“The function, the very serious function of racism, . . . is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
“Only very slowly and late have men come to realize that unless freedom is universal it is only extended privilege.”
“It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
As a society, we have spent enormous amounts of time engaged in bitter conflicts, hostile debates, and adversarial exchanges over racism and policing, sexism and sexual harassment, homophobia and gay marriage, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, immigration and border walls, poverty and homelessness, trans athletes and gendered bathrooms, America First and global warming, Civil War statues and teaching about slavery, accusations and denials of bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, and similar issues.
Each of these has fueled intense arguments and adversarial exchanges between increasingly intolerant and polarized opponents, including Democrats and Republicans, Black Lives Matter and Proud Boys, mask wearers and Covid deniers; proponents and detractors of mail-in ballots, online voting, and voter ID cards; advocates of renewable energy and fans of fossil fuels; champions of globalization and promoters of tariffs, supporters and critics of gun control, gay marriage, defunding police, morning after pills, sanctuary cities, reparations, and similar issues.
We have not resolved any of these disputes, or convinced each other, or even discussed them intelligently, but ended up instead screaming at one another, clashing violently, and being prepared to manipulate, and even jettison the entire democratic process if it doesn’t back the candidates and policies we support. As a result, we have become deeply divided, hostile, suspicious, and less able to work together to solve pressing common problems. Yet we are inextricably bound together, not only in neighborhoods and communities, language and citizenship, but by our common humanity, and a growing range of worries that threaten our survival and require our cooperation.
Some of the increasing intensity of these conflicts comes from the fact that far-reaching, fundamental changes are taking place in the world, rekindling ancient prejudices, resurrecting outdated paradigms, transforming once settled relationships, blinding us to what is obvious, and shifting the very ground on which we live. Many of the technologies and forms of communication, along with the attitudes and assumptions, skills and methodologies, systems and structures, processes and relationships from earlier times have simply disappeared, or no longer work, or are seen as biased, unjust, ineffective, and damaging, leaving many people feeling disregarded and left behind.
At the same time, advances in science, economic inter-dependency, world travel and connectedness, access to diverse local and global cultures, and increasing openness to cross-cultural relationships have intensified the need for higher order communication, negotiation, and conflict resolution skills. Yet these have often lagged, or been trivialized, or regarded as “touchy-feely,” and actively resisted by those who have found themselves unable or unwilling to keep up.
More problematically, the media, methods, and modalities for communicating and resolving cross-racial, cross-gender, cross-class, and cross-cultural conflicts; the skills, capacities, and attitudes for respectfully and collaboratively negotiating with each other; and the willingness — even to constructively listen, talk about, and solve life-threatening difficulties, or grapple with the ambiguity and complexity of diversity, dissent, collaboration, and change, have not kept pace with the scale, scope, and complexity of our problems, or been applied adequately and comprehensively, or been used to design the systems and structures that might prevent them at their source.
As a result, our political conversations have become spiteful, distracted, stifled, and unable to address the real issues. We have not discovered even the language we need to connect these conflicts, reveal their underlying symmetries, or point the way to fresh ideas and syntheses. This, I think, is where we need to begin, and there is no better, or more important place to do so than with conflicts regarding race, which lie at the center of the passion and emotion experienced by people on both sides of the political divide.
A First Step: Race and Caste Distinguished
The language currently being used to discuss race, gender, wealth, religion, and similar social divisions, not only in the U.S., but everywhere, consists largely of stereotypes, slurs, accusations, threats, calls to violence, shaming, castigation, and condemnation. These automatically generate denial, defensiveness, and counter-attack, along with evasiveness, euphemism, deceit, condescension, disrespect, and rationalization, which routinely retrigger the first set of responses, causing the argument to turn in a circle and go nowhere, except downhill.
A first step in the direction of improved communication, dialogue, problem solving, collaborative negotiation, and conflict resolution is to redefine the problem in ways that make the experience of bias and pre-judgment more universal; that encourage empathy and honesty to flow more freely; that deepen our understanding of what lies beneath these conflicts; that clarify what connects all forms of prejudice; that explain the passion and intense emotion that surround it; and that help us figure out how to talk to one another and work together to solve the problem of how to solve our problems.
In 2020, the Pulitzer Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson published a brilliant, beautifully crafted, groundbreaking book, Caste – The Origins of Our Discontents, in which she distinguished race and racism from caste and casteism. Offering examples from many different countries and historical periods, she defined caste in an interesting and useful way:
Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy… Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that has been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.
