None of us wishes to be equated with the worst we have ever done. And none of us wishes to be judged, especially by people who focus only on our external attributes — race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, income.
Yet judgment happens around the world, fostered by social segregation, psychological habits and the media.
Social segregation exists across many dimensions, reinforcing the psychological tendency to project our own experiences and beliefs onto others as “truth.”
For example, sexual orientation feels so natural that some straight people imagine that others “decide” to be gay even though they themselves did not “decide” to be straight.
The Public Religion Research Institute’s 2013 American Values Survey showed that 75 percent of white Americans have no people of color as friends.
This limits their understanding of non-white life. I am Asian-American and experienced racial slurs for years in State College. Yet I initially had a hard time believing that blacks could be stopped by police without cause, because it was inconsistent with my beliefs and experience — until I met people to whom this had happened.
Socio-economic insularity, coupled with a tendency to seek better accommodation for ourselves, prevents us from seeing that mortgage-interest deductions are a bigger government handout than welfare is. We simply fail to see our own privilege.
Religious parochialism also perpetuates misinformation about other religions. Most religions say ultimate reality is One but call this different names — God, Allah, Yahweh, Truth, Brahman, Dharmakaya or simply “that which cannot be named.”
They all value love and compassion, devotion and community. Yet age after age, violence and oppression, including slavery in the U.S. and war in many places, have been perpetrated by people who claim to follow these religions.
Research has shown that “Heavy exposure to media alters … viewers’ perception of social reality in a way that matches the media world” (Levin & Kilbourne).
Unfortunately, “objective” news media and social media can be biased and even tell lies (Politifact).
This bias is usually more subtle than racial epithets: White killers have been portrayed more positively than black victims (Huffington Post). If someone commits a violent act, media do not mention their religion if they are Christian, but highlight it if they are Muslim.
The effect of media bias is a kind of brainwashing, magnified by the physiology of watching television, which puts the brain into an alpha-wave state in which images and words are subconsciously absorbed without cognitive discrimination. Beliefs result that are visceral, illogical and hard to change.
The bottom line is that how we perceive and treat others is too often based on ignorance, false beliefs and the unconscious projection of our own experiences onto them and their lives.
So please, as the new year draws near, let us step out of our comfort zones and away from our screens. Let us follow the essential teachings of all our religions — love, compassion and peace — and get to know people outside our usual social circles.
Let us grow to walk in each other’s shoes. Let us take a conscious step toward world peace.