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Posts Tagged ‘stereotypes’

The Boston Bombers and Preconceived Ideas

Amid the news reports from Boston last week, a few outlying comments and impressions stood out for me. They didn’t sound like the themes that became dominant as the story unfolded: the evil of terrorism, the fear that it incites, the awe-inspiring heroism of everyday people, the “we are all Boston” solidarity with those who suffer.

A lot has been said and written about those themes, and they deserve the attention. But I don’t want to miss the wisdom in the outliers. Here are some thoughts on one of them:

There is still much we don’t know about the Tsarnaev brothers. But what struck me in these early days was the stubborn refusal of their narrative to fit our usual categories. They committed an act of terrorism but were not Saudi nationals. Their birthplace has spawned terrorism in the past, but they had not lived there for many years. They were fairly well integrated into U.S. society, but their motivations did not match those of other American terrorists, like Timothy McVeigh. They are Muslims, visited jihadist websites, but do not appear connected to al-Qaeda.

As their story unfolds, we might see how they fit into some larger narrative. For now, however, it reminds me of what I do not want to do. I do not want to try stuffing a unique story with unique characters into a prepackaged narrative—like “they’re from Chechnya, so they must be al-Qaeda” or “they practice Islam, so of course they’re violent” or “they’re white, so it must be domestic terrorism.”

This is a crucial lesson for dialogue as well. Our partner in dialogue makes a statement, and it’s tempting to put her in a category. If we hear her out, we might discover that she fits none of our categories, so our categories need an adjustment, if not an overhaul. In the process of adjusting or overhauling them, we get closer to grasping the reality—and the complexity—of the person before us and the issue she raises.

If we don’t hear her out, though, we cut ourselves off from all that. Our categories may even harden, so we are less prepared for the next dialogue.

I was on the receiving end of this dynamic the other day. On Facebook, a friend posted a message that I thought depicted Islam inaccurately. When I raised this, someone else jumped in to ask whether I was apologizing for terrorism. His prepackaged story was clear—Islam = terrorism—a belief he made all too clear with his subsequent comments. If he had lived into the uncertainty, the knowledge that he needed more data to truly understand me, he might have uncovered a much more complex picture of who I am. He might have had to change his thinking: not just about me, but about what I wrote.

Have you had this happen to you? Conversely, have you run across a person or situation that shook up your preconceived notions? What happened? Feel free to share here.

Are We All Fundamentalists?

Steroid users should never be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Yes, I realize my position has its problems. What qualifies someone as a steroid user? Is one use, even for medical reasons, enough to disqualify the player? How about three years of use in a 20-year career? Should we only keep confirmed users out of the Hall? Strongly suspected users? And how strongly is strongly? Suspected by whom?

Legitimate questions all. Ultimately, however, they won’t change my basic conviction. Sure, we can talk about those borderline cases, like Alex Rodriguez. But in general, keep them out.

This stance may qualify me as a baseball fundamentalist.

Fundamentalists of all types, but particularly religious fundamentalists, take a lot of flak for the perceived rigidity of their beliefs. Many people—some based on first-hand experience, others on hearsay or stereotype—think of fundamentalists as overbearing, self-righteous, unwilling to listen or consider other opinions. True, when fundamentalists act in this way, they erect barriers between themselves and others. But the stereotypes of fundamentalists can erect those same barriers.

Maybe we could start removing the barriers if we realized that most of us—maybe all of us—are fundamentalists in one way or another.

Think about it. Do you hold any belief about which you are unwilling to hear other opinions, let alone compromise? Are there values or viewpoints where you simply will give no quarter? I didn’t think I had an inner fundamentalist—until I started thinking about Barry Bonds. Surprise, surprise.

So if I have an inner fundamentalist, I suddenly share some common ground with those other fundamentalists. I can get a glimpse into the mindsets and emotions that go into holding a belief or value or interest tightly with both hands. If I can stay mindful of that insight, perhaps I see fundamentalists in a different light—with a bit more empathy—when I next run into them. Maybe that opens the door a crack to hearing them out.

This is not about rushing to agreement with fundamentalists, or with anyone who disagrees with us. It is simply about finding a way into dialogue with a group of people who, in the minds of many, are impossible to engage in dialogue. To the extent that any given fundamentalist (or, again, any other person) refuses attempts to reach across divides, dialogue will not occur. But by considering our common ground, we can at least remove the barriers from our side.

So…in what areas are you a fundamentalist? How do you feel when these areas appear to be under attack? Can you imagine how others might feel the same about their fundamentalist areas? Feel free to share your thoughts here.

The Tea Party, Battered Stereotypes, and a Glimmer of Hope

Tea Party. Mention the words anywhere these days, and you’ll probably get a vehement reaction. You’ll also hear stereotypes of the people involved.

Which makes the latest CBS News/New York Times poll quite interesting.

The poll’s myriad questions and deft distinctions (for instance, separating Tea Party activists from Tea Party members) yielded an in-depth look at the movement. Overall, the data confirm the popular image of Tea Partiers. Solid majorities are white, male, and conservative. They are angry about a variety of issues and really dislike the president.

But before you buy all the popular images of Tea Partiers, check this out: 

  • 37 percent have college degrees, substantially more than the national average (25 percent).
  • 56 percent make more than $50,000 in annual household income, again higher than the national average.
  • While they like Sarah Palin, a plurality—47 percent—do not think she’d make an effective president.

