Have you had the experience of being the new kid in school, or a member of a group with different values or other traits, and then been the subject of antagonism?
It may have been overt ridicule or more subtle antisocial behavior, like exclusion from activities. At times like that, it can seem like you’re behind a veil of “otherness” that other people either can’t or don’t want to see through.
We're wired for connection and aversion.
There are actually some genetic factors at work here. Yale infant researcher Karen Wynn has arrived at some fascinating findings regarding our innate morality. Using puppets acting out scenes of altruism or unprovoked meanness, she has found that most infants, as young as three months, respond positively when they witness one puppet helping another. They also like "bad puppets" to be punished, indicating a sense of justice.
However, she's also found that they prefer puppets who share their taste in snacks, and like to see puppets unlike themselves treated badly. (Wynn’s work was profiled several years ago on 60 Minutes).
Attacking the different other isn’t exclusive to humans. Let’s return to early attachment theorist Harry Harlow's studies with rhesus monkeys. I've previously discussed the implications of his work regarding the importance of social contact and what kind of relationships can help you achieve your full human potential.
He isolated monkeys for long periods of time, which not only caused psychological problems, but deprived them of socialization with their fellows. They were socially awkward: the new monkeys in school.
How we're cared for influences how we care.
What he found is that monkeys held in isolation for most of their lives weren’t warmly received by non-isolated monkeys when they were brought together. The shy, awkward monkeys cowered nervously in the corner, and the well-socialized ones didn't extend a paw of friendship to them. They assaulted them, in fact.
These findings remind me of the news stories I’ve read about schoolkids’ assaults on redheaded children (i.e., “Kick a Ginger Day”). Having attended five different schools for fifth grade, in different states, with an Illinois accent, questionable fashion sense, and a homeless living status, I’ve absorbed my share of ridicule.
Sadly, I’ve also been on the other side. When I was in kindergarten, there was one girl from India in school, and I took part in making fun of her name. I hope that my actions didn’t cause lasting scars, but they surely didn’t help. I still feel ashamed about it.
It's no surprise that people are capable of acceptance and compassion, and ostracism and cruelty. We’re capable of anything in between, too, and our tendency to act one way or another can shift during our lives.
This seems to be borne out by Wynn's studies of older children in the area of generosity and altruism (hoarding tokens vs. giving some of them to an unknown child). Her findings provide some hope: younger children tend to be selfish, in some cases keeping fewer tokens for themselves in return for the other child receiving none.
But around age eight or nine, something changes. Children begin to divide tokens equally, or even leave more tokens for the stranger than they keep for themselves.
Her findings suggest that we are born with the seeds of the best and worst human behavior already in place: altruism, generosity, justice, and appreciation for the good guy.
And, also the pursuit of self-interests at the expense of others, wanting to have relatively more than others even at our own expense, bias towards people like us, and liking different people to be harmed. Harlow's monkeys felt obliged to kick disadvantaged monkeys while they were down.
But as we age, the values that we absorb from our environment shape the kind of person we are, allowing some of our social “genes” to be expressed and others to recede. So, what does this say about those who carry meanness toward different others into adulthood?
Hurting others when we hurt
There are many potential explanations for this behavior that go beyond the simple conclusions that people tend to draw: that their parents didn't instill prosocial morals in them, or that they are inherently bad people.
One is that the individual in the “ingroup” feels personally insecure. That was probably the case when I was in kindergarten. By joining the group at the expense of an isolated individual, I was affirming my group membership and establishing a position at least one rung up the social ladder (i.e., above the person being made fun of).
It helped me garner social support when, apparently, I felt I needed some. For the group itself, an outsider can serve as a common enemy to rally around, consolidate power and identity, and strengthen ties among its members.
Now that I’m older and (slightly) wiser, I know from experience that adopting an "us vs. them" mentality towards others doesn't feel that great. Feeling compassion and acceptance toward others is good not only for the other person, but feels good within you. It feels good to be good.
Everything we do, we do for a reason, and usually it’s a desire to feel safe, comfortable, and happier, if only for the short term. So, it stands to reason that people who ostracize different people must be dealing with some pretty strong feelings of fear, discomfort, or unhappiness, if scratching the ostracism itch comes more readily than the win-win proposition of extending acceptance and compassion.
Watering the right seeds
With this in mind, what I try to do nowadays (in addition to proactively "working on myself," doing my best to be good to people, and defending people when possible) is to cultivate compassion for those who I see acting insensitively. I can turn something ugly into a chance to open my own heart a bit, and maybe spread acceptance and compassion to others by example . . . when I can manage to do it. It's extremely difficult.
These days, while I don’t ridicule people anymore, and try not to engage in divisive speech, I often have an intense reaction against mean or disingenuous people. This might have to do with having been the target of ridicule and ostracism as a kid. Also, through upbringing, environment, and/or effort, perhaps that "gene" of disliking mean people has reached greater expression since my kindergarten years.
Often, what comes naturally when I encounter these kinds of people are feelings of aversion or antagonism toward them, but if I act upon them, I am only perpetuating the "us vs. them" dialectic, and the suffering for all parties that comes with it. And, if I hold an angry grudge inside of me, I'm causing myself even more distress.
Even when you’re in the right or a victim, in the long run it feels much better to try to feel and act compassionately, inclusively, and empathically toward mean people. The Dalai Lama famously refers to the communist Chinese regime that persecutes his Tibetan people, as “my friend, the enemy.” Such levels of acceptance are a tall order indeed, when even adverse water cooler talk about you can sting so badly.
However, it’s worth the effort to try to cultivate it, if for no other reason than the fact that it's possible to create a world inside you where we are all comrades in the struggle to feel safe and happy. It may not be easy, but that's probably a sign that it's the better thing to do. Perhaps you could try to muster the strength to extend kindness to those who seem to target you, and see what happens.
Who knows? You might be able to change the real world one person at a time. Even if not, you’ll be choosing to water the seeds of kindness and compassion that you were born with, instead of the other ones, so you have nothing to lose.