Executive Summary: To engage with others we must actively participate in our interactions with them. This requires us to exert mental effort and also risks challenging our thoughts, feelings, and worldviews. Because we do not want to exert the necessary effort or take this risk with people who are very different from ourselves, we rely on stereotypes. This leads to prejudice and discrimination. In order to avoid prejudice and discrimination, we have to engage with others—especially those who are different from ourselves.
Engage has many definitions; I tend to use it in the more general sense of “to involve oneself or to participate,” which is the context in which I use it now.
Engaging is an active state of being. You can engage in a job. Say you’re sorting through information at work. While you’re doing this you could be distracted by whatever is on your mind. Or you could engage in the task, focusing your mental prowess on the task at hand. You will likely produce higher quality work if you engage on the job. You can engage in a conversation. Say you’re talking with your child. While you’re doing this you could be distracted by the mental to-do list running through your head. Or you could engage in the conversation, focusing your attention on what is important to your child. You can engage in a story. Say you’re reading a book or watching a movie. You could go into that “glazed” state where you are absorbing the entertainment and “rotting your brain.” Or you could engage in the story by paying attention to the creative work and trying to experience what the artists were trying to express. You bring something of yourself to the experience and come out of it with something truly unique—a communion of sorts between the artist and yourself. In each of these examples, you are bringing something of yourself to the task and making for a richer experience by engaging. It requires both an effort on your part and willingness to open yourself up to something outside of yourself, but in return you get a higher quality experience.
I propose that one of the reasons prejudice (and the discrimination that results from prejudice) is so prevalent in our society is because of a lack of engagement. I propose this lack of engagement can also explain the divisive politics that rages through the U.S. and other examples of polarization.
Basically my theory is this: To communicate effectively and productively with someone who thinks and feels differently than you do, you need to engage with that person. The more differently that person thinks or feels, the more you need to engage with that person in order to gain the kind of understanding necessary for genuine communication to occur. We fail to do so for two basic reasons. First, engaging is work. It necessitates that we exert a significant amount of mental effort. It is much easier to just be there, not really listening, not really understanding; relying on our assumptions to fill in the gaps left by our failure to engage. Second, engaging can be uncomfortable. When we engage in someone who is significantly different from ourselves we are willfully challenging our own assumptions, ideas, and worldviews. This is inherently uncomfortable and human beings tend to develop self-defense mechanisms to prevent such a challenge from occurring.
So, instead of engaging we stereotype. These stereotypes can be positive, but are more often negative. Even when positive, these stereotypes are destructive because they prevent understanding and dehumanize the “other” in the process. In this sense, stereotypes are very similar to a template. Imagine you are trying to start a new blog. You find a template that has the right look (stereotype), but after you start using it you realize the content you want to include doesn’t fit the template. The work-intensive method would be to start from scratch and build your own template that has the look you want but also meets the needs of the content you want to provide. A less work-intensive method would be to modify the template to account for the content you want to add but cannot fit. However, it is more likely that you will simply trash the content that doesn’t fit—you don’t really need it anyway—and stick to the template you’ve chosen. If people were blogs, then the template would be what they are (doctor, Republican, person with disabilities) and the content would be who they are (their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and the conclusions they’ve drawn from them). Our failure to engage trashes the content of the person in favor of the imperfect, inappropriate template we chose to interpret their content through.
This occurs at what I would call the macro level. We stereotype groups of people and put them into the templates we’ve chosen for them. When we meet individuals who belong to those groups, we trash any content (who they are) in favor of the template we assume they fit into (our own concept of what they are). This also occurs at what I would call the micro level, which constitutes using templates of people we know instead of engaging with them at a particular time and place. That will be the subject of my next post.