Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Stereotypes Make You Stupid

Is it really not OK to talk about religion or politics? What if we could have deep, constructive and meaningful conversations about our worldviews and the very essence of our "why" in life without getting into arguments, or worse, being dismissed before the discussion begins? Sure, we could talk about sports, the weather or our jobs, but what has more long-term value? If we could get together and dialogue about how our systems of government work (or don't work, as the case may be), could we actually change things?

What about religion? Let's assume, for a moment, that we really are eternal, spiritual beings and the decisions we make now have significant impact even after our bodies are gone. If that's really true, wouldn't it be worth dialoguing about (even if you have a contrary opinion)?

We could extend the list to include sex, parenting, education and even the foods we eat. All of these are emotionally charged topics stuffed full of strong (often judgmental) opinions. These topics invoke our passions because they involve our beliefs, expectations and desires. In essence, they are important to us.

So why don't we talk about the ideas that are important to us more often and more publicly?

I think part of the answer is summarized in the word stereotype: "A widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing." As long as we only see things through the lens of a stereotype, we'll never be able to really understand where an individual is coming from and what drives their opinions, beliefs and expectations. If we can begin to understand that those we talk with are at least as passionate as we are about a contradicting view, then, just maybe, we can start to engage them in a respectful manner that strengthens our relationship and hopefully deepens our understanding of ourselves and others.

The trick is, both parties involved in the conversation have to be willing to go to that level. If I tell you I'm a "Christian" and you're not willing to get to know me to better understand what that word means to me and how it impacts my life, then you'll most likely be left with an empty shell of who I really am. In many cases, the baggage that word implies can hinder relationship before it even begins. Same thing goes for other words such as Muslim, vegan, home-schooled, homosexual, Atheist, Republican, or Democrat. I could list many more. Which words trigger stereotypes for you?

So is the wise answer to just avoid discussing these topics? I hope not. I really, really hope not. We have freedoms in this country that many men and women have fought and died for. Freedoms that are arguably being eroded on a regular basis. If we don't exercise the freedoms we have, will they matter enough to defend? Great leaders (and great companies for that matter), often encourage and cultivate passionate dialog as part of the decision-making process. They need counter-opinions to better understand their own ideas or to change them as needed. If we think we have it all figured out, we're probably delusional. If we stop learning and growing, we stop improving ourselves and the world around us.

Maybe this is obvious to you, but do you still let it impact how you interact with people? Pick a stereotype that you have some strong opinions about... can you easily look past them in every conversation? I not only struggle at this, but I have failed at it miserably in the past.

I'm actively working to change because I certainly don't have it all figured out and the value of my relationships far outweighs my opinions or the need to be "right" all the time.


Luke Stokes said...

Great points, Brett. One reason most people don't state their belief assumptions up front may be based on the perception that "most people" believe in God. Depending on which survey results you go off of, that's generally a true statement for most countries (including this one). That being said, I'm not saying it's right. In the past I'm sure "most people" didn't clarify their belief about the earth being flat or it being the center of the universe either. It's always important to clarify definitions and not make assumptions.

What you're talking about related to parenting brings up a good point about world views. Some people think religion or politics can help you understand motives and actions but the real value is understanding a world view. Just because someone votes a certain way or shows up to the same place on Sunday doesn't necessarily mean their world view is shaped by those ideas that are often just another form of stereotype.

Understanding someone's world view means understand them, how they see the world and how they are continually shaping and changing that view. That's not easy. It takes years. It involves more than a few cups of coffee at Starbucks.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, my friend. I look forward to many more discussions of growing and learning with you..

Brett F said...

Imo (as a person who talks about pretty much everything with as many people as will suffer me), the reason many people avoid these discussions is from a long history of frustrating and fruitless attempts at these subjects. But it's less because the topics themselves are so inherently controversial and more because of the underlying assumptions and worldviews that don't even begin to enter the conversation.

For example, you say:
Let's assume, for a moment, that we really are eternal, spiritual beings and the decisions we make now have significant impact even after our bodies are gone.
Though you've explicitly stated the assumption here, in most conversations about religion that's not stated. What (in my experience) is both more productive and more fun than discussing religion is discussing what assumptions you have, and why. Why are we assuming that we're eternal, spiritual beings? What evidence do we have to support that? Why aren't we assuming the opposite? That's (imo) the discussion that needs to happen before we can discuss anything based on those assumptions.

Same with most other issues, but let's take parenting. It's going to be impossible for us to have a reasonable dialog about parenting if one of us thinks children (and adults) are fundamentally selfish, sinful, and manipulative; while the other may believe that children have unique needs and limitations (that adults do not), and are the product of hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary pressures shaping our social behavior. How can two people discuss parenting if they aren't aware that they see humanity in fundamentally different ways?

The fun part, again just in my opinion and experience, is that stereotypes are often utterly useless in these types of situations. When I ask somebody why they assume there's a god and not the opposite, the answers range from "I don't know" to Pascal's Wager to "I've had supernatural experiences" to a first-cause argument to "I want to believe" and beyond. That's where you can grow and learn.

In my experience, at least :)

(All that said, these discussions take time, and some people just don't have the time or emotional energy to even make an attempt.)