Leave Social Stigma, Social Bias, and Prejudgment Behind

 We cannot hope to dismantle any deep-rooted problems until we clearly understand what the cause is.” Geshe Tashi Tsering, The Four Noble Truths

I believe there comes a point in every person’s life where you begin to recognize just how volatile your societal landscape is. For me, this is that time. Everywhere I look there are wars being fought whether it be the war on drugs, mental illness, racial and gender equality, marital rights, religious freedoms, and so on and so forth. I honestly don’t know what’s worse, the fact that these issues still exist or the reasons fuel them. I’m not even sure most people understand why they are opposed to these issues but I do know that choosing positions arises out of one of our strongest desires as humans and that is the need to exist. We try so desperately to exist within a particular group, society, or culture so much so that it becomes less about who we are, what we think and believe and more about the attitudes of the majority within the selected group.

“What we fail to realize is that “the root source of our suffering is said to be our fundamental ignorance or confusion.” Geshe Tashi Tsering, The Four Noble Truths

So, are we as a people ignorant and confused? Absolutely! Have we too eagerly adopted beliefs or societal/cultural conditioning with little interest in understanding the why? Of course! Agree or disagree, that is your choice but my objective here is to challenge each reader to investigate their own minds and hearts and explore the root causes of their own stigmas, biases and prejudgments and recognize and change the associated behaviors. After all, no healing can be done without abandoning these sorts of false pretenses and irrational beliefs. The shift in thinking and suffering is overdue. Change has to take place within yourself. The cause and effect of stigma, bias and prejudgment is immeasurable but is also reversible.

In Erving Goffman's theory of social stigma, a stigma is an attribute, behavior, or reputation which is socially discrediting in a particular way: it causes an individual to be mentally classified by others in an undesirable, rejected stereotype rather than in an accepted, normal one.  

So, who determines what is normal and/or accepted? What makes one perception of anything hold more weight than the next and why is classification so important? Is there really anything wrong with a person or is it our views that are wrong? William Shakespeare makes this point in Hamlet when he says, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” How can we expect progress when we are constantly creating new ways for groups of others to be separated and ostracized? People aren’t their situations.

“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Mother Teresa

As you can see in the quote above by Mother Theresa, extending our empathy to an individual builds a platform for us to extend our empathy to the group the individual belongs to. For many people in our society the power and influence, especially when it comes to the formation of stigma is granted to agenda driven sources like media outlets, social media and politicians. We are severely over exposed to messages of hate and intolerance and showered with heavily slanted ideologies and propaganda filled tirades. These sorts of messages contaminate and dilute those very thoughts and emotions like love and compassion that I believe are ingrained in our DNA. But why do we allow this to happen? Fact is, sometimes our language and societal cues don’t allow us to evolve as people. I believe most people in any given society do care but there are other parts of society that actively discourages engagement by placing constant obstacles and barriers in the way. So why are we so afraid to think for ourselves, form our own opinions, or stop being influenced by others even when it is clear that there are some message carriers that possess alternate agendas and motives? Could it really just be our need to fit in? Or is it systematic? Is it because from a young age we are taught to believe and recite what we are told in school and not encouraged to investigate and explore or think creatively and independently? Well, if we want to change the system we need to first understand where the power is and begin by pointing the finger at ourselves?

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates, as described in Plato's Apology

Education.com defines social bias as prejudicial attitudes toward particular groups, races, sexes, or religions, including the conscious or unconscious expression of these attitudes in writing, speaking, etc.

“Impartiality also called even handedness or fair-mindedness is a principle of justice holding that decisions should be based on objective criteria, rather than on the basis of bias, prejudice, or preferring the benefit to one person over another for improper reasons.”Bernard Gert, "Moral Impartiality"

If you’ve ever had an opportunity to observe children interacting, they usually provide a good example of impartiality. In most cases, the children play and interact with little indication that they are being socially biased in any way. More simply stated, they do not seem to care about the differences of their playmates and maybe it is even possible that those differences do not yet exist in their minds. So how does this change happen? Social biases are acquired externally through the belief systems of our culture or through learning. The good thing about an acquired social bias is that it is possible to change like any other learned behavior. Social biases are created by ill-conceived notions about another group based on a lack of understanding. So to begin the change, we must make an effort to understand the bias and examine its roots from with our own hearts and minds and then place ourselves in the shoes of those we are biased against. Two of the greatest human qualities are the abilities to transform and adapt.

“While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult that too understand him.” Fyodor Dostoevsky, Demons

Negative attitudes like social biases are misrepresentations often created and not factual or based in reality. The mental disturbances they create take away from a person’s sense of security, happiness and peace of mind. Exploring the sources of these negative attitudes and abandoning them can prove to be an enlightening. If you dare to step into the world of someone else for the purposes of understanding, grab a hand. Chances are those closest to you also possess the same or similar biases. Vulnerability is the accurate measure of courage.

“Acquired ignorance is not intrinsic but rather comes about due to the influence of adopted beliefs and the culture we are raised in. We are influenced all the time, sometimes very persuasively, even if we are not conscious of it happening. Some beliefs are commonsense and therefore perfectly safe; many others are superstitious or just plain wrong. However, we typically do not question the accepted beliefs of the culture or group we move within.” Geshe Tashi Tsering, The Four Noble Truths 

Dictionary.com defines prejudgment as passing judgment on prematurely or without sufficient reflection or investigation.

Many times prejudgment falls under the category of stereotyping. In both cases a conclusion is being drawn on specific types of groups or individuals based on the certain ways they operate, but just like stigma and bias, they may not accurately reflect reality. As a result of this ignorance, we have the potential to react negatively whether that be physically, mentally or verbally. In life, I don’t believe any of us is in a position to judge but if you’re going to judge someone it should be on how they respond. How we respond to anything is directly connected to our character, values and beliefs. Our response acts as a mirror to our morality. There’s no room for prejudgment because the opportunity hasn’t even been granted by the judge to make an accurate assessment and if we are judging people, especially in the cases of the one to many, we really aren’t even trying. It’s a cop out. If we have no connection outside of the one our culture or society presents to us and never venture outside of it, we will not only stunt our personal growth but we’ll deprive others of the opportunity to experience us. 

“When the poet and mystic, Rumi, met his spiritual companion, Shams of Tabriz, one of the first things the latter did was to toss Rumi's books into water and watch the letters dissolve. The Sufis say, "Knowledge that takes you, not beyond yourself is far worse than ignorance." The problem with today's cultural ghettos is not lack of knowledge. We know a lot about each other, or so we think. But knowledge that takes us not beyond ourselves, it makes us elitist, distant and disconnected.” Elif Shafak

In closing, many of us can relate to the emotions that truly capture what it means to care for another individual. Often, just thinking of someone you love deeply elicits feelings of happiness but what about the people we don’t love or know personally? Better question, why is there a difference? Capture a moment in time when you felt little to no control over your own ability to manage your emotions because you were filled with so much empathy and/or sympathy that you could not help but to shed tears. Think about how you feel when you are shown tragic events on television. If you were to watch these events unfold on mute and without any commentary, chances are you’d care and empathize even more. Why? Because you allow yourself to create the dialogue and when you do, you’re more likely to put yourself or those you care about in those people’s shoes that are shown to be injured, suffering, or grieving. The fact is, there is something within each of us that wants to care for all beings unconditionally. We are all human and have the potential to get things wrong but once we realize how and why we are wrong we must do everything in our power to change. Always be mindful of your negative thoughts, words, and actions and when they present themselves, do battle against them!

“The main thing is—love others as yourself, that’s the main thing, and it’s everything, there’s no need for anything else at all.” Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”