This post continues the thread of thought in the previous one. In that post, I brought up the incident of Amy Cooper siccing the police on a nearby black birder. I wrote:
The recently reported case of a white woman, Amy Cooper, calling the police when a black man, birding in Central Park, asked her to tether her dog, as she should already done, provides an excellent example of this cognitive process. Cooper had been working for a company with an outstanding reputation for dealing with diversity and had been given extensive training in co-existing with people of color. In this non-workplace situation, her brain, not recognizing this as similar, bypassed all that training and produced an “unfriendly” response. Was this an act of prejudice? Yes, but not of malice. There was little else she could have done at that moment. Her response had already been lurking in the wings.
This example shows that prejudicial beliefs that have been implicitly embodied without any consciousness of them during the course of everyday life linger in the brain even when similar non-prejudicial beliefs and practices have been instilled by explicit education and practice. This post argues that this behavioral pattern is commonplace and is due to the way the bi-hemispheric brain works. The left-brain does not apprehend the context that makes each situation unique. That is why Amy Cooper could not call on the diversity training she had embodied as something to do with work. In this case, the black birdwatcher was just some “other” figure, the kind that evolution has trained humans and other animals to avoid or take protective action.
The opposite of racism is not anti-racism. The opposition is not merely semantic; it is cognitive—a shift from the left-brain to the right-brain. Just as the two sides of the brain attend to the world in different ways, we have a different kind of self associated with each. We are schizoid, but not crazy. Our case is not quite as severe as that of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but we do have two very different sides to our self, to the actor we present to the world.
Racism or any other “ism” is a story about the way the world is that resides in the left-brain. Isms are nothing but a set of “facts” that have been embodied, as beliefs, over an individual’s life. Once these beliefs become part of the left-brain’s structure, the brain cannot tell whether they are true representations of the real world or simply some assertion without solid grounds. Even if they were true in the situations from which they were taken, they may not have validity in other situations that might seem the same but are contextually different.
These stories have been abstracted from one’s historical experience and take over and control actions whenever the left-brain gets the last word. Racism is such a story that conveys the belief that race as indicated by skin color, can be characterized by a set of categorical or essential traits. Such beliefs might include: “White people are smarter than black people.” “Black people are not to be trusted.” “Native Americans are all alcoholics.” Stories like these are both taught explicitly and extracted from experience.
Children born into a uni-racial family will start to weave a story, based on their early experience, that people that look like their parents are good to have around. “They feed and care for me,” goes their story. So when a white child of two white parents first sees someone of a different skin color, the child is likely to react as if the other is an unknown thing. The “request” sent by the right-brain to the left to make sense of the situation and formulate some response is stymied because the left-brain cannot recognize the unfamiliar “image.” It the absence of a response, the right brain is prone to invoke an evolutionary-based response to flee or take some other proactive action. In this way over time, the notion of the “other” becomes rooted in the left brain. This will happen without any explicit verbal accompaniment, but would be accentuated if the child were to be exposed, to any significant extent, to some form of explicitly expressed bias. The brains of children are highly plastic, that is, they form neuronal patterns that are shaped by what is being experienced. The more the experience is repeated, the deeper these patterns are embedded in the brain, where they await being triggered by something familiar enough to point the brain’s response mechanisms to that stored pattern.
As I wrote in the last post, this process is part of the way we learn. We need abstract facts about the world in order to shape our actions to the situation at hand. Imagine having to figure out how to act anew in every moment. The species would never had gotten established. In addition to all the “facts” we extract from the process of acting, we add facts that have been handed to us in written or spoken language, but the brain cannot distinguish between the two kinds. Such facts are transformed into “beliefs” in the brain. A small, but important, semantic difference. “Facts” generally mean something associated with the world. Beliefs refer to the embodied facts. We think they are true representations of the facts and act accordingly.
The difference between the beliefs extracted from everyday experience and those acquired didactically must be considered when any attempt to “change one’s mind” or “change ones behavior” is being considered. By didactic, I mean educational processes explicitly designed to directly access and produce changes in the brain. Such processes may involve both verbal and non-verbal methods. Everyday experiences in non-educational setting also change the brain, but in an importantly different implicit manner.
Didactic learning is an explicit experiential process, but needs to be distinguished from more general experiences from which beliefs are implicitly extracted. For clarity, I will call one e-beliefs (experiential) and the other d-beliefs (didactic). In addressing prejudicial behavior, it is critical to understand this difference. I will define prejudicial behavior as any action based on left-brain, categorical beliefs that are invoked, but that do not fit the facts of the situation. It should be clear that this is a very common mode of behavior because the left-brain tends to ignore the context that makes every moment unique. It prejudges the scene and designs its responses based on the categorical, abstract beliefs it applies to the case at hand.
Maybe the act will satisfy whatever intention triggered it. In which case, action will move along more or less smoothly. If, instead, the action follows from (prejudicial or presupposed) beliefs that do not fit the present circumstances, the flow of action may breakdown (be interrupted), explicitly exposing what had been implicit in the actor’s cognitive processes leading up to the act, itself. This is exactly what happened in Amy Cooper’s case. Her prejudicial response, triggered by an act of a black man, but not in the familiar workplace, to call the police caused a severe breakdown for which she apologized later, but the damage was already done.
In less dramatic cases, the actor can simply move on and ignore the failure to hit the target. But if the desired result remains important to achieve, some sort of conversation will have to take place to determine why the action failed. The contents of the left-brain can be accessed by calling on memory in attempts to find the belief(s) that led to the breakdown. Of course, whatever comes forth in the process may or may not have anything material to do with the disappointing result. In either case, the actor or someone else present may offer a different belief, which, if put into play, may or my not restore the action to transparency. If it does, life will go on easily. If not, the process can be repeated until success is achieved or until the actors move on.