I don’t want to make too much of these findings; they don’t make the Tea Party exactly a bastion of liberalism. But they remind me, yet again, how often I construct a simplistic image of a certain group (or absorb the simplistic media image) and generalize it to all members. I’ve done it with born-again Christians; now, it appears, I’ve done it with Tea Partiers.

The problem with these images, or stereotypes, is that they prevent dialogue. For one thing, why talk with Tea Partiers if they’re all angry and misapply buzzwords like “socialism” at every opportunity? For another, why talk with Tea Partiers when I know all about them already—or so the stereotype has deluded me into believing?

Polls like these make me stand up and take notice. Suddenly I realize that there’s more to these people than my stereotypes indicate. That stokes my curiosity, which in turn drives me to seek dialogue with members of the group.

Just like that, we’re reaching across the divide.

Too optimistic? I might agree with you if it weren’t actually happening. Recently the Transpartisan Alliance brought together a Tea Party leader with, of all people, a senior representative of MoveOn.org, a liberal activist group if there ever was one. Remarkably, both parties expressed an honest desire to talk—and keep talking. Check out the link to the video on the homepage.*

It’s not what you’d expect from either group, based on the stereotypes. And that’s exactly the problem with stereotypes: they prevent us from starting the dialogue that could move us toward deeper understanding—and, ultimately, the healing of our bitter divides. Let’s let go of them and approach each person for what she is: unique.

*The Transpartisan site may be down right now; I haven’t been able to connect to it for a couple of days. If you can’t either, keep trying; the video is worth the effort.

Paying Attention to the Dissonant Voice

Here’s the sort of thing that gets my attention: 

You see the common thread here? All these statements strike a dissonant chord. They make us think, “How can those people take that position when they also believe this?”

I find these voices terribly important.

To understand why, first consider the voices we usually hear. Spend any time with the news media, and you’ll find yourself hearing, on any given issue, the same things from the same people—over and over and over. If a news segment covers abortion, for instance, it will most likely feature a pro-choice advocate touting a “woman’s right to choose” and a pro-lifer promoting “the rights of the unborn.”

Now the positions behind those sound bites may have merit. But the endless repetition of the same catchphrases by the same people obscures whatever nuance these positions may have. “Of course he’d say that,” we think. “He’s a [insert political party or special interest group here].”

But then someone zags when we expect her to zig. Or she holds two positions that we’ve been led to believe are contradictory. There’s your dissonant voice.

These are important, I think, for two reasons. First, when people express a belief contrary to their historical position or perceived self-interest, it implies that they find the belief itself compelling. I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk that a hospital CEO would support a single-payer system. So when James Barba of Albany Medical Center does, it’s an opportunity for us to see single-payer differently. If he’s for it, the thinking goes, maybe it’s worth another look.

Second, these dissonant voices can explode our stereotypes. Over the years, I’ve been guilty of painting the born-again Christian community with too broad a brush. Like many people, I could see them as uniformly literalist, creationist, and overly focused on abortion and gay marriage. So when a priest’s wife touts the beauty of evolution as the means of God’s creation, or I see born-agains advocating for the environment and social justice, it forces me to rethink my image. More accurately, it forces me to discard the image—and listen to each unique person with his own unique voice.

Dissonant voices can point out areas of truth. Dissonant voices can help us see our “opponents” more clearly—and thus treat them more respectfully. See how many of these voices you can hear in the public square.

Dialogue vs. What We Think We Know

When the born-again pastor’s wife said she might be OK with evolution, I could feel my eyes widen.

Here’s why. Born-again Christians—sometimes called evangelicals, the Religious Right, etc.—take the Bible literally. As one bumper sticker puts it, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Holding to this doctrine means believing that God literally created the world in six days, as written in Genesis 1.

At least that’s what I thought I knew about born-again Christianity. And I thought I had a good reason for knowing it. I spent my teens and twenties in the born-again culture. Even now, I attend the annual convention of an Episcopal diocese that is dominated by born-again folks.

As it turns out, though, I don’t know much. It took a two-hour conversation with the pastor’s wife—a dialogue—to show me that.

This isn’t the only time a dialogue has opened my eyes to my own misperceptions. After a born-again relative read an early draft of my book, she called me out on a passage that criticized her brand of faith for rigid thinking. As we exchanged views via email, she pointed out that many groups exhibit this thinking. More important, her comments—made gently and civilly—embodied a distinct lack of the rigid thinking that I had attributed to her group.

What I’m learning through these experiences is that we broad-brush any group at our peril. Labeling people as born-again, or liberal, or Southern, or Latino—and failing to go beyond the label—leaves us unable to see them as unique individuals. Instead, we perceive each person as a unit of a monolithic culture, and we respond to what we think we know about that culture. Our perceptions stay the same, and we do not grow.

When we dialogue with an individual in that group, everything changes. Suddenly the subtle variations come to the fore. We have to hold our preconceptions about the group more lightly. We see the essential humanity behind the stereotype. And our perspective expands so that, the next time, we can approach the other with less presupposition and more openness.

Yes, sometimes we don’t know what we think we know. But there’s a great way to learn: one dialogue at a time.