I had lunch last week with a senior executive about having me sit on a non-profit board that deals with prejudice and injustice worldwide. During the course of the conversation, we begun to share our personal stories … getting to why these topics are important to us, and the root cause of the passion behind this noble effort.
This was entirely an emotional conversation, and not in the sense that we were crying or visibly manifesting other emotions. No, this was emotional because we discussed our emotions without getting emotional. At the heart of prejudice and injustice are, always, emotions. Anyone who has been the victim of some form of prejudice—whether it be you were too fat, too skinny, too dark, too white, too tall, too short, etc. (and I might argue almost all of us have experienced some version of this)—can appreciate the powerful emotional response to being a victim. Prejudice fires at the core of who we are, and questions our self worth, and our faith in life itself.
During our conversation, I proposed that we had been thinking about prejudice and injustice in a very bipolar way—either from the perspective of the victim or the perpetrator. Think of the Holocaust: we often think of this horrific event either from the perspective of the millions of innocent people killed or from the perspective of the Nazis. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it is an incomplete perspective.
Most of us want to live, want to be happy, dearly love our children, are not pain-free in experiences, and life seems a little better when we help others. In the wars being waged today, we often hear of how many died each day, and sometimes they will tell us their names and where they are from. But we rarely get to hear that the killed was a son, a brother, a father, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, an artist, an athlete with so much life in them. To describe them this way makes it much more emotional because suddenly we can relate to them. To describe the killed as a random name makes it easier to disconnect.
And the more we disconnect, the greater the probability is that we will continue to see prejudice and injustice in this world. The next time you hear of a tragedy—perhaps you read in the paper that many young gay men committed suicide after being victimized, or that women are being systematically raped in the Congo—try to imagine just one of these people and the life they were living prior to the tragic event and consequences of that event to everyone that person knew and loved. Try to emotionally connect with the victim.
You see, there is a third party to the bipolar perspective and it’s you. It is you the observer, the bystander, and distant human being with no physical connection to the event. And here is where the lesson is often lost, and the perpetuation often begun. I inherently believe it goes against our nature to destroy or harm each other and we do so because we can emotionally disconnect from pain—that of our own and that of others. This taught and learned skill is a great failure of ours. The emotional disconnect we have with both perpetrators and victims plays a significant part in our evolution in the subject of prejudice and injustice. This week, when you hear or read the news, and invariably a story will surface, make an attempt to connect with it. And when you do, I might argue we’ve taken a giant leap for mankind.