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Being open-minded is hard work
Far too many people have “weaponized” a couple basic skills we learned early in our lives - pattern recognition and categorization. What began as a way to help us sort things out and make quick, initial decisions on how to deal with different people and new situations has turned into a way for us to comfortably and confidently ignore voices that disagree with our own. Basically, we associate certain language and behaviors with various categories we’ve established in our minds. Next, we determine which of those categories are “evil” and can be righteously reviled (again, in our own minds). Then we confidently plunk people into those categories and feel absolutely justified in ignoring them because they’re evil. Easy-peasy!
“Is pattern recognition and categorization bad?”
We experience and process so much information every day, it’s no wonder our brains have come up with ways to help us sift, sort, and deal with the veritable avalanche of inputs. One thing that we all do - and yes, I do it to - is categorize things to help us make decisions. Friend or foe is pretty basic, triggering the “fight, flight, or freeze” response that I’m sure you’re familiar with. But our brains do much more than that - constantly on the lookout for patterns to help us identify and understand things.
As we were growing up, we learned to identify patterns and classify the inputs we were receiving. Not just words but non-verbal clues as well. Facial expressions. Tone of voice. Threatening posture or gestures implying safety. Recognizing and understanding such things is critical as we’re learning and growing.
“So where do we go wrong?”
At some point, it’s as if we stop the “learning” part of the process. We become comfortable with our understanding of the world and with the way our brains have grown accustomed to classifying experiences… and people. If we stop and think about it, we’ll see that people are amazingly complex beings. We’re making incredible advances in our understanding of human biology but we’ve barely scratched the surface of the human mind.
So why are we so quick to classify people according to some personal system we’ve concocted? A system based upon our severely limited view of the world? Even someone like me - someone in their 50s who has met thousands of people over the years - only has personal experience with the tiniest fraction of humanity. Do I really think such limited experience makes me an expert in identifying and classifying human behavior?
“Do you recommend that Progressives no longer categorize people?”
Not exactly. I have to admit that prejudging people based upon initial impressions helps me immensely - but only when I continue to learn and refine those initial judgments. If I meet someone and they seem arrogant, bragging about how great they are and how much they’ve accomplished, I’m likely to classify them as “arrogant” in my mind and will treat them accordingly.
HOWEVER, I try to make a conscious effort not to hold them to my initial assessment. If the person seems humble and thoughtful on a different occasion, I don’t assume they’re faking it. I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’re either more complex than my initial view of them or maybe they were just nervous the first time. Maybe they were trying to impress me because they respect my opinion and accidently turned me off instead.
I think most of us make a quick assessment of the people we meet. We identify a pattern of behavior, classify the person, and treat them accordingly. Often, it works just fine. We put someone in a box and they actually fit there nicely. The trick is not to force people to stay in that box. If they show us that our first impression of them was incorrect, what’s the big deal? Let ‘em out of the box!
“You don’t put much stock in ‘first impressions’ then?”
We’re getting a bit into the weeds on this but it’s worth addressing. I know that most business gurus say, “You only get one chance to make a first impression!” Okay, sure. But it’s only a problem when people stubbornly cling to their own, internal classification system. To be honest, that seems pretty stupid to me. If I meet someone and they come across as clumsy and incompetent, why would I refuse to think differently of them if I find out later that they’re actually a well-respected expert in their field? I’ve known people who will stubbornly cling to a first impression like that, as if letting it go would make them look bad. That’s just silly.
But there’s another side of this that isn’t silly - it’s disrespectful and destructive.
“You mean the ‘weaponizing’ you mentioned earlier?”
Yup - that’s exactly what I’m referring to. When people take this tendency to classify or categorize others and weaponize it, we end up with the extreme polarization much of the world - especially the United States - is experiencing today.
Here’s the logic, using “socialism” as the example category:
People I trust tell me that those who support [hot-button issue of the day] are definitely socialists.
And the people I trust are telling me that socialism is bad - it’s evil - and will destroy our way of life!
Therefore, socialists - those who are promoting socialism - are evil!
I don’t talk to evil people and I don’t listen to evil people because, well, they’re evil. So I don’t talk or listen to socialists. Period. Full stop.
That’s bad. But what’s worse is when people vilify “Something-ism” and then just use it as a way to “label and dismiss” anyone they disagree with.
You want everyone to have affordable health care? Socialist! (You’re dismissed. Your opinion no longer matters.)
You support a higher minimum wage? Socialist! (You’re dismissed. Your opinion no longer matters.)
You don’t think the police have been effective at dealing with people who suffer from mental illness? Socialist! (You’re dismissed…)
You get the idea.
“Why are people so quick to label and dismiss?”
