Eye to Eye?

Why we often don't agree

Some years back, I was part of a crafts group. One night a woman walked in and said, “I saw a homeless man pushing a grocery cart full of old clothes down the street. And I realized something: he had chosen to be homeless.” That woman believes that we are responsible for our lives and we control what happens to us. This is a fact to her; it’s her reality. And so she supports strict limitations on welfare.

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On another occasion, a man I know told me that all violence is wrong. Nothing justifies it, not desperate need or self-defense. I asked him what he would do if someone attacked one of his children. “I would put my body between that person and my child.” He believes that all people’s lives are valuable and we are duty-bound to honor every individual. This is his reality. And so he opposes capital punishment.

So these two people see the world in two very distinct ways. And their viewpoints shape their beliefs and actually determine what is real for them.

This holds true for all of us. We have only to watch the news or go on Facebook or Twitter to see this play out all over the country. When people’s realities clash, the result is anger and vitriol and mutual incomprehension.

Then I read that scientists overwhelmingly agree that we human beings are more alike than we are different. Skin color, size, the shape of our eyes and noses, how we speak: these are cosmetic and trivial. According to geneticists, any two randomly-chosen people, from any place in the world, are 99.9% genetically identical.

So why do we often feel so different from other people? Why have humans always drawn lines between themselves and the “other”? (In fact, a group of people in Maryland, all related for centuries, call themselves the “We-sorts” and everyone else the “You-sorts.”)

I found a clue to this in another insight from science. Our brains are wired to classify other people based on surface differences, probably because of evolution. In the past, it helped us identify other members of our tribe, thus increasing our chances of survival.

Biology enters the picture in another way. The amygdala is a very ancient part of the brain, and it too focuses on survival. When we run into something new, or a piece of information that conflicts with what we already know, the amygdala tells the rest of the brain to resist it. It happens almost immediately and it’s unconscious; we aren’t aware of it.

It explains why we gravitate toward people who think as we do, and why we just can’t comprehend the thinking of those who don’t. And so we react. “That’s ridiculous!” we say, or “How can you say that?”  Our realities—what we think we know—don’t match.

This would all be unrelievedly depressing, if it weren’t for something else: I think that this is habit as well as brain chemistry. Habit is very strong, but it’s not all-powerful. We don’t always have to be on automatic pilot. We can choose to step back and really listen to a new idea or a different viewpoint. It might be uncomfortable, but it might also be just what we need to do to get beyond the impasse.

And how do we listen? Check out this link: https://theoatmeal.com/comics/believe

I highly recommend it. (Just in case: the blog is called The Oatmeal; this particular post is You Won’t Believe What I’m About to Tell You.)



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