Dissolving Division, Stigma & Stereotypes

Yesterday, a friend posted a link to Human Library, a Copenhagen-based organization that publishes human books who share their unique life experiences in safe spaces that allow for honest, open, curious dialogue. I was curious and soon came across the founder Ronni Abergel's 2018 Tedx talk in Bucharest:

"At the moment, we live in highly polarized times. Politicians are profiting from pitting us against each other. Instead of building bridges between people, politicians are actually widening the gap. It's all over the world, it's not especially an American problem...It's a problem everywhere, because when people are afraid, you can get them to vote. Filling your heart with anger and fear is much easier than trust and love."

It is a limitation of how our brains work that we must resort to heuristics or quick judgements based on our past experience or what we've read or heard. But because we can only experience such a tiny bit of the sum total of vast and diverse human experiences, relying and acting solely on our heuristics is likely to lead us to misjudge people and situations. Sometimes those misjudgements only hurt ourselves by preventing us from trying something new that might prove to give us joy or improve the quality of our life in some way. But other times, they end up hurting others through bullying, harassment, enacting discriminatory laws, denying opportunities, even justifying war, genocide, and a whole host of other inhumane actions.

Those who have experienced trauma often have to grapple, to varying degrees, with stigma and stereotypes. It can be something as passive as a divorcee or widow no longer being invited to couples' gatherings. Or calling a man who cries a wuss. Or perceiving someone who has experienced gender-based violence as dirty, tainted, evil, or irredeemably broken. Or simply using that single lens to explain everything about the person.

It is sometimes true that those struggling with schizophrenia or other mental illness can be a danger to themselves and others. But in other instances, they can be productive, even brilliant people such as the Nobel laureate, game theorist John Nash (watch A Beautiful Mind for his story) or mental health researcher and advocate Eleanor Longdon (she shares her personal story in this 2013 TED talk). Understanding the condition, the person living with the condition, and how external factors can contribute to or alleviate the condition are the keys to unlocking the person's potential.

We cannot begin to understand unless we allow ourselves to be curious and we encounter circumstances where our curiosity is met with openness and honesty rather than defensiveness. This is why it's so important for people to identify and work on diffusing their own triggers; we all have our own topics that may trigger feelings of shame, anxiety, anger, sadness, envy etc. And this is why the work of organizations such as Human Library that seek to create opportunities for safe dialogue are so important, because people can be clumsy, unskillful communicators. Often, even with the best intentions, we say what we don't mean or we say something that is taken the wrong way by the listener. Building metaphorical bridges is hard work, but tearing them down is easy. It's the opposite for metaphorical walls, because we have a bias towards caution when we encounter things we do not know or understand. If we understand this, instead of judging ourselves for the biases, stereotypes, and stigmas we knowingly or unwittingly perpetuate, we can choose to work towards dismantling them within our own hearts first.

But one irony is that the more successful/high status we become or the closer to power we get, the more comfortable and confident we become with our existing sphere of knowledge (after all, it helped us achieve success/status/power); we become less humble, curious, and open to alternative viewpoints. So we also need to be realistic and understand that power structures also come into play when it comes to perpetuating painful stigmas or dismantling harmful stereotypes. But that is not an excuse not to do our own work, because chaos theory teaches us that small changes can have inordinately large impacts that we may or may not be aware of (Edward Lorenz's Butterfly Effect).

One of my favorite storytellers is Brandon Stanton, creator of HoNY (Humans of New York, which has since branched out to tell the stories of ordinary people around the world). This series on people living with Invisible Wounds, along with every other story told through Stanton, shows the beauty of the human spirit. We are all striving to do our best given our particular circumstances. When we fall short, it is often due to a lack of understanding, skilss or resources rather than a lack of good intentions.

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