In the past several months, it has been difficult to scan through news without reading about some horrific incidence of international violence. An image that recently has haunted me is one of 21 Coptic Christians about to be beheaded by masked members of ISIS in Egypt.
Such incidents leave me with a sense of helplessness, as I know I am basically powerless to do anything that could directly help. Yet, reflecting on incidents of violence elsewhere has made me more sensitive to processes that relate to prejudice and violence around and within me. Here there seems to be more opportunity for control.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the number of hate groups in the United States has increased by 56% since 2000. Related to this but more common to everyday experience are pervasive stereotypes in which members of a group are judged to be “bad” in some way because of their group membership. For instance, floating around in many people’s minds are prejudgments about members of religious groups such as “all Atheists are angry,” “all Christians are anti-gay/lesbian,” and “all Muslims are dangerous.” When there are pervasive negative associations with members of groups such as this, misunderstanding, segregation, self-fulfilling prophecies, and even acts of violence become more possible.
It has taken me years to learn what seems completely obvious to many others; that is, that there is diversity within any group and that each individual carries a mix of good and bad. Part of my story is that I was raised in a small, homogenous community in rural Minnesota where, as a child, I didn’t realize that others existed who were not German Catholic. In fact, I clearly remember the surprise that I experienced when my dad explained to me that Lutherans exist! One of the most important aspects for me attending various public schools was the opportunity to become acquainted with people who are different from me. This has helped me to learn the values of pluralism, something I increasingly have come to appreciate is not as possible in other parts of the world.
As a psychologist interested in issues of religious prejudice and violence, it seems to me that the processes I went through may contain seeds of hope more generally. Considerable psychological research shows that contact with members of different groups – or, better yet, friendship across group lines – is one of the best ways to promote the shared sense of humanity that is so important to promoting peaceful and effective relations. For example, in a classic study, researchers showed that encouraging competition across groups in a boys’ summer camp increased conflict, but that this conflict could be eased by having campers work together on projects where they needed to pool resources (such as moving a stalled truck). In another study, scientists found that prejudice could be reduced in the classroom by assigning students from different backgrounds to projects that depended on mutual cooperation. Other research demonstrates that the stress hormones that are released at first when interacting with someone from a different background decrease substantially after having talked about meaningful topics for three 45-minute sessions.
One of the great problems in reducing prejudice and violence, then, is getting those people who otherwise would not be acquainted with others from different groups to have these kinds of experiences. For instance, how do we nurture collaborations across religious lines, racial groups, sexual proclivities, and political orientations so that individuals get to really know each other as fellow humans? Often times, well-intended programs designed to teach or encourage pluralism “preach to the choir” and do not reach those most isolated.
Public education may be one of the best opportunities we have to help people to form attitudes and habits that decrease prejudice and violence. Students from different backgrounds can be put into situations where they must work together toward common goals. They can be exposed to people from different backgrounds where such backgrounds are underrepresented in their communities. I recognize that public school teachers have a lot “on their plates;” to me, this demonstrates just how valuable they are to our communities. However, as someone who teaches in a public college, I find the prospect of using my classroom as a mechanism for promoting peace to be extremely meaningful and hopeful. As Nelson Mandela once said, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”