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Voices / Viewpoint

The opening of the American mind

The antidote to closed-mindedness is simple and inexpensive

Bruce W. Dayton is chair of the peace and justice leadership master’s degree at the School for International Training and executive director of the CONTACT summer peace-building program. He has worked in peacebuilding and conflict transformation for more than 20 years.

Brattleboro

The rise of closed-mindedness in this country should be of grave concern to anyone who values democracy. From the breakdown in bipartisanship in Congress, to the segregation of our media into partisan camps, to the highly polarized public discourse on debates as diverse as immigration, gun control, and sexual harassment, distrust and hostility toward “the other” is at fever pitch.

Democracy requires that citizens engage in a vigorous exchange of ideas, have access to a free and open debate over values and policy, and are regularly exposed to ideas that they are unfamiliar with or even hostile to. The healthy evolution of social, political, and economic systems depends on it.

To understand the origins of closed-mindedness, we need to understand a little bit about the social psychology of identity — specifically, what motivates the three principal weapons of closed-mindedness: stereotyping, prejudice, and dehumanization.

Each involves a psychological dynamic known as “in-group favoritism and out-group bias,” whereby the individual views the capabilities and virtues of their own groups (be they ethnic, religious, political, or other) in a more favorable light than those of other groups and selectively marshals evidence to support such beliefs.

* * *

In-group favoritism and out-group bias is, in part, a natural outgrowth of the fragile psyche as it seeks to maintain a positive self-image.

For many people, and particularly for those who have suffered emotionally, the deep need for self and group esteem leads them to constantly seek affirmation about the status of the groups they belong to. The fastest way to feel good about their own group is to compare it to external groups and find it superior. In this way, we can see stereotyping, prejudice, and dehumanization for what it is: an insecure psyche at work.

Evidence of in-group favoritism and out-group bias is found everywhere. When someone who is part of our own group does something wrong, for example, we generally see that bad behavior as circumstantial.

“She isn’t a bad person,” we reason. “She simply was put into a circumstance that led her to do a bad thing.”

But when someone outside of our group does something we consider bad, we tend to attribute that behavior to their innate qualities.

“They did that bad thing,” we reason, “because they are a bad person.”

Meanwhile, members of the other group are doing the same thing, justifying their own bad acts as circumstantial but the bad acts of others as an innate part of that group’s character.

Social psychologists call this “dynamic attribution bias,” and they have found that it characterizes the outlook of groups everywhere.

* * *

Those of us who study conflicts, whether inter-group, intra-state, or international, know that in-group favoritism and out-group bias is at the heart of nearly all destructive conflicts.

Disparaging and humiliating those we disagree with, harassing an immigrant new to a community, calling a political opponent a fascist, marching in a white power rally, systematically discriminating against those unlike ourselves — all require that the perpetrator engage in some degree of “othering” and even dehumanization.

Each of these acts also perpetuates a cycle of conflict, causing the other to “other us,” thereby justifying retribution.

In this way, coercion becomes a self-defeating form of conflict management. It might lead to a temporary victory over an adversary, but it tends to galvanize the solidarity of our opponents, bolstering their determination to avenge wrongs, and fueling and confirming their own stereotypes, prejudices. and dehumanizing narratives.

* * *

The good news is that the antidote to closed-mindedness is well-known and inexpensive.

It doesn’t require centralized government action, the building of walls, the separation of people, the mobilization of police forces, or the construction of prisons. It simply requires contact.

Meaningful interaction with the other is always transformational. Indeed, we can never have the same conversation with the same person more than once. But if we never talk with the other, our stereotypes and prejudices will remain unchallenged, and the dehumanization of our opponents will evolve unchecked.

And here’s more good news: The pathways to open-mindedness are readily available.

These methods include exposing children and adults to a curriculum on intercultural communication, training community leaders in inter-group dialogue, using community mediation instead of the legal system to bring people together to work out their differences, adopting restorative-justice practices in which victims and offenders seek to repair broken relationships, and practicing interest-based negotiation.

These practices already exist in our communities, whether in community centers, schools, places of worship, or families. They are not rocket science; rather, they are easy, effective, sustainable, and almost always less expensive than coercive means of settling conflicts.

The late American psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote in his 1990 book Acts of Meaning: “I take open-mindedness to be a willingness to construe knowledge and values from multiple perspectives without loss of commitment to one’s own values. Open-mindedness is the keystone of what we call a democratic culture.”

Bruner knew that the greatness of the United States of America lies in its capacity not just to tolerate difference, but to fully engage with “the other” to gain a new perspective on the world and to reinvent a better self.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #471 (Wednesday, August 8, 2018). This story appeared on page D3.

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