The Need for Empathy in a World Divided by Stereotypes

by Yichan Cai

· Opinion Editorials

Yichan Cai is a strategy consultant and Head of Community at FunKeyB, and a contributing writer at Ganbei. She has a bachelor of engineering in Aerospace from the University of Sheffield in the UK, and is earning her MBA from the Jack Welch Management Institute. This article is a contribution solely to Ganbei at www.ganbei.tv .

“Thus, we tend to think of “us” as noble, and composed of distinctive individuals whose failings are due to circumstance. “Them“, by contrast, can seem disgusting, ridiculous, simple, homogeneous, undifferentiated, and interchangeable. All frequently backed up by rationalizations for our intuitions.”   – Behave, by R. Sapolsky1 

We as humans have spent a very long time learning and battling with differences. There were times we embraced the wonder of differences, and there were times where we have used difference as a weapon. Where are we headed these days?

First, societies everywhere have bias. Part of it is based on human nature, born of necessity where stereotypes of people and things are required to process the overwhelming amount of information encountered each day. But these stereotypes are also a product of our environment, including where and how we grow up.

I have my biases too. And I believe that my family and I carry that bias into our interactions everyday without noticing it. But its easy to see if you stop to think about, for example, how most of us we do still choose our life partners, friends, and allies based to some degree on labels. For example, in Shanghai where I am from, we tend to have a general preference for fellow Shanghainese as opposed to people from other parts of China (外地人). 2 Now having lived in the UK for many years, I know this bias problem exists in Europe as well, 3 not to mention the historical problems in the US surfacing again with racial tensions and politics of division.4 

A lot of this bias and preference of us vs them can even be codified. A familiar example for me - the legacy household registration (hukou) system in China presents all kinds of systematic preferences for people in the largest, most prosperous cities to keep their advantages of better education, health care, and social benefits. 5

“The attentions of others matter to us because we are afflicted by a congenital uncertainty as to our own value, as a result of which affliction we tend to allow others' appraisals to play a determining role in how we see ourselves. Our sense of identity is held captive by the judgements of those we live among.” -- Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton6

Our natural human need to compare also makes stereotypes possible, and bias both convenient and necessary.

The same Us-Them dichotomy exists in any organisation, between business departments, and at a much larger scale, between countries.

We are seeing this almost everyday in the Huawei, TikTok and other bans of Chinese companies from the US, EU, India and other countries reflecting the intensity of battles in 5G, 6 data and internet infrastructure, and technology generally. 7 It seems like the idea of collaboration is out of favor. Domestic politics and domestic audiences seem more and more important as we seem to be falling into a “blame culture” that highlights our differences over our similarities.

Maybe for governments and countries this sort of tension is unavoidable. But at the end of the day, governments are not synonymous with country, nor are they synonymous with people.

And although people can easily fall into the same combative postures, it’s not inevitable.

To begin, let’s recognize that we have the same needs as human beings as the traditional Maslow Pyramid makes so clear:

Source: Simply Psychology8

Along these lines, there is an interesting program called 100 Humans on Netflix, 9 in which they experiment by showing different people’s profile pictures to test volunteers. The result was that people liked things and people who are familiar with themselves even if they have never met those people before. They simply feel more of an instant “bond.”

Again this goes back to basic human survival instincts. The need to be part of a tribe in a dangerous world and finding sources of similarities. We need to be part of a family so that when one of the family members gets hurt by others, our instinct tells us we have to protect them without necessarily understanding the context.

But this kind of human need can be counteracted with a prescient mind. We all have a lot of hats and labels on all the time – like wearing a metaphorical uniform to work, or carrying a passport in our head of where we belong. When we want to defend ourselves from people we are not familiar with, we often lack the knowledge and understanding of people who are different from us and out of that tribe feeling, we instinctively assume they are not friendly to us.

What we need instead is self-awareness (of our natural human instincts, bias, and stereotypes), self-confidence (to not fear difference and be willing to change), and self-fulfilment (measured and obtained by our ability to help others as we would want ourselves to be helped). This is easier said than done, but a necessity if we are going to start building a more compassionate world again between individuals, leaders, and countries. If our leaders can present the right example of patience and empathy first, we will already be off to a good start.

References:

1 Sapolsky, R. (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Vintage

2 De, B, A. (2004). Status Anxiety. Hamish Hamilton

3 Zhou, P. (Nov, 2019). China’s Hukou System. ThoughtCo. Retrieved from (Nov, 2020): https://www.thoughtco.com/chinas-hukou-system-1434424

4 Cornish,T. & Jones, P. (Sep, 2013). Unaconscious bias and higher education. Equality Challenge Unit. Retrieved from (Nov, 2020): https://www.ecu.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/unconscious-bias-and-higher-education.pdf

5 Buchanan, L., Bui,Q. and Patel, K. (Jul, 2020). Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History. The New York Times. Retrived From (Nov, 2020): https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/03/us/george-floyd-protests-crowd-size.html

6 Rolander, N. & Ek, V. (Oct, 2020). Sweden Bans Huawei, ZTE From New 5G Infrastructure. Bloomberg. Retrieved From (Nov, 2020): https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-20/sweden-bans-huawei-zte-from-new-5g-infrastructure?sref=q8VUUjgj

7 Bellany, D. (Oct, 2020). Trump TikTok Restrictions Blocked by Judge in Win fo Users. Bloomberg. Retrieved From (Nov, 2020): https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-30/trump-s-tiktok-restrictions-blocked-by-judge-in-win-for-users?sref=q8VUUjgj

8 McLeod, S. (Mar, 2020). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. SimplyPsychology. Retrieved From (Nov, 2020): https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

9 La, G. (Mar, 2020). 10 Shocking Things We Learned From 100 Humans: Life’s Questions Answered. ScreenRant. Retrieved From (Nov, 2020): https://screenrant.com/100-humans-shocking-lessons-netflix-show/

Further Read:

1 Liu, Z. (2005). Journal of Comparative Economics. Elsevier. Retrieved from (Nov, 2020): https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0147596704000952

Article edited by Art Dicker

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