The difference between casteism and racism, she pointed out, is not always easy to identify, as these categories are “interwoven,” yet can be described as follows:
Any action or institution that mocks, harms, assumes, or attaches inferiority or stereotype on the basis of the social construct of race can be considered racism. Any action or structure that seeks to limit, hold back, or put someone in a defined ranking, seeks to keep someone in their place by elevating or denigrating that person on the basis of their perceived category, can be seen as casteism.
Wilkerson went further, and made the essential distinction between them clear:
[C]aste does not allow us to ignore structure. Caste is structure. Caste is ranking. Caste is the boundaries that reinforce the fixed assignments based on what people look like…. To achieve a truly egalitarian world requires looking deeper than what we think we see. We cannot win against a hologram….
Or, more simply still, “Caste is the bones, race the skin.” And, in a passage that helps us understand what lies deeper, and points to the chronic source, explanatory principle, and point of origin of both casteism and racism, she wrote:
Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is … [or reinforcing it] to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, [in order] to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you.
The great value of Wilkerson’s work is that it offers a deep explanation of the connections between race and other forms of bias, and of their relationship to conflict resolution, and to the larger conflicts we are experiencing regarding social inequality, economic inequity, political autocracy, and ecological destruction. She offers a clear perspective through the lens of hierarchy, with its associated survival fears and desires for domination and superiority, into the universal experience of bias and prejudice.
Caste is maintained through what Wilkerson describes as a set of eight “pillars” or principles that can be found in Indian castes, Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg laws, South African apartheid, and U.S. segregation, among others. These include, as I see them, a set of systemic supports and justifications that enforce inheritability, ban intermarriage, permit rape, protect genetic “purity,” prohibit fair competition, legitimize stereotypes and slurs, authorize terror as a means of enforcement and cruelty as a means of control, and inculcate an ideology of innate superiority and inferiority.
In these ways, caste invents “untouchables,” whose physical being is regarded as corrupt, filthy, disgusting, and disease-ridden. These lead to segregated, apartheid-style seating areas, separate drinking fountains and bathrooms, and the emptying of entire swimming pools that have been integrated. These pillars further separate people, increase their ignorance of one another, magnify their fear of physical contact, erect elaborate defenses against empathy and compassion, and give rise to a wide range of racist behaviors, leading to the theft of dignity and happiness, lives and labor, power and possessions, peace and justice– and finally, to murder, rape, and genocide.
These outcomes are grounded in the perception that hierarchical, fiercely competitive, “zero-sum,” “win/lose,” “power-based” methods have to be adopted due to scarce resources, limited entitlements, and restricted access to status, wealth, power, and ecological advantage. This leads to the pervasive assumption that “social-Darwinian,” “survival of the fittest,” “fight to the death” tactics are essential if we want to avoid personal loss, defeat, enslavement, and death, and that we need to defend ourselves, our families, and those we believe are like us, against those who would take what is ours.
But what is this perception, other than the outward appearance of our own fear and selfishness, anger and self-doubt, guilt and shame, panic and pain? What is it, other than our subconscious awareness that the entire construct of white, male, wealthy, straight, etc. superiority is a sham, together with a desire for release through catharsis and annihilation of the Other, whose very presence reminds us of the fraudulence of our claim? What is it, other than our own stunted capacity for empathy and compassion; our lack of skill in relating to those who are different; our difficulty tolerating ambiguity, diversity, and dissent; our anticipation of rejection by others; our suppressed belief that we are unworthy; our unspoken desire for acceptance, affirmation, and affection; for relationship, resolution, redemption, and reconciliation?
3 Levels of Bias, Stereotyping, Prejudice, and Discrimination
Extending Wilkerson’s distinction between race and caste, we can imagine a number of equally important distinctions — for example, between gender and patriarchy; wealth and class; patriotism and jingoism, religious belief and ultra-orthodoxy, sexual orientation and homophobia, political principles and dogmatism, etc., each pointing to a set of deeper, broader, less personal and behavioral, and more systemic or structural supports; and to still deeper, more divisive and universal underlying causes.
