdrawing into electronic devices and relying on “virtual personal assistants” (Siri, Alexis, Echo, etc.); — make it harder for people to step up to others face-to-face.
I’m grateful for the interactions my wife, Elaine, and I have had with ”Bunny” in Myanmar, Harold in the Armenian Quarter of Old Jerusalem, Bradley in Capetown, James and Olga in South African townships, and many others we’ve had the honor and joy of getting to know one-on-one. May the joy of interacting with the great variety of persons in our world continue and be shared ever more widely.
Doug R. Berdie, of Minneapolis, is a semiretired marketing executive and researcher.