The images of the Texas flood are harrowing. I can’t imagine there is anyone in the Midlands whose heart does not ache so immensely and with so much empathy for our fellow Americans suffering so tremendously.
I have also seen many people post about the beautiful acts of unity and love that have been demonstrated during this time. Texas has experienced substantially more rain and more flooding than we did. Yet, we understand the power of those images of people from all walks of life coming together.
We also saw it during the eclipse – a number of social media posts sharing how, for two minutes, we all looked up to see beauty. We forgot about the color of our skin, our faith, or our political affiliation. We all stood together in wonder at the beauty of our world.
Why do these images mean so much to us? How do we build on these moments of unity to guide change?
I think they give us hope that we are capable of coming together as a nation. The purpose of this article is to further dive into some proposed strategies for doing just that.
When Greg died, I felt called to take action against the growing divisiveness against police. Though I have focused primarily on promoting positive police and community relationships, my heart has ached for the all too many examples of hate that have rocked our country.
September 30th will mark two years since Greg was taken from us. I would have hoped to look back over these past two years to see dramatic improvements, and yet the fight against hate remains ever present.
When the events in Charlottesville took place, I cried along with the rest of the world. I tried to understand what could cause people to think they are better than someone else simply because of the color of their skin. Though I have called for empathy since the day Greg died, I was having an immensely difficult time putting myself in the shoes of a white supremacist.
So, I turned to research and my training in clinical-community psychology to explore solutions to combat hate. Here are a few key learnings that may be valuable to us all as we find our loud voices of love.
- It is much easier to hate someone when you don’t see them as human. Psychologists have studied something called, “dehumanization” or the process of depriving a person or group of positive human qualities. A few months ago, Vox wrote a summary of the dehumanization literature. Even more recently, they shared findings (which, importantly have not yet been peer-reviewed) which found that members of the Alt-Right movement are more likely to score high on dehumanization measures. Understanding dehumanization is critically important to understanding what drives hate and racism. Seeing someone as a human is the foundation to empathy; in order to feel for someone else’s happiness or suffering requires that you believe the other person has the same capacity for thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc. When you dehumanize someone or a group of people, you see them as less than human which makes it a lot easier to discount their worth.
- Our opinions and behaviors are heavily influenced by those we are most connected to. The recent study shared in Vox also stated that members of the Alt-Right reported having just as many friends and acquaintances as everyone else. This fact struck me because the report did not describe who they were close to and that is a very important point. Were all of their friends of the same race or were they connected to people of many different races, for example? The reason this point is important comes down to things like social capital. Social capital refers to “the networks of relationships with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups.” I have long been interested in social capital for the positive benefits, including group empowerment and collaboration for change. But what about when social capital goes wrong? Research has shown that social capital can foster negative behavior (e.g., racist acts); act as a barrier to social inclusion; and serve to divide rather than unite communities. What this suggests is that people can be very socially connected, but if they are only socially connected to other like-minded people, negative behaviors and beliefs may be strengthened. The bottom line is this – we need to interact and build social networks with those who are different from us.
- Positive reinforcement is one of the most effective ways to change behavior. Since the early days of operant conditioning with B.F. Skinner (you know, the psychologist who put rats in a box and examined how they responded to different stimuli, like food and shocks?), study after study has shown the power of positive reinforcement (strengthening a behavior by providing a reward). Developmental psychologists especially use positive reinforcement when working with kids. When I worked in family weight loss, we would talk about positive reinforcement a lot as a way to “treat yourself” after meeting a weight loss or exercise goal. We can look to positive reinforcement when seeking to address hate. What these basic principles suggest is that efforts to change hateful behavior are more likely to be successful when we reinforce and celebrate good acts rather than just simply condemning the bad ones. For example, what if we started sharing more posts that celebrate the good and magnify voices of love? From my observation, it seems people are quick to share when a negative or hateful event happens, but what if we equally called out when people are kind and compassionate and understanding? We do this all of the time with Heroes In Blue when we celebrate examples of police going out of their way to serve their community.
- We should work to meet people where they are. There is a common saying in clinical work that says to, “meet clients where they are.” This phrase comes from client-centered therapy approaches, like motivational interviewing, which try to help clients find the motivation to make positive decisions. Motivational interviewing has been used a lot to help people overcome addiction. Often, people with addiction don’t think they have a problem or have a hard time finding motivation to change because the negative behavior (e.g., using drugs) is reinforcing. The same may be true when thinking of racists beliefs; rarely do people understand that their opinions or behaviors are racist. Motivational interviewing can be used to help people challenge those believes and move towards change. One technique I used often when working with clients on weight loss was the “readiness ruler.” You would ask clients where they were in terms of motivation for weight loss. If they said, “a 3,” I would ask, “What would it take to move you to a 4?” A similar approach may be helpful when thinking about moving someone towards more cultural competence. Rather than expecting someone who is at a 1 to move to a 10 overnight, we should explore ways to get them to a 2, and then a 3, and so on. We should work to meet people where they are and seek to help them move up the ladder of cultural competence. We can do this every day by seeking to listen first rather than telling people what they need to do differently. For example, let’s say you are having dinner with relatives. Your uncle makes a hateful comment about marriage among same sex couples. What do you do? According to motivational interviewing, a first step may be to ask him why he feels that way rather than telling him that he is wrong. This does not mean accepting or condoning behavior. What it does mean is exploring how your voice can be most effective in supporting others’ growth towards becoming more open-minded.
- Modeling matters. Anyone who has taken psych 101 is likely familiar with the famous Bobo Doll Experiment. That study showed the power of modeling or how people learn by imitating others. Bandura’s well-known Social Learning Theory expanded on that knowledge to theorize that people learn from one another through observation, imitation and modeling. This work has been used over and over again to guide behavior change efforts. When it comes to overcoming divisiveness, we should think about how we model behavior that show how to work with others. By working together with people who are different from us, by seeking to listen to one another, we model behavior that seeks to unify rather than divide.
So, what does all of this mean for overcoming hate? Based on this research and my personal experiences, I came up with a list of potential strategies that we can try.
- We need to spend time and have conversations with people who are different than us.
- We should share stories that help to understand, and as a result help humanize, one another. This can be through media or through our everyday experiences. The more we are open about our own stories, the more we help others understand our own perspective.
- We should do more to celebrate good deeds. This can be as small as thanking someone for helping you out or even bigger by honoring those who are recognized for being compassionate and respectful to others.
- We should do more listening rather than telling. By listening to others, we can understand their readiness for change and work to support them in moving upward. We should also not be scared to reach out to those who are perceived as resistant to change. The more we hide from those who may have been closed off in the past, the more they are likely to remain closed off.
- We can model what change looks like. By volunteering, through sharing messages of love and by working with others who may be different from us, we show what unity looks like. We also show how loving one another leads to positive outcomes.
Our efforts with Midlands Anchor are linked to these actions. We share stories about people from all different backgrounds. We celebrate good deeds. We seek to understand and do research which helps us to do so. We help normalize what it means to be united.
Our efforts with Heroes In Blue also model this voice of celebrating voices of good and bridging resources between different community groups who may not typically seen as being linked with police. We share stories of police and community working together to show how powerful that unity can be. We share an empathetic voice that seeks to understand others before judging. (Note: if you want to celebrate voices for change, join us September 29th at our Annual Knight of Honor Gala, where we will be knighting law enforcement and citizen heroes for their everyday acts of kindness and compassion).
These are just a few examples of how we can take action against hate. These are demonstrations of how we use our voices to be warriors for change. So, we ask, how are you going to fight hate today?