The goal of these distinctions is not to diminish the very real impact of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and other forms of bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, but rather to deepen them, to reveal them as emergent, and therefore, relatively superficial, interpersonal, communicative and behavioral manifestations of much more fundamental and longer lasting underpinnings and chronic sources. This allows us to see that all the conflicts that surround all the different forms of bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination exist simultaneously on three distinct levels:
At the initial interpersonal level, bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are expressed in a broad range of communications and behaviors, statements and actions that range from simplistic stereotypes, subtle slurs, and “micro-aggressions” to apartheid and lynching; from silly jokes and clumsy come-ons to sexual harassment and rape; from casual closeting remarks to gender shaming and imprisonment; from petty anti-Semitic slights to genocide. The rationalizations offered by those who say these things and engage in these actions reveal that they are sometimes simply tests to see how far they can go before they are stopped, or backwards justifications for hostile, anti-social behaviors that would otherwise be seen as shameful, cruel, and inhuman.
At the second, deeper level lie the systems and structures that support bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination; that evoke and trigger, but do not require, insulting comments or antagonistic behaviors directed at others. Instead, they offer the appearance (to those engaging in them) of being logical, neutral, and unbiased. These prejudicial systems and structures rely on distinctions based on “facts,” yet fail to recognize that these facts are themselves the result of centuries of disparate treatment, and invented, often unconsciously, in an effort to create facts that match the stereotype, and thereby “reverse engineer” the evidence, moral rationalizations, and justifications needed for domination to succeed. Thus, people are denied work, then described as lazy; impoverished, then called dirty; shamed, then scorned as shameless.
Thus, reducing funding for largely minority public schools predictably results in their students being less likely to learn, be admitted to college, or receive higher paying jobs. Indeed, the simple reluctance of any system to take account of a history and legacy of past bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination — together with an unwillingness to make reparations or change directions –- will automatically result in continued unfairness, domination, and prejudice. All any system needs to turn in a circle is selective amnesia, a pretense of neutrality, and acceptance of an unequal status quo.
This predictability and automaticity lead us to the third, still deeper, algorithmic, causal or encoded level, and the source of these systems and structures, communications and behaviors. An algorithm is simply a rule, a set of instructions, an operating system, or a mathematical function that gives rise to repetitive outcomes. Fear, for example, is a simple, repeatable neurophysiological algorithm that begins with a perceived threat, followed by a rapid response in the amygdala, triggering a cascade of chemical reactions we now call the “fight, flight, freeze, or fawn” reaction.
At this deeper, algorithmic level, bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination take the form of a simple, elementary rule that governs every hierarchy: those who are above are permitted to dominate and control, exploit and oppress, eat first and prevail over, injure and even exterminate, those who are below. As a consequence, all are arrayed along a vertical one-dimensional line in order of their social status, economic wealth, political power, or ecological advantage; or their age, height, or weight; speed or strength; mathematical ability or emotional intelligence; color or gender; religion or politics; or any other criteria we may select based on our needs and values, likes and dislikes, desires and fears, histories and antagonisms. Ambiguity and confusion are then banished, along with insecurity and fear of loss — at least in the short run and for those who are above – but always at a price.
The central purpose of this underlying algorithm or code is to establish and maintain competitive, adversarial, hierarchical, zero sum principles as the core “operating system,” fundamental axioms, design criteria, ground rules, and blueprints needed to guide the creation and continued iteration of a complex set of multi-layered, self-reinforcing systems and structures, processes and relationships, attitudes and assumptions, communications and behaviors, actions and reactions, that separate and rank people from top to bottom, then grant privileges and measure lives accordingly.
Systems and structures are needed to implement the algorithm; to identify those who do not “belong” and separate them from those who do; to marginalize and punish those who dissent or seek to change the system; to appear to “fairly” apportion and distribute rewards to winners and punishments to losers; to create superficially neutral, “color blind,” non-prejudicial rationalizations for targeting people based on their identities or differences, which can be communicated by simple catch phrases and euphemisms.
Biased interpersonal communications and behaviors are then needed to coerce compliance with these systems and structures; to monitor and enforce segregations and exclusions; to promote personal bullying, shaming, ostracism, humiliation, and violence; to encourage fear, undermine empathy, and implant self-doubt and self-hatred; to rationalize, divert, disguise, moderate, and deny the truth; and to paper over any underlying guilt, residual empathy, or lingering shame caused by doing so.
The Algorithm: Prejudice, Domination, and the Zero-Sum Game
In 1944, mathematician John von Neumann and economist Oskar Morgenstern published their classic Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, in which they created a foundation for understanding the strategic implications of competitive, or “zero-sum;” and cooperative, or “non-zero sum” interactions called “games” that took place between several people, or “players,” who may be either individuals or groups.
