It’s taken me a while to write this blog about racism because I really didn’t know what to write. I had so many things to say but I was afraid to say the wrong thing. I am not alone. I hear this a lot, especially among white people who are in support of black people. Speaking up these days seems to be very risky. People are losing their jobs, being shot at, and receiving death threats on social media for stating their opinions. A person is convicted before being heard and people immediately call for expulsion before engaging in dialogue. “You’re either with us or you’re against us.” There is no gray area, no room for compromise, no room for mistakes. And when I say “people” in this instance, it’s people of all colors on all sides.
There are a few social psychological principles that help explain what is going on here. The first is group polarization. This occurs when like-minded people collect in a group and individual members want to stand out as being very supportive of the group’s position and they take more extreme positions. The group gradually moves further away from its original viewpoint to a more extreme version of it. This is what has happened to both Democrats and Republicans in America today; they both have moved further away from the center.
The second principle in effect here is groupthink. There are many aspects of groupthink, but the driving force is cohesiveness. People within the group feel the need to agree with each other unequivocally to keep the peace in the group. People in the group think they are morally superior to the morally inferior people outside the group and they shut themselves off from dissent and from outside opinions and data. They get caught up in their own self-righteousness and begin to think they are invincible, and they make irrational decisions that tend to be one-sided and lead to costly mistakes. The mishandled Bay of Pigs invasion is the most famous example of groupthink. It happens in the business world too, with the collapse of Swissair being one of the quintessential examples.
How do we avoid these costly group tendencies? We must not only embrace but seek out different opinions. If we only stick to what we know and people who make us feel comfortable, we will not grow, and we will likely fail. We have to prepare ourselves to be uncomfortable and help others around us understand they will need to be uncomfortable during disagreement and change. We have to stretch the boundaries of safety to be vulnerable, to be hurt in the process, and to be resilient enough to get through it. Running to safety is not going to help. This is where I diverge from a number of my peers who are also trying to support black people.
My father once gave me some very sage advice. He said, “You don’t want to marry someone you never argue with. You want to marry someone who you can work through your arguments with.”
I did my master’s thesis on dissent. I looked at how true conflict was necessary to change other people’s beliefs and that just taking the position of the Devil’s advocate was not enough. You need to rock the boat, to create discomfort, and get people to start questioning what they are seeing as the truth if you want them to change their minds. There is a ton of research on productive conflict that will tell you it is uncomfortable and you may run into friction with others, but the key is to keep the disagreements on the issues and not turn them into personal attacks.
This brings us to another place where I diverge from current trends. I believe that to make positive change, it is imperative to forgive mistakes along the way and learn from them. There is an abundance of research that shows behavior change is a process and we usually don’t get it right the first time. Think of how hard it was to adjust to the world of COVID-19. How many times did you reach out to shake someone’s hand, touch your face, forget to bring your mask, or mess up a zoom call? Now think about what it was like to adapt to the sexual harassment laws. It was confusing at first and people wondered, what is okay to joke about? Can you compliment someone’s new clothes? Can you hug a coworker? Is it okay to ask someone you work with out on a date? All of us had to shift our thinking to adapt to this new way of being and it’s clear that we are still in the process. The same is true for extinguishing racism.
If we are all putting up walls and are refusing to listen to “the other side” and are incinerating people who disagree with us who are on the same side, we will fail to make progress. Let’s continue with Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream and employ dignity, respect, discipline, and nonviolent debate to mobilize our society to make change.