Generalizations kill, and you may be next

Long, long ago, when our human ancestors were in their nascent form as homosapiens, their brains were wired in the animal-way: react, react, react. They heard an unexpected sound, that meant danger was close by. They saw someone different from them, that meant danger from others who wanted something from their group. They saw habits different from theirs, that meant danger as it threatened the validity of their tried and true habits, whether cooking, religion, clothing, language, societal norms and all else. All of these generalized behaviors were the reactions of an immature human brain, acting on an environment that these early peoples were not yet mentally capable of fully interpreting. Hence, the generalization found a place to germinate, nourished by humans’ tendency to want quick and final answers.

How often do we hear ourselves say or hear others say, woman are…fill in the blank; men are, Millennials are, Black women are, Mexicans are, gay people are, Democrats are, Muslims are, people on welfare are, people still on unemployment are, unmarried mothers are, rural people are, and on and on? So much easier, right? We can take care of determining what we think about a whole group of people and then we don’t have to expend brain power anymore on deciding what to think about an individual person. We just pull out the punch card in our brain related to What I Think About Muslims and plug that sucker in, and ta-da! That tells us exactly how to think about that person so we can dismiss them or accept them. If someone does this enough, the punch card becomes more and more hardwired into our brains, telling us how to react whenever we see, hear, or confront a person like that. Done. No more thinking needed. You even feel smart, vindicated, righteous, because of the confident, committed way you feel about that person and anyone in their group.

Those ancient brain functions that generalize out all interactions with others who are not “your kind,” are a vestigial brain function that has yet to be tamed by the intellectual capability of our minds. So when police see a Black man walking at night with a hoody, their ancient, Neanderthal generalizations mistakenly signal danger. The Black man has an iPhone 11 in his hand but the police officer’s un-intellectualized brain lets him “see” a gun. His thinking about who and what Black men are ignites a series of generalizations that send him a false, and therefore stupid, danger signal. And that’s when it becomes all too real for the Black men, women and persons who lose their lives, are injured, detained, humiliated and over all put in harm’s way, constantly. Every day. Everywhere. Every state. Every city. Every generation.

Over and over and over and over, the Neanderthal generalization rises up and the cop’s hand moves to his holster. Or the Governor’s hand touches the attractive staff member’s body. The pregnant Black woman is ignored and talked over by her doctor. The less competent man gets the job the truly qualified woman deserved. The evangelical supports a flagrant white male adulterer. The white woman calls the police on a Black man minding his own business. The Taliban kills the woman who dared learn to read. The skinhead punches out the elderly Asian woman on the sidewalk.

There are a million more examples from a million real situations that occur across our neighborhoods and our country every day. That ancient, decaying brain function, that damn tendency towards generalization, is literally breaking us down and breaking us apart. Humans are being killed, raped, abused, harassed, discriminated against, shunned, assaulted, humiliated, and kept down. Every day. Everywhere. Every state. Every city. Every generation.

What to do, we all might ask? Go to your window, open it, and yell, “Fuck generalizations! I’m not accepting them anymore!” Ok, that might not be the best move. But do that through your actions then. If someone at a work meeting makes a generalization about a certain employee group, call them out. If you hear a news story that says Hispanics all vote in X way, call them out by sending an email to the managing editor or heads of the newsroom. If a group of friends you’re out drinking with begin talking about female lawyers as all the same, call them out. If a white man says that the Black woman only got the job because she was Black, call him the fuck out.

If you automatically think of a negative generalization about any given type of person when you see them or hear about them, call yourself out. What do you personally need to do to make yourself stop thinking that way? It’s a habit of mind, and habits can be broken by doing things differently. Our brain remembers patterns and it then operates within those patterns. But by switching ourselves to a more evolved, more specific way of thinking about individuals, rather than an ignorant generalization, those very prejudices fade away fairly fast. What replaces them is an openness to seeing each person for who they are, unpolluted by your Neanderthal brain patterns. Yeah, it may take some time, but the result is revolutionary and freeing.

Am I trying to do this? Yes, I am. Am I doing a perfect job? Hell no. I’m not “clean” so to speak, yet. Saying you’ll commit to working on it is a great place to start, though. And we have a tendency to believe ourselves, so if you say, “I’m committed to doing this,” you’ll give it a whirl! Tell people you’re doing it so your commitment doesn’t falter. They will probably ask you more about this generalization tendency, and you may inspire them to also try it.

We can change. Humans are smart that way, and have the capability to figure out how to eliminate the societal, baked-in, across-the-board racism that is pervasive in the U.S. But any work done on this must also include an understanding of our ancient tendency towards generalizing as the lynch-pin in addressing serious racial, gender, and other problems in the medical system, the workplace, across the judicial system, throughout religions institutions, and in other entities and practices across our nation. Without doing this, we will continue to destroy each other through being a bunch of Neanderthals, as President Biden described so well.

Now drop the caveman crap, and let’s all go and have a little chat with ourselves, shall we? Some amazing specificity awaits us all! Free at last, free at last.

From Lady Proverbs, somewhere on the Oregon Coast

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