A zero sum game is one in which, out of a total of 10, if I get 7, you get 3; and if I get 8, you get 2. Zero sum games are commonly referred to as “conflict games,” because negotiations are inevitably competitive, adversarial, and distributive, there is a “fixed pie” that cannot be expanded, and these, in combination, generate chronic conflicts. War and genocide can then be seen as “natural” “final solutions” to any zero sum social, economic, political, or ecological game, because the dominant person or group simply seeks to “zero out” the sum by taking everything and eliminate competitors.
Bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination can therefore be seen as essential elements in every zero sum game, as they undermine collaborative inclinations and assumptions, justify maximizing my/our share, and strengthen my/our competitive advantage. Yet they always, ultimately, and inexorably seek to zero out others, and therefore gravitate toward aggression, violence, and genocidal outcomes.
These tendencies are implicit in the operational principles and outcomes of all zero sum games, and therefore in all hierarchical systems and structures, which are grounded in the following three fundamental “zero-sum” assumptions:
Non-zero-sum games, on the other hand, do not require competition, or a single universally acceptable solution, or an optimal strategy that is preferable to all others, or a fixed pie, or predictable outcomes, or a single truth, or anyone to lose so that others can win. Non-zero-sum games are cooperative or collaborative, but may include competitive elements. Participants in non-zero sum games often have complementary or overlapping interests, but may have some that are opposed. In cooperative games, players are able to communicate, plan, and reach agreements in advance, while in competitive or non-cooperative games, except for the rules of the game, they are not. The operational principles and outcomes of non-zero sum games and all collaborative, heterarchical systems and structures, are grounded in three non-zero-sum assumptions:
Participants in non-zero sum games may have multiple diverse interests, values, and goals. Building on the work of mathematician John F. Nash (described in Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind), a utility function can therefore be used to assign a number to each separate interest, in order to convey its relative importance, priority, or attractiveness to each person or group. These interests do not need to be entirely “rational,” and can have emotional or subjective components, such as a desire to help someone in need, or share in the proceeds or benefits, or punish a wrongdoer.
The more these interests overlap, the more advantageous communication, planning, consensus, collaboration, negotiation, and conflict resolution become; and the more complex, collaborative, higher order skills are required to succeed. Harvard professor Martin Novak has demonstrated that when people belong to a network, cooperation quickly becomes dominant over competition, especially when the benefit-to-cost ratio exceeds the average number of neighbors, and when long-term goals, community relations, and reputations for cooperation are taken into consideration.
Elinor Ostrom has gone further, earning the Nobel Prize in economics for research demonstrating that collaboration is the best process for diverse groups of people to use in working together and solving problems, where eight minimal conditions are met:
What is often missing in efforts to encourage the use of non-zero sum processes is widespread recognition that these higher order skills and capacities emerge when, and as, people are allowed to interact with each other in synergistic, caring, non-zero sum ways. People learn how to collaborate by participating in collaborative processes and relationships, in the course of which, diversity, dissent, and conflicts are encountered and overcome, allowing newer, higher forms of connection and resolution to arise.
How Zero Sum Games Lead to Bias, Stereotyping, Prejudice, and Discrimination
The goal and outcome of every zero sum game, especially in social, economic, political, or ecological settings, is the creation of a hierarchy of winners and losers, haves and have-nots, in-groups and out-groups, advantaged and disadvantaged, dominant and subordinate, superior and inferior, powerful and powerless. These hierarchical outcomes are then fixed as rigidly as possible by the winners in superficially neutral systems and structures, organizations and institutions, laws and adjudications, rules and regulations, policies and procedures, so as to discourage “rank jumping” and minimize the frequency and impact of future conflicts over justice and fairness. They do so in part by making these aspirations appear unnecessary, unnatural, impossible, or pointless; in part by refusing to acknowledge the reality of mistreatment, or the history and impact of inequity; and in part by failing to recognize or admit the “prejudice of the middle,” or, as Rebecca Solnit brilliantly suggests, the “bias of the status quo.”:
The idea that all bias is some deviation from an unbiased center is itself a bias that prevents pundits, journalists, politicians, and plenty of others from recognizing some of the most ugly and impactful prejudices and assumptions of our times. I think of this bias, which insists the center is not biased, not afflicted with agendas, prejudices, and destructive misperceptions, as status-quo bias. Underlying it is the belief that things are pretty OK now, that the people in charge should be trusted because power confers legitimacy, that those who want sweeping change are too loud or demanding or unreasonable, and that we should just all get along without looking at the skeletons in the closet and the stuff swept under the rug. It’s mostly a prejudice of people for whom the system is working, against those for whom it’s not.
