How we deal with “otherness” and “being right”.

The primary campaign season of the U.S. Presidential elections is coming to close, and I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on where I, in the past year, have ridiculed and disrespected others’ opinions. Why? Because I believe that the idea that my beliefs, my ideas, my thoughts, and my knowledge is superior–something I intuit many people experience while being exposed to others’ beliefs, ideas, and thoughts–is at the heart of much of the conflicts we experience in our day-to-day lives as well as through mass and social media.

The number one prime example for me are my thoughts about supporters of Donald Trump, at least at the beginning of his campaign. It seemed so obvious (from my perspective) that to follow a man willing to call an entire people rapists or make allegations against all followers of a specific region must come with a certain kind of mental defect. And only over time did my perception change. It still seems a much more readily available thought, even now, but it no longer is the dominant one. Instead, now I believe that the lives of many have been developing so far away from what we have come to see as “the norm” that their anger at politicians not even acknowledging this state of affairs has led them to a sort of “anyone but them” position. And no matter what else I may think about Donald Trump, he certainly is not the “average politician” in any regard.

More generally speaking, my experience is that when it comes to comparing “what I know” with what other people’s behavior reveals about their mental life is that, most of the time, I consider myself on the “right side” of things. I believe, for instance, that my approach to engaging with strangers–such as on my daily commute to and from work–is somewhat superior to other people’s approach. Naturally, given my longterm goals, my approach probably has some advantages, but upon reflection, I could never conclude that it is free of problems either. And clearly, whenever I compare approaches, it is difficult to do so conditional on my goals, because then I would have to compare two sets of things all at once (my approach and my goals to those of others). After all, human brains seem to have a lot to do already comparing two things…

And with that limiting factor in mind, I slowly begin to understand that most judgments of “inferiority” do not stem from differences in believes per se, but rather from my inability to consider someone else’s mental structure as a whole, his or her overall background and backdrop in front of which all cognitive decisions take place.

To give a (hopefully) much less controversial example far away from politics, religion, or social mores, I recently imagined meeting someone from the 17th century unfamiliar with developments in physics since his or her time. This person would most likely consider me to be a crazy person if I told him that, on the most fundamental level, all material things are made from the same “stuff”: small charged particles (something a person from the future may also consider me crazy for, by the way) that are bound together by a force so strong that “chemical reactions” are unable to overcome it, and thus form stable “elements”. Instead, this person would insist that wood, metal, and glass for instance are so obviously different in their properties, that is it preposterous to assume they could ever be made of the same stuff!

By analogy, the same applies to humans. When we encounter one another, one of the most fundamental cognitive processes that happens is a part of “social cognition”: we categorize others effortlessly in classes of gender, race, age group, social status (for instance by virtue of observing their clothing or speech patterns) and others. And while most of these classes may seem relatively benign and harmless, they each carry with them expectations, prejudices, and valuations. In a situation of an emergency, for instance, we tend to profess greater concern for children and women, whereas in the context of politics most people still seem to have strong objections and react with scoldings for women who, like Hillary Clinton, act closer to what their male counterparts might do: seeking power.

On the whole, labeling others in this way often allows us to no longer “care” (in a positive way at least) about people, by creating a kind of mental representation of this person no longer deserving our support and shared resources. As a society, we have been observers of tremendous amounts of harm, pain, and suffering in our very midst, and yet we have not done much to alleviate any of it. Why? One typical thought might be the doctrine of capitalism, which tells us that each and every person is foremost responsible for their own situation and place in life. As such, a homeless person doesn’t deserve our support.

But this extends far beyond the economic sphere. Just this weekend, two major stories that have dominated the headlines are the case of Brock Turner, a young man who in a moment of opportunity didn’t have enough respect and civility in him to not do what he did, but instead raped an unconscious women. What lack of valuation for another human being’s life must be at play, I ask myself? And the same is true for the man who went to a gay night club in Orlando, possibly to send a message of religious zealotry, that our society should not tolerate and accept homosexuality, but at the same time treating the humanity of his victims as nonexistent.

Overall, I believe that to the extent that we believe to be “right”, we are unable to empathize (why would we need to anyway?), as we lack the motivation to understand the “other” (or otherness). And only when we take the mental liberty of exploring what lies behind someone’s behavior, actions and words alike, can we begin to have an open conversation about how life can be valuable and better for all, and not dominated by those with the most firepower.