In the Blink of an Eye, We can be Wrong
Though Blink was published nine years ago, an observation by author Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller is more relevant than ever.
A treatise on the split-second decisions we often make, at one point Gladwell talked about the negative reactions people had to various stimuli.
As the son of a Jamaican mother, one wouldn’t consider him a racist. Yet in participating in a test, he admitted to a negative reaction to a glimpse of a photo of an African-American man. Gladwell attributed that to the stereotyping and cultural reinforcement that occur in American society.
However, the answer to overcoming such misguided preconceptions, he said, will come from more interaction between races and cultures. As we learn more about each other on more than a superficial level, we will be much less likely to quickly pre-judge them.
A recent Washington Post story brought Gladwell’s thesis home in a powerful way.
Though originally posted last November, the newspaper updated it after the summer attack in Nice, France that claimed 84 lives. An attack that stirred calls for testing every person of Muslim background and deporting those who believe in Sharia law.
As someone who believes in the separation of church and state, and religious freedom, I too am concerned about anyone trying to enforce superiority of any religious-based system. But there’s another factor at play here: the call for the possible deportation of Muslims comes from the worst of stereotyping and misjudging the many based on the actions of a few.
The headline on this article was particularly telling: “Americans are increasingly skeptical of Muslims. But most Americans don’t talk to Muslims.”
The story cited surveys by the Public Religion Research Institute that suggest Americans’ perceptions of Muslims is tied more to headlines than personal experience. The key statistic: in a past survey, seven in 10 Americans said they had seldom or never had a conversation with anyone who is Muslim in the past year.
In the absence of personal knowledge, many people form their opinions from media coverage. Thus, the brutality of the Islamic State and its video-recording beheadings, various attacks around the world, and boasts of more to come take center stage in many people’s minds.
Ironic that we live in a day of instantaneous, worldwide media coverage, personal communication, and cultural interchanges. In recent years I have interviewed people (often via Skype) in such far-flung locations as France, Hong Kong, mainland China, and Mexico, which illustrates the shrinking nature of today’s world.
Yet, despite worldwide communications and increased visibility for races, cultures and nationalities in general, the level of prejudice, stereotyping, name-calling, and misjudging appears to be increasing. Instead of engaging in the kind of cultural interchange that Gladwell believes can bring more understanding, we seem to have less.
How else can we explain the suspicions and hostility toward Muslims when many Americans don’t even know one personally? Or the other mistrust and animosity between various races and cultures that presently strain the American melting pot?
If we engage in living in a world where everyone looks like us, talks like us, acts like us, and thinks like us, we will continue to reap suspicion of others, brewed by the worst of our prejudicial impulses. And when we blink, the outcome will often be wrong.