These widely accepted, seemingly legitimate, superficially neutral, yet status quo biased systems and structures then invite, permit, discount, and ignore implicitly hostile “private” communications and behaviors, stereotypes and slurs, biases and prejudices, ostracisms and discriminations, rationalizations and defenses, each of which may be large or small, overt or covert, direct or subtle, personal or impersonal, violent or civil. Yet these communications and behaviors are clearly intended to intimidate and punish, coerce and control, and thereby preserve and consolidate a hierarchical ranking system that separates those who are privileged and offered easy access to status, wealth, power, and advantage from those who are not, those who belong and those who do not, and are denied membership in the club. By means of these distinctions and consolidations, race is converted into caste, gender into patriarchy, and wealth into class.
If our attention is exclusively concerned with overt expressions of prejudice at the interpersonal level of biased communications and behaviors, we will fail to recognize or address their covert, subtle, impersonal, and “civil” expressions; or the systems and structures that periodically trigger them; or the underlying assumptions, attitudes, and motivations that feed them; or the zero sum algorithms, operating systems, rules, and codes on which they are based, and from which they emerge.
What Connects All Forms of Prejudice?
Bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, like the competitive, hierarchical, zero sum assumptions on which they are based, are nearly universal, even instinctual responses to perceived competitors, antagonists, and opponents. We intuitively recognize that there are similarities between racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, ageism, ableism, and all their countless hate-filled cousins. But what is it exactly that links them?
In the first place, each specific or “local” expression of bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination forms part of a general, or “global” effort to divide and segregate people for the purpose of placing them in one of three camps – those to whom we willingly give, those with whom we are willing to share, and those toward whom we feel justified in acting selfishly. In other words, those we place above us in status, wealth, power, and ecological advantage; those we regard as peers with equal status, and those we consider beneath us; those invited to the feast and sit at the table, those who serve and eat in the kitchen, and those who are kept outside and scavenge whatever remains.
Every stereotype and slur has the same derisive, adversarial, contemptuous common denominator: superiority over others. For this reason, they require us to reject not only empathy and compassion, but facts and logic, whether in science or art, law or politics, because only “alternate facts” and implicitly prejudiced conspiratorial theories permit the mind to operate irrationally and hostilely toward people we do not know and who have done us no harm, yet we would otherwise easily recognize as human and equal.
More critically for mediators, all biases, stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminations can be seen as steps, stages, elements, or components in the creation and escalation of every conflict. In the beginning, we may simply have preferences – perhaps regarding people, personalities, or behaviors, each grounded in our own needs and desires, pleasant or unpleasant associations, and personal histories; or in cognitive biases, cognitive ease, and familiarity. These are experienced as attraction, aversion, and “ordinary” biases.
Next, we may group people together based on some common characteristic we associate with personal advantage or disadvantage, pleasure or displeasure, approval or disapproval, agreement or disagreement, attraction or disgust, and multiply it based on our proximity, history, and rivalry; then multiply it again based on the emotional intensity of our fear, anger, jealousy, guilt, grief, or pain. We then simplify, rationalize, and consolidate these judgments by turning them into group stereotypes, based not on who other people actually are, but on what they represent, and arrange them in hierarchical order based on our relationship with those who share that characteristic.
Afterwards, we may weaponize these stereotypes by sharpening them into slurs and insults, using them to recruit allies, and turning them against a common enemy. We can then externalize our shame and guilt, feel superior, rationalize our selfishness, and more easily legitimize our inability to relate to others as equals. Next, we prejudge everything about them, in order to dismantle our capacity for empathy and compassion, and suppress our awareness of what we have done. We then feel able to prejudge, discriminate, and dominate others, safeguard our privileges, and vindicate our unequal entitlement to status, wealth, power, and ecological advantage.
These steps, stages, elements, or components in the escalation of conflict help explain the endurance of bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, and allow us to more readily recognize their role in all conflicts, in shaping the ways we think about and treat our opponents, and blocking us from working together to solve our problems. We can then consider all conflict resolution processes, methods, and techniques to be potentially useful as generic responses to bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination.
For instance, it is common for mediators to design processes that encourage hostile and conflicted parties to agree on ground rules for their conversations; to clarify and agree on shared values; to engage in active listening, empathy building, power balancing, and dialogue; to acknowledge emotions, and surface interests; to identify appropriate criteria, brainstorm, and solve problems; to build consensus, negotiate collaboratively, and design conflict resolution systems. And each of these is a potentially useful way of reducing bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination.