I think it’s because they’re afraid. I think they're either unwilling or unable (or both) to have a thoughtful conversation about the beliefs and values underlying the policies and positions they promote. And I’m not talking about a debate either - I’m just talking about a conversation, where people ask questions in order to better understand, not so they can pounce in response!
“Why would someone be unwilling or unable to have an open conversation like that?”
Because they're afraid that either their logic wouldn't withstand closer scrutiny OR what they've stated as their "beliefs and values" is different than what's actually driving their political positions.
Of course, another reason to “label and dismiss” - and the reason often cited by those on the political “left” - is that they don’t believe it’s worth the time and effort to talk to “those people.” It’s common to hear explanations such as, “They’re just hateful racists who don’t care about anyone except themselves.” They’re all “deplorable,” right?
Uh huh. Okay. Have you met them all? Have you every really tried to talk with even one of “those people,” other than your drunk uncle? No… but you’ve seen them interviewed on The Daily Show, right? (Yeah, I’ve seen those videos too.)
But here’s the thing - if you don’t want people to do it to you, then don’t do it to them. Don’t “label and dismiss” anyone! It’s a cop out. To be truly progressive, you need to do the work, including the truly hard work of trying to understand people with whom you do NOT see eye-to-eye.
As I said above, categorizing people can be very helpful in figuring out how to deal with them. The trick is to not put someone in a category and force them to stay there! With that in mind, I’d like to offer you a framework to use when determining how people generally approach societal problems.
Three Approaches: Regressive, Stagnant, or Progressive
Regressive people are those who want to go backwards. They want things to be "the way they used to be," however they define that for themselves. The word "regressive" has generally negative connotations, which is appropriate because wanting to go backwards is negative. This world has NEVER been good for everyone in it, so any point in history one might select would be BAD for many people. That sort of thinking - settling for something that's good for you but bad for lots of other people - isn’t acceptable. We are meant to move forward and strive for improvement.
However, Regressive people have often convinced themselves that history is a lot rosier than it actually was - or they’ve determined that today is bad and tomorrow will be worse, so we’re all better off the way things were “back in the day.”
Stagnant people are those who want to simply maintain the status quo. Life is good enough for them and they don't want to lose what they've got - and to hell with everyone else. The word "stagnant" has generally negative connotations, which is appropriate. Wanting to keep things the same when it's clear that millions (billions?) of people do not have good lives, nor an equitable share of this world's resources, is just selfish and greedy.
Regressive people can be forgiven because they're likely to be fondly remembering a past time when they thought the world was mostly better for everyone (even though that's definitely magical or delusional thinking). Stagnant people, however, are probably the most selfish because they can look around them right now - at this very moment in time - and see how shitty things are for so many people. They don't need to rely on a patchwork of fading memories like the Regressive folks - all they need to do is step out of their information bubbles and truly look at the world.
Unfortunately, most of them have done that - but instead of saying, "Wow - we really need to change things! We need to come together and create a fair, just, equitable society for EVERYONE!" they've said, "Wow - things are so much shittier elsewhere! Quick! Close the borders, lock the doors, and hold tightly to the little bit we still have! Screw everyone else!"
Progressive people are those who want to move ahead and strive for something better for everyone. They're willing to embrace change, try new things, and work towards a society that values all people and truly takes care of everyone. They don't idolize a particular ideology, like Capitalism or Socialism, nor do they believe that they have all the right answers and whoever disagrees with them is wrong. What they're most passionate about is that we shouldn't go backwards and we shouldn't stand still - we need to move forward! We need to try new things and see what works. Keep what works well, then improve or get rid of what doesn't.
The word "progressive" only has negative connotations because Regressives and Stagnants have tried to make it synonymous with words they hate, like "liberal," "socialist," and "communist." People who are Regressive or Stagnant are often afraid to have an open, honest conversation with a Progressive. It’s so much easier to simply “label and dismiss” us.
We shouldn’t do it to them and we shouldn’t let them do it to us. If we’re going to make progress for everyone, then we need to do our best to try and understand the needs, concerns, and fears of everyone. I know that’s a tall order but I think we’re up to the challenge!
Besides, doing all of that is what it means to be Progressive.
One final thought for Relaxed Leaders…
You don’t have to be a Progressive in order to be a Relaxed Leader but in my experience, it’s much easier for people with progressive values to implement the strategies and tactics necessary. Too often, conservative thought seems to take a “survival of the fittest” approach when it comes to everyone except family and friends.
These are not things that motivate a Relaxed Leader. In fact, they are better aligned with authoritative thinking. The desire for control and the fear of diverse opinions are also things Relaxed Leaders need to avoid. So if you want to successfully implement the RELAX formula, you may need to do a bit of soul searching when it comes to your political beliefs.