Desperate times require desperate measures, it’s said. In a bid to revive their failing election campaign, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper brought on a well-known political strategist from Australia, Lynton Crosby, who is infamous for successfully employing fear tactics to win elections. At the start of September, the Conservatives were in third place behind the Liberals and the NDP in the polls. It’s less than two weeks to Election Day (Oct 19) and they are now in neck-in-neck fight with the Liberals.
The niqab tactic is working.
To recap, Zunera Ishaq challenged—and defeated in court—the Harper government’s 2011 law that forbade the wearing of niqab during citizenship ceremony. In spite of the fact that she had to clarify her identification at many steps throughout the process and would show her face to an official in an adjacent private room prior to the ceremony, the Harper government demanded more—that she expose her face throughout the formal citizenship ceremony. The courts ruled in Zunera’s favour, stating that the federal law was unconstitutional and trampled her religious rights. The government appealed and lost both times. But they did not give up.
The Crosby-Harper strategy turned a non-issue—the niqab— and into THE issue of the election. As a strategy, it’s been horribly brilliant (at least so far). It’s commonly said that it plays on emotions and pushes our “buttons.”
I’ve been curious to understand how we can be easily manipulated by such strategies. I mean, none of it is rational. In the 4 years since this bizarre law has been in place, 2 women have challenged it. So, it’s not like there are hordes of niqab-wearing women clogging up citizenship ceremonies. So what’s going on? What’s being evoked that turns a non-issue into an issue?
Science provides some answers that requires us to go internal—to the depth of how our brains function. I’ve written about the neuroscience behind racial identity in my new book, “Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs. Them.” (www.DeepDiversity.org) Here’s how the science applies to the niqab debate:
1. Objects not People: Our brain frequently registers those we perceive to be different than us—especially racially— more as objects than humans. This tendency is unconscious, and is a key step in dehumanizing people. When we dehumanize groups, it’s easier to mistreat them. Muslim and Arab people have been put into this category systematically since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, occupying the role of the Other/ threat / barbaric.
2. Low Empathy for Racial Others: Research also shows that empathy circuits in our brain light up more when we interact with people who are most like us, and less with people we perceive to be racially different. Given the rarity of niqab in society, the tiny percentage of women who wear it are mostly unknown, almost guaranteeing a reaction that evokes low or no empathy from most people. Having low empathy for minority groups, again, paves the way for abuse and neglect.
3. Negativity Bias Provoked Easily: It’s well established in scientific literature that humans have a negativity bias, the tendency to remember the bad even when it’s outnumbered by the good. For example, most people will ruminate on the one or two negative experiences in their day, ignoring the multitude of positive interactions. Negativity bias is especially pronounced when we deal with perceived outsiders— those not from our tribe—and the results include harsher judgment, more suspicion, and great demands for reciprocity. Muslims women wearing the niqab especially fall into this category, receiving scorn and labeled as “oppressed.”
4. Unconscious Bias Drives Behaviour: Lastly, the conscious mind—the thinking, rational, deliberate part of us— is much less influential in what we say and do than the unconscious—which is emotional, reactive, intuitive and automatic. Prejudice at the unconscious level— called implicit bias— will dominate our behavior and choices unless we are vigilant to when it emerges in our daily life. Anti-Muslim bias in society is pervasive in society and certainly is playing out loudly in the niqab debate.
Combined together, these four internal tendencies mix into a potent cocktail that unethical leaders serve to stoke passions—frequently hate and fear— for political gain. These are very present in the current debate about niqab specifically, and Muslims generally.
So, what can we do about it? Is there any hope? Or are we just at the mercy of automatic brain functions, attack ads and hate campaigns? No. There are things we can do and it starts with leveraging the power of awareness and compassion. Here are 4 strategies to consider:
1. Name it/Tame it. Recognize that unconscious processes — including biases as well as tendencies to dehumanize, reduce empathy, and focus on the negative— are automatically activated. Be on the look out for when— not if— these tendencies emerge, especially during political campaigns. Naming and noticing makes the inclinations more visible to us, which gives us a little more control. If we can name it, we can tame it.
2. Pause. Take a moment to think and feel through what is happening for us. If we don’t, our strong emotions may sweep us away.
3. Notice Identity – Notice the identities of the groups involved in the issue including race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc. Be aware that our tendency will be to judge the identities we don’t possess more harshly and less fairly.
4. Enhance Empathy—We overcompensate in the opposite direction when a car’s steering pulls to one side. Similarly, when dealing with people who are different than us racially/religiously, we need to lean towards more not less empathy. One way to do this is by recalling what it felt like when a loved one— or we personally—were left out of the group, ostracized or bullied. Our personal experience can sometimes serve as the bridge, helping us imagine what it might be like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
In closing, we need to recognize that the neural hardware we are born with makes us vulnerable to being polarized into groups, into Us/Them. Knowing this gives us leverage from politicians who may exploit us.
In this election, Canada, please don’t give in to hate and fear. We are better than that.
Author, Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs. Them, (Between The Lines, 2015).