These methods have proven successful in mediation in part because bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are alive and well in every conflict. Do we not form biases against our opponents? Do we not stereotype, pre-judge, and discriminate against them? Indeed, the systems and structures that reinforce biased communications and behaviors are often simply large-scale expressions of small-scale conflict responses. Here is roughly how I think this happens, on both macro and micro scales.
When we are in conflict, it is incredibly time-consuming, unpleasant, and emotionally exhausting to interpret enormous amounts of important, potentially painful sensory data regarding many individuals piece-by-piece. As a result, our brains have learned to approximate the world by reducing complex, conflicting, noisy, upsetting, and ambiguous data from our senses, and turning them into simplistic, unitary, clear, emotionally acceptable, and unambiguous appraisals, opinions, groups, and judgments.
This combination of massive amounts of unclear or unreliable data and an urgent need to act quickly, forces the brain to rely on rough guesswork, preconceived patterns, short-cuts, data compressions, simplifications, and heuristics – in other words, on biases and stereotypes, in an effort to make instantaneous sense of it all. These biases and stereotypes guide an iterative process, grounded in Bayesian logic, that guesstimates reality, rather than getting bogged down in attempting to accurately and reliably reproduce it, then (in theory) modifies its predictions as new information is received.
The difficulty arises from the fact that there are at least two sets of inputs that are automatically entered into every approximation: first, there is objective data that is derived from our senses; second, there are our subjective neurophysiological reactions and emotional responses to that data, which are triggered by our quick estimation of its subjective meaning, based on memories, associations, and degrees of sensitivity.
Our interpretation of the meaning of what we sense not only prioritizes, organizes, and shapes the data, but selectively distorts it, creating “false positives” and “false negatives,” in the form of answers that are convincing, yet demonstrably wrong. This process has been studied in great detail, and forms the basis for Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s excellent description in Thinking Fast and Slow, and subsequent elaboration in Noise, with Olivier Sibony and Cass R. Sunstein.
Bias, Conflict, and Resolution
What is missing in Kahneman’s, and most other accounts, is a full treatment of the role conflict plays in forming and sustaining biases, and the equally important role conflict resolution plays in dismantling and preventing them. Yet the most powerful cognitive biases are also “logical” responses to perceived conflicts that lead easily to “illogical” outcomes. For example, there is “confirmation bias,” which is the tendency to believe data that confirms our beliefs and fulfills our expectations, and disbelieve data that conflicts with them; or “reaction devaluation,” which devalues proposals just because they originate with an adversary. There is even an explicit “zero sum heuristic,” which intuitively judges situations to be zero sum whenever there is a conflict.
These ways of thinking directly connect bias with conflict, and therefore with conflict resolution, and as a result, we can conjecture: first, that all biases are aggravated and turned in a competitive, adversarial, hierarchical, zero sum direction by the experience of conflict; and second, that all biases are diminished and turned in a cooperative, collaborative, heterarchical, non-zero sum direction by the experience of resolution.
We can also conjecture that the methods used to resolve conflicts and end biased, stereotyped, prejudiced, or discriminatory communications and behaviors may succeed on an interpersonal level, yet not succeed at the level of systems and structures, or processes and relationships, or underlying zero sum attitudes and assumptions, and vice versa. Even the language that is appropriate and successful on one level may fail to find its mark, or be heard as insulting or inappropriate when used at a different level.
The immediate, short-term goal of collaborative, interest-based approaches to bias and dispute resolution is then to discourage the use of destructive, adversarial, emotionally charged communications and behaviors. The mid-term goal is to shift from power- and rights- to interest-based systems and structures by strengthening support for diversity, dissent, dialogue, collaborative negotiation, restorative justice, mediation, and similar socially unifying processes. The long-term goal is to redesign the adversarial, chronically conflicted, hierarchical, zero sum-based systems and structures, organizations and institutions, processes and relationships that invite biased, conflicted communications and behaviors, and the attitudes and assumptions that trigger them.
The combined core goal is therefore to ameliorate and prevent pointless, painful, and destructive conflicts at their chronic source, which can only be achieved by shifting from biased, conflicted, competitive, power- and rights-based, hierarchical, top-down, zero-sum, either/or, win/lose, “us versus them” attitudes and assumptions, processes and relationships, algorithms and operating systems; to unbiased, mediative, collaborative, interest-based, heterarchical, bottom-up and sideways, non-zero sum, both/and, win/win, “us versus it” ones.
