In Defense of Understanding

I’d like to take some time here to address potential concerns about articles I will write in the future.  

My current goal is to help people understand each other on points of political conflict.  I chose this goal because I am fairly certain that we can only build a world we can all be proud of if we can compare notes with each other on what we want, what we need, and what we fear.  Only by understanding each other enough to compare notes can we combine our strengths to create a constructive and sustainable path forward for our world.  

In pursuit of this goal, I will be writing articles about specific social issues and situations that drive conflict, and how the different groups involved in these conflicts can learn to understand each other enough to resolve the conflict.  In the process, I will be taking a few risks.  

Still no using deconstruction mindset with heavy machinery, though. 

Generalizations

To start with, my future articles will make statements about what different groups of people value and fear in different situations.  These statements are generalizations.  They are food for thought, to get you to think about perspectives you may not have considered.  They are not going to be accurate for all people at all times.  

As such, I don’t want any of you using what I write as a substitute for listening to people and reading what they have to say about what they believe.  What I expect is that you will use what I write to open your minds so you have an easier time getting to know the people you need to work with.  

If you have any questions, I recommend you reach out to a political opponent who’s willing to go into more detail about what they value and believe, or at least point you in the right direction.  There are more of them than you think.  

If you want to add your own perspective regarding your group’s values and fears on an issue I’ve written about here, please comment or contact me.  

It’s not my intention to put anyone in a box.

Fear of understanding

The next risk I take is that my articles may scare people by introducing the idea that their political opponents are not fundamentally different from them, that they have understandable reasons for what they value, what they believe, and what they do in response.  I would like to address the fears related to this idea right now. 

Empathy: It’s not just a word in translucent letters superimposed on a rainbow Spirograph tracing.

Understanding versus agreement

Firstly, just because I describe my understanding of a group of people does not mean I agree with their beliefs, their goals, or their methods.  I will frequently empathize with the perspective of a group I disagree with, because it’s almost always necessary in order to figure out how to stop them from causing harm.  (My next step is usually to figure out how they can get what they want without causing harm, and it’s easier when I consider that they may accept something other than what they ask for, if it fulfills what they want in a way they hadn’t realized.) 

I do not advocate for moral relativism either, at least not the kind that denies our ability to recognize, condemn, and oppose unethical behavior.  I believe that there are objective principles of ethics that exist outside of subjective reference frames.  If there is any disagreement on what those principles are, I want to investigate the possibility that I may be wrong so that I can learn to be more ethical.  

In brief, I define ethical behavior as constructive for individuals and for society, and unethical behavior as destructive for the same.  Some situations entail tough choices and no obvious right answers, but the concept of ethics is still meaningful as a direction to strive for. 

Losing your way

Secondly, you may fear that people may read what I write and abandon your definitions of what is and is not ethical.  You may even fear that will happen to you.  

I don’t want to trick or confuse you into doing unethical things or failing to stand up for ethics.  If you do end up changing your mind about what you believe and value, I want you to make that decision with your whole self, and full awareness of the significance and reasoning behind your decision.  

Likewise, if you feel that what I say is leading people astray from some important value, please reach out to me and help me understand your values and fears better so that I can help others understand and work with you and your values, as I expect you to understand and work with them and theirs. 

And if you ever start seeing something like this, lie down and maybe call a doctor or something.

Becoming discouraged

Thirdly, you may fear learning that you will need to put more work and thought into having a constructive effect on the world.  I realize how demotivating it is to be shown that one’s hard work may not help people as much as it could, or may even actively harm people.  You may even decide that you no longer identify with the values of a group or community to which you currently belong.  I’m sorry for the position that this puts you in, and in every situation I will try to give you a path forward in recompense.  If there’s more I can do, please let me know.  

I know from experience that finding your own path is intimidating.

Using understanding for evil

Fourthly, you may fear that people will use their new understanding of other people’s fears to exploit or manipulate them instead of working together with them to create a mutually beneficial outcome.  

I fear this outcome as well.  However, at this point I fear the results of popular ignorance and foolishness more than I fear the results of democratized knowledge and wisdom.  If society continues approaching conflicts with anger and hostility, things will get worse rather than better.  Only with understanding do we even have the option of building solutions that satisfy everyone.  

To prevent some people from using their understanding of others for evil, I’m counting on the rest of us to understand our own fears enough not to be fooled.  The more we all understand what’s at stake for everyone, the more we can look out for each other and incentivize honorable behavior.  

Destruction is usually easier than creation.  My tools are meant to make creation less difficult, but to create a better hole we still need to work together and put our awl into it.

Conclusion

Understanding the people you disagree with can be frightening, but I suspect your heart of hearts will tell you that it’s vitally important.  I’m here to make the process easier and more effective. If anything I say in future articles seems to disempower you, please let me know so I can change that. 

