The world has historically been filled with inequities, unfairness, racial and cultural conflict, and injustice. From the sickening realities of apartheid in South Africa to the senseless terrorist attacks in Paris in November, there has been no shortage of global power struggles that disrupt the effective functioning of society as a whole.
Yet, even as apartheid has been dismantled and militant radicals have the entire world seeking to destroy them, there appears to be no end in sight. There are still significant racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare access occurring in South Africa (as well as in the U.S. and U.K.), and Paris has a history of terrorist attacks occurring on its soil.
Further, much attention has been focused on a University of Missouri student’s hunger strike that caused the president of the school to step down in November — but will it actually amount to the end of prejudice on campus?
As touching, practical, and urgent as inequity and justice are to human society, why are protests about unfairness so notoriously ineffective at achieving their long-term goals, and what can we do about this?
Exploring the Roots of Prejudice
While apartheid and terrorism are blatantly conscious systems of power struggles, the propensity toward prejudice may lie more deeply than we think.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of prejudice: explicit prejudice, where people are consciously aware of their preferences and advantages, and implicit prejudice, where their brains are unconsciously wired for preference and bias. The latter is thought to be due to subtle and fear-based brain wiring that interprets “out groups” like blacks or Americans as threats and therefore leads to exclusion and overgeneralization as a form of protection.
Here’s where it gets even more complicated: Whites now perceive themselves as victims of reverse racism, and even terrorists may perceive their actions as a reaction to being victimized. The feeling of disempowerment is a universal phenomenon.
Prejudice’s real roots are far less immediately accessible than we think they are, so it’s time to stop having such brash reactions to injustice and start having deep, elevated conversations about it.
The Victimization Complex
Imbalances of power are commonly viewed as situations where one demographic is seen as the aggressor and the other as the victim. However, a recent commentary took a deeper look at this dynamic and discovered that humans may, in fact, be psychologically inclined to gravitate toward victimhood. Rather than sadomasochism, the real struggle may be maso-masochism: a fight to prove who the bigger victim is.
This poses many challenges when extrapolated into group dynamics. Culturally and politically, striving to be the biggest victim only leads to stalemate situations. This explains why hunger strikers and suicide bombers are so effective in drawing attention to the inequities at hand, but fail to actually solve the long-term problems they’re protesting.
Also feeding into this is the fact that the human brain is engineered for envy and gloating. We are wired to compare ourselves with others, and we love to watch people with perceived power fall from grace. It’s not hard to imagine why Islamic oil-baron billionaires are targets of jealousy, or why superpowers like America become automatic targets of hatred.
If we resent power, how can we actually want to have it? Clearly, our conflicting feelings surrounding this topic need to be addressed. Currently, they’re only leading to further cycles of conflict and disempowerment.
There’s a Limit to Our Caring
Unfortunately, the human brain is wired with limited resources to care for others. This is a phenomenon called self-regulation depletion, and it can certainly manifest in how we view other races and cultures.
One study, for example, found that those who endorsed Barack Obama for U.S. president were more likely to favor white candidates over black candidates in other scenarios. The study concluded that expressing support for one African-American granted “moral credentials” to that person, allowing him or her to feel less preoccupied with appearing prejudiced.
We have limits to what we will represent of our views and attitudes, and some of these are built into how we are wired. We need to stop exhausting ourselves with outward acts of perceived tolerance and come to grips with the guilt and political correctness that may be driving some of our decisions.
Seeking a Proper Response to Prejudice
Given these deep psychological deterrents — implicit prejudice, a propensity to be victimized, our envy of power, and the limits to our caring — I believe identifying prejudice is critical, but overtly addressing it through acts of protest and terror is not a useful tactic.
While war may be a temporary solution, the real war here is not against the outside; it’s really against the precarious ways in which we appear to have been engineered in a world where this wiring blows not just circuits, but entire societies.
Here are two potential routes we can take to better understand ourselves, our prejudices, and how we react to them:
Try on a different pair of shoes. Getting inside the head of one’s opponent may have a huge payoff. It’s clear we are not going to “feel” for the people who oppress us, but what if we tried to walk in their shoes? What if we looked at the world from their point of view without judgment?
For example, if overcoming sexism in your workplace is your goal, devising a diversity strategy will only get you so far. However, directly asking yourself (and men in powerful positions) the following question will have a much more effective, longer-lasting impact: “What might you do if you felt like you were being discriminated against because of your gender?”
When we walk in the shoes of others, we often notice things we never knew existed, and we create a greater opportunity to reach a common ground where others feel understood — rather than patronized.
Embrace your psychological and biological limitations. Recognizing that we are all predisposed to being prejudiced is a crucial step. We could, for example, start off conversations by removing blame and acknowledging the unconscious prejudice that dwells deep within our brains. We could acknowledge that our prejudice is fear-based, and in the above example, ask, “What is it about women in the workplace that scares men so much?”
With our limits in mind, we should eliminate guilt, shame, and judgment from our problem-solving tactics. Instead, prejudices should be openly acknowledged and understood, and they should be leveraged to make empowered decisions.
The solution to understanding our prejudice is far from obvious, but we undoubtedly need to elevate our conversation. These two strategies could indeed be the vital missing components to our ultimate goal: making this world a better and more satisfying place to inhabit.
Dr. Srini Pillay, founder and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group, is a pioneer in the brain-based personal development arena and is dedicated helping people unleash their full potential. He is also a master executive coach and serves as an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He teaches in the Executive Education Programs at Harvard Business School and Duke Corporate Education.