Alternative Ways of Defining Bias, Stereotyping, Prejudice, and Discrimination
Reflecting on the language that defines the first, interpersonal level of communications and behaviors, it is useful to distinguish the various meanings, manifestations, forms, and purposes of “bias,” or “stereotyping,” or “prejudice,” and “discrimination,” which have many definitions, most of which are overlapping. Here are mine:
Using these definitions, and considering them from the interest-based perspective of mediation, we can imagine an number of ways of thinking about and responding to incidents, allegations, and perceptions of bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, and redefining them, depending on circumstances, alternatively as:
The value of imagining different ways of defining bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, is that each may lead to a more finely tuned and advanced set of skills and responses than if we simply regard them as “bad behaviors,” or “evil.” It then becomes possible to identify a set of interest-based methods and approaches that lead to more successful conversations, dialogues, problem solving discussions, collaborative negotiations, mediations, restorative justice practices, and systems design efforts to redress and repair the problem on multiple levels, starting with stereotypes and slurs.
How to Create, Mediate, and Dismantle Stereotypes and Slurs
Stereotypes and slurs are the primary, practical, specific ways that systemic or structural biases, prejudices, and discriminations — and the generic, hierarchical, competitive, zero sum attitudes and intentions that give rise to them – manifest themselves at the interpersonal level of communications and behaviors. If we can identify and isolate the precise pieces, elements, components, and steps used to create them, we may then discover how to reverse, remove, and dismantle them piece-by-piece, depriving them of the key mechanisms or ingredients needed to successfully sow division. Here, for example, is a recipe or list of instructions on how to create a stereotype for any group:
It now becomes possible to successfully reverse and dismantle the stereotype, for example, by picking a different characteristic, reducing it to proportion, seeing the whole person as greater than the characteristic, accentuating individual differences, paying attention to subtleties and complexities, recognizing our common humanity, reducing fears, and encouraging self-confidence and kindness.
And, these are things mediators routinely do. Even at a simple level, if people in conflict stereotype each other and magnify their differences, mediators may reverse the stereotype and clarify their commonalities. Or if they are at impasse due to competitive, adversarial, win/lose assumptions, mediators may identify underlying interests that do not require competition, and explore collaborative, win/win outcomes.
The next operational step in the consolidation of bias, and its interpersonal expression as prejudice and discrimination, is the conversion of stereotypes into slurs and insults. Here is a set of generic instructions for inventing racial, gender, class, and similar slurs:
Again, the value of breaking these and other prejudicial behaviors into smaller, distinct sub-parts is that each can be addressed separately using a variety of techniques, rather than relying on a single approach that may work in some cases but not in others. We can, for example, refuse to treat people who are different as though they were alien or lesser; or refuse to remain silent and countenance derogatory remarks directed at others; or decline to distance ourselves; or openly extend empathy, etc.
And again, mediators routinely disarm slurs and insults, for example, by identifying the interests that lie beneath them; or asking questions that surface them; or eliciting confessions of pain and vulnerability; or reframing the slur or insult. For example, a slur that describes someone as lazy can be reframed as a confession of feeling overworked and disrespected; or more deeply as a request to lend a hand, by asking questions that reveal these deeper underlying issues, such as:
In these ways, ordinary non-zero sum, interest-based mediation techniques offer a wide range of approaches that can be used to successfully dismantle stereotypes and slurs. And since the core components of prejudicial communications and behaviors are quite similar regardless of the group concerned, they can be dismantled in similar ways.
Shifting to Non-Zero Sum Games
Thus, if we are to understand the power, endurance, and universality of bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, we need to locate their sources not only in bigoted interpersonal communications and behaviors, or in skewed systems and structures, but in the competitive, hierarchical, zero sum rubrics and algorithms that feed these chronically conflicted systems and structures, communications and behaviors, and are needed to sustain and support them.
Throughout human history, collaboration, sharing, and conflict resolution have proven extraordinarily successful, allowing us to band together and combine our diverse strengths and abilities in potent and creative ways, giving rise to extraordinary wealth and productivity. Yet history also proves the attractiveness of competition, selfishness, and adversarial attitudes toward conflict, which have led to staggering poverty, immense cruelty, and senseless destruction on increasingly unimaginable scales.
