After reading the blog post by Dr. Hayes, which you can review below, I started thinking about what I would like to share with my friends, family members, and colleagues outside of the ACT community. Something about this work, and what we know about love and hate that would resonate with humans who know nothing of psychology, context, or ACT.
In my life I am lucky to have a few close friends who are also colleagues. We can talk about these things together and find some peace and comfort in knowing that our work and the work of others in our field can make a difference in the world. And that is a beautiful feeling that I sometimes take for granted.
Then I drive 243.8 miles west to my hometown of Johnson City, TN, population 65,123 (86% White) and I find people that are terrified. As they worry about their lives, the lives of their children, and the future of our country and our world – I find the suggestion of perspective taking and empathy runs up against a wall of unwillingness. Issues of race and discrimination are particularly challenging to confront, especially when people are unwilling to even admit they have prejudices. I find this is actually one of the most important places to start if you have friends or family who say things like, “I don’t see color.”
One experience I have tried recently to share with others is a little activity I do myself any time I scroll through Facebook. Take a look at a picture from the HONY* website, just the picture.
Notice what your mind does as you look at the photo, and the story it might create about who this person probably is, what their life is probably life, or even what you might wonder about them.
After that, read their story.
What do you notice?
Personally, whether I like to admit it or not, my mind often has judgements, prejudices, or stereotypes that just show up. However, when I read the story I am constantly amazed by what I find. There are funny stories, shocking stories, and the heartbreaking stories that fill the page. What all of these photographs have in common is a human being, a human story, and a human connection that the author of HONY shares with the world.
Now you’re ready to work on perspective taking. How do you imagine this person spends their day? What might make this person feel happiness or a sense of joy? What do you think are some of this person’s regrets?
I strike up conversations with people I love and simply share, "I have to be honest, when I saw that man's picture, I noticed myself thinking that he was probably uneducated - I couldn't believe the way he described his knowledge of literature and his love of teaching. The story of how he became homeless made me cringe a little - it's hard to admit that tragedies like that could happen to anyone.
Talk with people you know, and maybe even people you don’t, about what it means to consider someone else’s perspective, confront your own prejudices, and develop a sense of willingness to continue doing these things when emotions run high and threats loom large. Do something in your own life and share sometimes with those living around you that helps establish love, kindness, and a basic sense of humanity as the only clear path that leads away from hate and anger. Tell them, Love is Louder.
*HONY: Humans of New York is a blog post that can be found here: http://www.humansofnewyork.com
You can also follow HONY on various forms of social media, including Facebook.
The Orlando Massacre: Why We Hate
Science shows why and how we can use love to fight hate.
Posted Jun 13, 2016
Steven C. Hayes, PhD
The rampage in Orlando was an act of hate. It’s vitally important to our world that our response to it not be. You can indeed fight hate with love, and science tells us both a bit of how to do that, and why it is possible.
Research from my lab published a couple of years ago (Vilardaga, Estévez, Levin, Hayes, 2012) found that we enjoy being with other human beings if we meet three at least conditions. First, we have to have a sense of what it is like to be that other person. We have to be able to see the world, at least a little bit, through their eyes. Second, we need to feel their joys and sorrows. We need to feel what it is like to be them. Those two steps connect others to us – they bring others into our psychological group as whole human beings. Once they are there, there are “under our skin”, so to speak, and the final process kicks in. We need to not run away psychologically speaking, even when it is hard. When people are different than us, we can feel a bit uncomfortable. When we see them hurt, we hurt. If you try to protect yourself against your own feelings you simply cannot afford the risk of loving and caring about others (I explain that part in this TEDx talk).
In three words we can enjoy and love others if we have the skills of perspective taking, empathy, and experiential openness.
But research also shows that we objectify and dehumanize people precisely when these same three skills are disturbed. A recent study from my lab (Levin, Luoma, Vilardaga, Lillis, Nobles, and Hayes, 2015) shows that if you look inside a large set of prejudices (the five we picked were prejudice against homosexuals, women, ethnic minorities, obese people, and people struggling with substance use) there is a common core of generalized prejudice that goes across all of them, and it is predicted by the same three processes. We judge and hate others when we cannot take their perspective, feel empathy for them, or sit inside our own emotions about being with them.
These are not just correlations. A new study (Hooper, Erdogan, Keen, Lawton, & McHugh, 2015) shows if we train perspective taking, we are less likely to judge the behavior of others based on claimed dispositional characteristics, instead of their history and circumstances. This error is called “the fundamental attribution error” and it has been linked both to the psychology of terrorists, and to flaws in our media coverage of them.
And here we are, back to Orlando.
Already the reports are coming in. His father says the perpetrator could not stand to see men kissing. Unable to sit with that discomfort, he objectified, judged, and dehumanized them, egged on in his own mind by distortions of religious belief that gave a stamp of moral righteousness to his hate. As he mowed down dancers, you can be sure he did not see human beings, with feelings. He saw hated objects.
But we cannot escape these same questions and these same processes. We are inside our own pain. Pain for those killed and their friends and family. Pain for our gay brothers and sisters who once again are reminded of the hate others feel when they are unable to see their expressions of love with a sense of shared perspective, joy, and openness.
What will we do with that pain? Will we now rush to objectify and dehumanize the killer, or worse, our Muslim brothers and sisters?
Yes, we need to stand and fight – but the fight begins within. It is literally a battle between hate and love. If it is to be love, then crawl behind the eyes of the dancers and feel their horror. Go behind the eyes of their loved ones and weep openly. And then, touching your own prejudices within, go behind the eyes of a killer too disturbed by two men kissing to allow them to be human.