Compassion and the Out Group

According to current neurobiological research at Stanford University, among other places, our ability to feel compassion for the other is dramatically reduced when we perceive the other as a member of an out group, in other words as inherently different from us. This is an evolutionary development that goes back to the time when humans lived in small groups of ten to fifty individuals. Survival required high group cohesiveness, and the other was seen as (and often was) a potential danger.

This seems to support my contention that if we seek to increase understanding and compassion between groups of humans, we simply must emphasize the things we share in common rather than the things that make us different. Note that I said emphasize the things we share in common. Of course, there will be things that make us different from one another, both within our in group and from those in our out groups. The extent to which we can acknowledge that we all want to be safe, happy, peaceful, have enough to eat, see our children grow up to be happy adults, and so on will break down the walls that divide us and serve as barriers to compassion. The extent to which we choose – and let’s be quite clear that it is a choice – to pretend that we are fundamentally different on any basis will reinforce those walls and decrease our ability to feel compassion.

Here is where the sociologists and race workers stand up and cry out, “you are saying we have to all be the same!” That is most clearly not what I am saying, and if you cannot see that simply reread the above paragraph until you comprehend it. I am saying that the extent to which we stand up and shout that there are fundamental differences between being white, black, brown, yellow, red, or green that outweigh commonalities of being human, we succeed in doing precisely the opposite of what it is we claim is our goal – equal treatment, equal rights, equal opportunity, and so on. I would hasten to add that it is no different in the case of the LGBT community. Last, but not least, we must do the same across religious divides, including the divide between atheists and other people of faith. Further, when people like Minister Farrakhan – or anyone else, for that matter – come out and encourage violence as a way to redress grievances, such suggestions increase the in group/out group divide and only make things worse. To the extent that we insist that there is something about us that makes us fundamentally and qualitatively different, we shoot ourselves in the foot – often metaphorically, but also tragically sometimes literally.

We simply must start with our common, shared humanity. Only when we have built that solid foundation will we reach the point of mutual compassion and the possibility of peace in our cities and in our world. This is no longer a matter of opinion, it’s a matter of science. The real question is whether or not those so-called “experts” who have hitched their gravy train to supporting a flawed status quo will have the courage and integrity to shift to a more scientific perspective.

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