Conflict, competition, hierarchy, war, and zero sum games have frequently prevailed, partly because they favor personal survival and reproduction, and partly because they require only lower order skills. On an interpersonal level, these conflicts take the form of insults, challenges to fight, and one-on-one battles, similar to the food and mating contests that occur in many other species. These aggressive, competitive, adversarial responses make sense as responses to competition for scarce resources and perceived conflicts of interest. Yet they also, in tightly-knit, socially interdependent communities, result in devastating losses, unnecessary deaths, senseless destruction of resources, lingering resentments, deep distrust, loss of synergy, and chronic conflicts that weaken and divide the entire community, and sometimes the entire species, for decades.
As we increase in numbers; as our technology becomes exponentially more powerful; as we communicate more instantaneously; as we become more networked and connected; as we grow more socially, economically, politically, and ecologically interdependent; and as our destructive capacity continues to escalate, making nuclear and environmental annihilation easier to trigger, lower skilled adversarial outcomes begin to evaporate, and we are more and more compelled to learn higher order skills in collaboration, conflict resolution, and our responses to diversity and dissent.
Indeed, it is clear that our lives today consist mostly, and increasingly, of non-zero sum games; that collaboration is vastly more productive and satisfying than competition; that hatred and domination significantly reduce morale and motivation in everyone (simply because no one wants to be hated or dominated); and that all of our conflicted social, economic, political, and ecological hierarchies; all our power-based pecking orders; and all the biases, stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminations we are directing at each other, are a colossal waste of human potential, resources, and time.
For these reasons, hyper-competitive, rigidly hierarchical win/lose processes always cost more than they benefit; generate unnecessary, chronic conflicts; and pit us against one another when we would be much better off uniting and facing our problems together. The differences between these opposing approaches are starkly highlighted in our varied responses to the Covid 19 pandemic, and in the cost in human lives of seeing it through biased, competitive, adversarial, politically polarized lenses.
We do not have to be passive recipients of adversarial rubrics and algorithms, or retributive, zero sum attitudes toward social justice. We can choose to change our conflicted, competitive, zero-sum algorithms, and the unspoken assumption that they must always end in hierarchies of winners and losers. In addition to adopting non-zero sum, collaborative, and mediative approaches to diversity and dissent, we can also:
Toward a Unified and Diverse, Transformational Response to Prejudice
What is missing in most of our responses to bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination is agreement on a unified yet diverse, global yet local, synchronized yet multi-faceted, transformational yet incremental approach; one that links each specific incident of bias to all the others, revealing their deeper interconnections, and showing how readily and easily they flow from one into another. Doing so will allow us to link arms and prevent us from pitting one ill-treated group against another in an often unspoken competition for sympathy, funding, and support. It will enable us to address problems on multiple levels, and in more than one way. It will help shift our approach from each group separately defending its own, to everyone defending each other.
Otherwise, we turn our backs and pay little or no attention as one form of prejudice seamlessly morphs into another, attacks a different group that looks less defended, retreats and seeks cover, denies it ever existed, adopts covert tactics, invents new euphemisms, switches forms, wraps itself in patriotism, and returns when some fresh crisis or conflict invites it, attacking whoever is weakest, and permitting competitive, hierarchical, adversarial, zero sum dynamics to reestablish the pecking order.
Yet even in these moments, our refusal to accept ostracism and dehumanization, superiority and domination, exploitation and oppression; our gifts of kindness and humanity, of solidarity with the damned, defamed, and despised; our clear and conscious linking of all the sundry stereotypes, slurs, insults, and forms of bias; our use of dialogue, mediation, and restorative justice practices to extend empathy, caring, and community to victims and perpetrators alike, can make an enormous difference.
While doing so will not be easy, on a small scale, these shifts are the essence and aim of every mediation, which invites adversaries to notice and dismantle the destructive biases, stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminations that prevent them from seeing each other as human beings, or as caring partners in creating collaborative communities and solving common problems.
This transformational shift from retributive forms of justice, which impose jail time, fines, and humiliating punishments for hate crimes; to restorative forms of justice, which seek apology, forgiveness, redemption, rehabilitation, reconciliation, and return to community for all, using mediation, dialogue, storytelling, empathy building, problem solving, restitution, and truth telling, offer us opportunities to dramatically reduce bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination by dismantling them finally in people’s hearts and minds, i.e., in the smallest, least accessible, most guarded, and last places they are to be found.
There is beauty in all races. There is love in all genders. There is wealth in all classes. There is wisdom in all religions. There is poetry in all languages. There is caring in all countries. So why diminish or denigrate any when we can benefit from all? The famous cellist Pablo Casals asked a similar question: “The love of one’s country is a splendid thing, but why should it stop at the border?” Love, community, and what matters most in life, are not zero sum games, and there is no need for them to stop anywhere.
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