But now let me move to a special form of this kind of process that I will call “Prejudicial” with a capital “P.” These are actions where the activated, embodied beliefs lead to a breakdown that affects the dignity or, perhaps, the autonomy of some other human being involved. Again, the Amy Cooper incident is such an example. James Baldwin, years ago, wrote something like categorization dehumanizes human beings. Whatever word is used describes the result of the process the left brain to convert unique, living beings out there into some lifeless generalization. While much of our actions arise from left-brain dominance and are, thus prejudicial, those that affect the dignity of other human beings merit the special attention as any act that affects the dignity of or dehumanizes another human has ethical or moral implications.
Such Prejudicial actions arise, as discussed above, from beliefs that do not fit the world out there. Like those more general cases, arising from d-beliefs, they can be addressed by seeking to expose them and counter them by further didactic learning. But if they arise from e-beliefs, then this process is not likely to work.
E-beliefs got there without any awareness. The brain abstracted them from some experience or series of experiences silently and unconsciously. The actor does not know they are there. Their presence is an explicit feature of the divided brain model of McGilchrist, but their existence has been known for a long time. Psychoanalysis, around since Freud, was explicitly designed to make such e-beliefs conscious, so that they might be transformed into d-beliefs and, subsequently, addressed so as to mitigate or eliminate unwanted behaviors. The current, popular cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) involves e-beliefs and couples cognitive processes to access these beliefs with behavioral practices to replace them with other.
Cognitive behavioral therapy can be thought of as a combination of psychotherapy and behavioral therapy. Psychotherapy emphasizes the importance of the personal meaning we place on things and how thinking patterns begin in childhood. Behavioral therapy pays close attention to the relationship between our problems, our behavior and our thoughts. Most psychotherapists who practice CBT personalize and customize the therapy to the specific needs and personality of each patient.
Now to racism. Racism is a specific case of Prejudice that results in actions that arise from embodied e-beliefs about race or skin color, are unrelated to the situation, and result in an outcome contrary to the dignity of the target of the action. I am using dignity as a general capability of a person to act autonomously and according to the values and beliefs of their own existential identity. Unwarranted death is the ultimate affront to dignity. Life itself is taken away.
Because Prejudice rises from e-beliefs, it cannot be addressed simply by application of didactic methods. Practices akin to CBT or similar therapy would be necessary. But this fact is not commonly recognized. Here is a definition taken from the Wikipedia article on prejudice, “Prejudice means preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.” But e-beliefs are based on experience, but not recognized as such. Opinion is not involved. Opinion is a form of d-beliefs in that it can be voiced and dealt with, perhaps, by offering more grounded d-beliefs.
Racial Prejudice is inevitable in a multi-racial society. Racism, based, on d-beliefs can be addressed frontally and explicitly. Institutional structures that include such beliefs can and should be changed. If they are not, what goes for normal behavior in such institutions will continue to embed the d-beliefs in the left brains of everyone acting within them. But even such direct efforts will be hampered by the e-beliefs of those involved. We can pass laws that would prohibit racism, but such laws will not affect the generation of e-beliefs and their consequences in action. The damage (as manifest by the presence of these e-beliefs in most adults in America) has already been inflicted. It will truly take several generations to assure that children are subjected to experiences that will not produce such Prejudicial e-beliefs in the first place. One important step along the way to this end is to acknowledge that Prejudice is a natural, cognitive process and that people who carry such beliefs in the brain are not “bad” people or have “bad” thoughts. Our American vision of a multi-racial culture means that Prejudice is always going to be with us and that efforts to keep it under control are always going be necessary.
The divided brain model also offers another more promising way to avoid Prejudice. I hinted at the beginning of this post: The opposite of racism is not anti-racism, it is care. Any ism, positive or negative, operates out of the left brain. Anti-racism would include all the measures I have already discussed that focus on the left brain. These are all negative in a sense, keeping the errant neurons on a leash. Alternatively we can engage in practices from early childhood that elevate the right hemisphere to, as McGilchrist writes, its proper position of mastery. Prejudice does not apply to acts that are driven by the right side of the brain. Such acts rely primarily on understanding the immediate world on its own terms.
Actions arising from right-brain dominance attend to or take into account the immediate scene, including its context. Objects in view are seen as alive, particular, and, somehow, connected to the actor. McGilchrist calls the connection to the world in this case, betweenness, neither subjective or objective in the usual sense. Actions reflect features specific to the present world, perhaps, acquired through some sort of empathetic interconnection. Blackness or whiteness is perceived, but not associated with some e-beliefe-or or d-belief stored in the left brain. It simply is part of the picture.
The right may mischaracterize the situation and create breakdowns, but, importantly, such unintended consequences are different and more directly remediable. The action that ensues may or may not be assessed as positive by the target, but any such assessment is not the result of Prejudice or prejudice. Right-brain actions can be categorized, generally, as forms of care. They reflect an appreciation of the whole situation, at least to the extent of the context that has been perceived, and represent some attempt to attend to the whole, present situation. A shift in hemispheric mastery is not only an important step in mitigating Prejudice, it is also an essential step toward creating flourishing humans. The ubiquitous of Prejudice in the US can be attributed both to our particular history and to the mastery of the wrong part of the brain.
The divided brain model is not yet accepted as the current paradigm in neuroscience, but, then, no other model is. My book and posts like this are, however, predicated on its validity as explaining human behaviors and their cultural consequences. I do not know of any other model as powerful and immediately relevant to dealing the great issues of today. The popularity and success of CBT as a way to deal with abnormal or unwanted behaviors adds credibility to this thesis. One serious non-directly-brain-related problem in dealing with racism is that it can be neither abnormal nor unwanted. But, as a matter of values and sanctions, that is an institutional outcome and can and should be confronted directly.