As I write, just over 48 hours have passed since the horrific terrorist attacks took place in Paris. Almost 130 dead and more than 300 injured. Like many others, I’m shocked and numb at the news. My feelings of pain are a little hard to access. Grief at the loss of life in Paris is intertwined with fear of the inevitable and all too common anti-Muslim backlash that will flame up once again across the Western nations.
From the research and work I’ve done, it’s clear the “Us versus Them” dynamic is a human vulnerability, always a heartbeat away. It doesn’t take long. The first retaliation, in fact, is in my backyard.
Saturday night, a fire was deliberately set in the only mosque in Peterborough, a small city about 1.5 hour drive from my home in Toronto. A flaming bottle of liquid was thrown through a window a mere hour after a child’s birthday party took place. No one was hurt but the small congregation became displaced and fearful.
I shake my head. We can’t undo what happened in Paris but we have control over what happens next. And, it starts with recognizing a design flaw in the how our minds operate that makes us vulnerable to the terrorist agenda. Let me explain.
Equating the savages of ISIS with Muslims is like believing the Klu Klux Klan and neo-nazis represent Christianity. Both ISIS and KKK are monstrous hate groups who use terror to push their political agendas and pervert holy texts to sanction their missions. Recall that North Americans are still reeling from recent mass murders in a South Carolina church and an Oregon college, with both shooters linked to the teachings of hate groups.
Yet, somehow, in the eyes of many, ISIS is tied to mainstream Islam while the KKK and other white supremacist groups are seen as outsiders, certified fringe. Understanding why we may see one group as representative while its hate counterpart as outliers is key to reducing the Us/Them dynamic that resides within all of us.
Although it may be hard to believe in the current Paris moment, reports from both US and Canada demonstrate that white hate groups and right wing extremists are a greater threat to national security, complete with higher rates of violence, crime and body counts. In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center has assembled a map of white hate organizations and says there are 784 active groups in 2014 in the US alone. Yet, most of us fear ISIS more than the KKK.
So why does this happen?
There are a many psychological reasons and much of it has to do with how our brains are wired, something I’ve written about in my new book, Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs. Them. Research shows that belonging to groups drives human behavior— it’s a need as basic as food, water and shelter. Groups we identify with and are socialized in—what the research describes as our ingroups— are treated very differently than groups we have less experience with, our outgroups.
What’s critical to understand is that our minds are wired with unconscious tendencies to treat outgroup members with less fairness and empathy. We judge them more critically as well as punish them more harshly. Because of socialization, we may see less diversity and variation within outgroups thus relying more on stereotypes, and the impact is especially felt by minority groups in society. What’s key to understand is that our brain will frequently register outgroups more as objects than humans…and once we dehumanize a group, anything is possible, from indifference through to brutal violence.
In the Canada, US and Europe, the dominant in-group is both white and Christian. And because of forces of socialization—media, schools, family, community, government, etc.—we immediately understand that KKK and neo-nazi hate groups are not normal parts of society, and don’t associate them to Christian doctrine, regardless of what they proclaim themselves.
However, it seems hard to detach ISIS from Islam, generally because Muslims are a minority, a social outgroup with less status in society. As a result, it becomes easier to do many things include holding a whole group accountable for the actions of a small outsider fringe. We can ignore UN data that demonstrates more Muslims have died at the hands of ISIS butchers than any other group. And outgroup status also gives permission for the haters to spout anti-Muslim rhetoric at every opportunity, to burn mosques, and turn non-issues like the niqab into election issues that divide people. And it allows us to care less about terrorist attacks in non-European nations. For example, unlike with Paris, the CN tower and other global monuments were not decked out in solidarity colours following the bombing in Lebanon last Thursday that killed 40 or the 147 murdered in Kenya last April. Even though many people believe that all lives are equal, such asymmetrical reporting combined with anti-Muslim public discourse sends the message that some are more deserving of compassion than others.
If we recognize that this tendency as a “mind-bug”— a term popularized by bias researchers Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald—then we have a chance of reducing its impact. The less aware we are of this built-in psychological default, the more likely it will play out in our actions, choices and decisions.
And after such tragedies in Paris, we are in a moment to choose what we do next. To carry out their violence, terrorists had to dehumanize their victims. It’s imperative that in our reactionary state, we don’t do the same. Otherwise we risk becoming like those we oppose and embolden their cause as a consequence. It becomes a never ending cycle of retaliation followed by more retaliation.
So, what can we do? There are many things but I’ll highlight three:
- Fight the tendency to see the world—and especially crises—in the frame of Us/Them. “We” have all been affected by Paris.
- Choose compassion, openness and relationship-building. I was touched by the acts of humanity in Paris, with free taxis, #OpenDoor where residents offered shelter to strangers and reminders of the Sikh temple tradition of being a safe haven for all who need it. In Peterborough, local citizens and churches immediately started a campaign to raise money for the damaged mosque.
- Lobby our political leaders to find alternate roots to combat extremism. Indiscriminate air strikes and drone attacks only helps advance the terrorist agenda, both at home and abroad.
In the words of Martin Luther King:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Author, Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs. Them (Between the Lines, 2015)