The Price of Hate and Disconnection
We’re living in polarized times. Disinformation and “fake news” dominate the internet and airwaves, creating chasms of misunderstanding between people that seem impossible to overcome. Personal opinions are confused with facts, and it’s easy to think if anyone has an opinion different from our own, they're uneducated, stupid, or dumb—and we don't hesitate to tell them so.
Too often, issues come down to, “If I’m right, then you’re wrong.”
The core beliefs behind this kind of thinking are stemmed in fear and shame. Accepting there may be beliefs which are different from our own, or heaven forbid, admitting we might be wrong, can be fearful.
Rather than trying to understand others, we get entrenched in our own positions and fight back. Rather than trying to discover our common humanity, we engage in actions which perpetuate –isms and phobias.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a greater chasm. Not only has it exposed many issues of systemic racism, but also the decisions we need to make to keep ourselves and others safe—like social distancing and wearing masks—result in polarized discussions about power and individual rights.
I don’t believe we can solve either the systemic issues or the polarization that are finally coming to a critical head in our society unless we understand what’s happening from a holistic point of view. We are all part of the system, and we are all connected.
This series, “Creating Connection in a Disconnected World,” takes a look at the effect disconnection and the pandemic have had on diversity & inclusion issues. I also explore ways to create connection and build compassion.
I am an eternal optimist. I believe 99% of us wake up in the morning with good intentions to go to work, make a decent living, take care of our families, connect with our friends, and help our communities. I don't believe we wake up intentionally trying to hurt others, yet we inevitably do. Why?
We don't understand our biases and how our perspectives exclude others.
One of the concepts people are most resistant to in the field of diversity & inclusion is “bias.” “You’re biased!” is typically thrown out as an insult. We all want to believe we aren't biased. However, we are all biased. It's how our brains work. Research shows our brains process about 11 million pieces of information at any given time, yet it can only handle about 50. Our brain is set up to gather new information in unfamiliar situations and compare it to data it has gathered in the past. Bias is simply a preference for a particular way of doing, or thinking about, things.
It's not the bias that matters. Bias just makes us human. It's what we do with our biases that can positively or negatively impact our businesses and lives.
The Science of Bias and Disconnection
In communities where high levels of bias exist, people are less likely to trust and bond with each other, leading to a lack of social connectedness. This lack of connection is more detrimental to our health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure.
Acts of bias and discrimination take a physical, mental and emotional toll on everyone involved – victims, perpetrators, and observers. Further, researchers have found even “perceived discrimination” is associated with increased mortality in older adults. Here are a few more ways bias and disconnection affect us all:
- Exclusion is processed by the brain as physical pain. When we are rejected socially, our brains release the same opioids into our systems that are released when we experience physical pain. These natural pain killers help ease the mental and emotional pain we feel from such dismissals.
- Oppressors are affected in likely—and unlikely—ways. How we bring attention to people’s offensive behavior matters. When racism, sexism, and homophobia are brought to the attention of those engaging in such behavior, they experience a strong mix of negative emotions, blocking their ability to develop further awareness and ultimately leading to avoidance and defensiveness.
- Simply observing an event causes reactions as if the event happened to us. Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire not only when we do something, but also when we observe someone else doing something. For example, when you see someone else stubbing their toe, the mirror neurons remind you of the pain you felt when you stubbed your toe, and you flinch. It’s these same mirror neurons that fire when we witness traumatic events – like someone being beaten. The neurons fire, and our brain reacts as if we’re being beaten. Cortisol, adrenaline, and other harmful hormones and chemicals are released into our system.10 The result is not only empathy for the other person, but also added stress on our own bodies.
Disconnection and Social Distancing During COVID-19
In my nearly 25 years of diversity & inclusion work, I can’t recall a more divisive and polarized time. The social and political turmoil often seems impossible to escape, and being forced apart from each other doesn't help. At every turn, there’s news about people being mistreated, excluded, and harmed. It leaves us feeling stressed out in almost every aspect of our lives, and we carry that stress with us into work every day.
We're feeling the very real effects of not only distancing, but tribalism. We're spending more time indoors, and the people we're connected with most often are the people we live with, who probably think a lot like us. Social media and news feeds are designed to feed our biases, so it's hard not to witness or hear about political or traumatic social events. Events we might not have paid much attention to pre-COVID are taking more of our attention post-COVID, which can be a double-edged sword. On one side, more people are becoming aware of and engaged in conversations about social and systemic injustices. However, the awareness leads not only to acceptance but also to division, driving a further wedge between groups of people.
Building a Foundation for Stronger, More Compassionate Connections
Here are three suggestions to start building a foundation for more compassionate connections. Throughout this blog series, we’ll explore more around connection and compassion, and we’ll add to this list as we go:
- Change your terminology. Throughout the pandemic, there have been suggestions to change "social distancing" to "physical distancing, social connection" or something else that doesn't trigger a reaction of "isolation." A big part of Compassionate Diversity® is making small shifts to get focused on what we want, instead of what we don't want. While a change in terminology might not sound like a big deal, the words we use make a big difference in our perception.
- Build your resilience. Building resilience can help us reduce anxiety and improve communication, leading to better decisions and outcomes. Improved resilience also helps us to maintain our composure in challenging situations and self-regulate our emotions, an important part of emotional intelligence. (And no, it’s not impossible to do this, even if you feel completely stressed out.)
- Give yourself—and others—a break! Making mistakes is how we learn best. We can read about theories and concepts… but theory and reality are two completely different things. It’s difficult to embody any lesson unless we have the opportunity to practice. Like it or not, learning about bias and issues of systemic injustice works the same way. People will mess up… you will mess up. This doesn’t mean we excuse bad behavior; however, we do have to learn to discern between actions regarding punishment versus learning opportunities. (This last suggestion is loaded, and I’ll do a future series on it alone. For now, if someone else messes up, please don’t throw it in their face. And if you mess up, take a deep breath, own it, apologize, and figure out what you learned.)
Join me throughout this series as I delve deeper into “Creating Connection in a Disconnected World.” I’d also love to learn more about what you are doing to create connection at this time. Follow me on social media—it's all by my name, Susan McCuistion—or join me on a webinar later this month, to discuss and learn more.
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