Just be careful about ascribing overly specific messages to your heart of hearts.

Background Mindset: Using Generalized Empathy to See Color and Culture

Introduction

In a disturbing turn of events, I’ve seen people who all want to do good and who all want to end racism calling each other nasty names because they can’t agree on how best to do that.  I’m here to help.  (You may prepare to call me nasty names now.)  

Ready your angriest emoji.

One group of people says they’re eliminating racial bigotry by ignoring people’s appearances.  They refer to this as “color-blindness” or “not seeing color” (referring to skin color).  Another group says that eliminating bigotry actually requires paying attention to people’s appearances (“seeing color”) and that “color-blindness” actually ends up perpetuating existing racial disparities and injustices.  This disagreement leads to much frustration and hurt feelings all around.  

If I can, I’d like to resolve this argument once and for all.  To do so, I will use the Foundational Toolbox for Life: the vocabulary of concepts I’ve developed for describing problems and solutions. 

Observation mindset

To start with, I believe there’s a misunderstanding about what people are supposed to do when they “see color.”  

Don’t worry if you can’t see the number 74 in this image; we’re not talking about you.  

When someone claims not to see color, they’re saying they treat people the same regardless of how they look, and only judge people based on their decisions and behavior.  That sounds good in theory, but what do those principles mean in practice?  

The way we treat and judge people we barely know is often based on assumptions that we have about them.  When we have narrow assumptions about what people in general are like and how they should act, that can be a problem in most situations, but it’s especially unhealthy when it comes to historically oppressed and marginalized groups.  

Groups with a history of marginalization  (whether their exclusion from mainstream spaces is deliberate or incidental) are frequently represented in popular culture in a caricatured or stereotyped fashion that omits the nuances of their cultures.  That means people outside those groups will often have assumptions about members of those groups, and interpret members’ actions through the lenses of those assumptions, which will frequently be inaccurate.  Inaccurate assumptions of what someone is thinking or doing lead to awkward interactions at best and hurtful ones at (hopefully) worst.  

Furthermore, we may be wrong about why someone thinks or acts a certain way.  We may not realize how a history of oppression has influenced a person’s or community’s outlook and decisions.  We will often need to peel back our assumptions with observation mindset (article coming soon).  If we don’t, we may end up acting on the fundamental attribution error or similar bias, attributing a decision or a mistake to a person’s character when it’s actually informed by their current situation or past experiences.  That is what people are afraid of when they say that being “color-blind” perpetuates racial bias.  Without knowledge of a person’s or group’s context, we may misjudge entirely reasonable behavior on their part.  

“You’re not allowed to touch the ball with your hands!  Wait, what do you mean you’re playing basketball?”

Background mindset

But wait…  Maybe you already recognize that your way of living isn’t the only valid one.  Perhaps you already give people credit by assuming that their mistakes are products of circumstance rather than of deep-seated personal flaws.  It may be that you “treat everyone the same” by treating everyone differently.  You might use observation mindset to avoid making assumptions and hasty judgments about them.  That’s definitely a good start.  If that’s what you mean by “not seeing color” then I think we can all agree you’re at least on the right track regardless of how you phrase it.  

Can we put away the angry emoji now?

There’s an important tool that you may be overlooking if you stop there, though.  

Background mindset is a tempered mindset on the communication axis.  It uses semantics in the service of empathy, applying labels and rules to simplify the process of making the impression that you want to make.  Even if you don’t really know a person, you can use what little you know about them to guess how to make your interaction smoother to start.  

I realize this idea may be unnerving for some people because it sounds like prejudice and bigotry.  However, it really isn’t either of those.  

Prejudice happens when we come to conclusions about someone based on our initial assumptions, without collecting all the relevant facts.  It’s especially harmful when we take actions that rely on those conclusions being true.  Bigotry happens when we refuse to update our conclusions when faced with contradicting evidence.  Background mindset requires neither of these things.  

What background mindset does is give us hints as to how to interact with someone respectfully, but these hints are not conclusions.  They’re only the opening moves to ease our way through initial interactions or unfamiliar situations.  

Background mindset encompasses etiquette and politeness, social cues and customs, signaling, slang and dialect, accents and shibboleths, coding and code-switching, fashion and dress codes, makeup and costumes, scenery and décor, and even camouflage.  

Background mindset is what helps you set the stage.  Once you understand how it works, you can calibrate it by learning what sorts of rules to follow in different contexts to generate the impressions that you want, and by getting feedback when you practice. 

By following rules of color and shading patterns, you can create the impression that you’re something else, or even blend in so well that you disappear.  For instance, closer inspection reveals this picture of frogs is actually mostly dirt in disguise. 

Examples

Here is an example of what background mindset can do using slang and dialect: 

How do you feel when someone asks you, “I pray thee, wouldst thou lend me thy guidance to the privy?” versus, “Oy, mate, where’s the loo?”  They’re the same question, but the two sentences follow two different sets of rules and may create very different impressions by doing so. 

On the other hand, many Americans might be equally bewildered by both questions. 

Clothing also lets you create different impressions on purpose.  How well you succeed depends in part on the expectations and mental associations possessed by the people you’re trying to create those impressions for. 

Fashion is one reason you can tell this is a pirate skeleton and not a Halloween skeleton or a Día de los Muertos skeleton: it follows the traditional rules that people associate with classical pirate garb.  It also greets you with, “Yarr, matey!”

Using what you learn about other cultures, you can even use background mindset to influence your own impressions of others. You might recognize when a person’s words or behavior mean something different for them than they normally would for you.  Noticing these variations makes it easier not to take it personally if someone comments on something that would normally be taboo in your culture, or if they express their anger or approval differently from how you expect.  (If you expect to interact with them on a regular basis, though, you may want to negotiate a mini-culture between the two of you so you can both make things easier on each other.)  

Okay, I’ll stop listening to your nose if you stop smelling my ear.  Deal?

Reflections

How might people from different cultural contexts express the same feelings or information in different ways?  What variations in cultural context do you notice even within your own country and/or ethnic group?  Do you feel differently about a person depending on how they express themselves?  Would you feel more comfortable with people if you became familiar with their preferred means of expressing themselves?  

Flipping the perspective, how might others feel differently about you based on how you express yourself?  What rules or guidelines might you follow to better put people at ease who have different backgrounds, personalities, or life experiences?  You may already have guidelines you follow in different contexts (or with different people) for acknowledging or avoiding certain topics, phrasing things in certain ways, or expressing emotions differently.  

The more you learn about different people, communities, and cultures, and how their experiences have shaped their development, the more effectively you can use background mindset to interact with new people so you can get to know them as actual people. 

And the closer to fruition my planetary Ring Around The Rosie plot becomes.  Ashes, ashes, you all fall down.  …Um, ignore that last bit. 

Recap and disclaimers

When people ask that we see color, what they really mean is they want us to start learning about people’s different experiences and what assumptions about people we should stop making.  Over time, we can learn more different approaches for showing respect and putting people at ease, and how to recognize by looking at someone which ones are safe and appropriate to try with them first and which ones we should probably avoid.  

Showing respect and putting people at ease does not mean we are required to do everything a person requests of us.  However, it will help us more effectively work with people to help them get what they really need.  

Likewise, showing respect and putting people at ease does not mean we are required to abandon an opinion just because someone else tells us they don’t approve of it.  However, it will help us decide when, how, and to whom to present our opinions such that people feel respected rather than threatened, and are much more likely to give our concerns due consideration and treat us with respect in turn.  

Finally, showing respect and putting people at ease is not a substitute for listening to people or caring about their wellbeing.  What it does is make the listening process more effective, which in turn helps us act on that care in ways that people will recognize and benefit from, with their permission.  

Sometimes the key to open someone’s heart is all in the framing.

Resources

While writing this article, I did not succeed in finding resources that outlined the general defining values or attitudes of specific cultures.  Even if I had found any, though, I don’t believe I would have felt confident in presenting them as authoritative or representative, since I would almost certainly lack sufficient firsthand experience with the culture in question to validate or vouch for such generalization from any single source.  

As such, if you want to learn about a specific culture you may need to do the research yourself.  I do recommend finding multiple sources from within that culture that don’t all agree with each other on everything, to get a nuanced and multifaceted perspective.  However, I hope that this article and the following resource(s) give you a good starting point for doing so.  

The resource(s) below for cultural sensitivity can help you peel back your assumptions by using observation mindset, in preparation for calibrating your background mindset for specific contexts.  In particular, the Bennett model of cultural sensitivity Dabbah describes provides a vocabulary for noticing and reflecting on how you regard other cultures and relate them to your own.  (You may recognize the “minimization” stage as the problem that people who condemn “color-blindness” are actually concerned about.)  

If you know of any resources that help people understand your own culture, feel free to share them in the comments and I can update this list.  

  • Dabbah, Mariela. “What is Cultural Sensitivity?” Red Shoe Movement. https://redshoemovement.com/what-is-cultural-sensitivity/.  Publication date not visible.  Retrieved May 3rd, 2021.  
    • Outlines the Bennett model of different stages of cultural sensitivity, with examples. The stages are as follows: 
      • Denial
      • Defense
      • Minimization
      • Acceptance
      • Integration

Conclusion

With all that said, I hope these concepts make it easier to engage in critical conversations about noticing and counteracting the biases and communication barriers that allow racism to survive.  With any luck you will see more articles here in the future to help with similar conversations.  Thank you for reading, and please let me know in the comments if this helps.  

Bring your emoji, if you must.