Engaging Our Humanity

Diverse group of school children
At what stage do we differentiate ourselves from others based on difference?

Diversity is about acknowledging and honouring the difference in people and groups. By necessity that is the difference between ourselves and others in terms of what we value, how we view the world, what we each consider makes the world work best, physical and cultural characteristics, and any other form of difference that may be recognised. Over the past few months I have become increasingly aware of examples where difference is feared and of behaviours used to distance self from those who are different. The key word to summarise these behaviours is ‘Objectification’, a process of dehumanising others so what we think, feel or do has less personal/moral significance.

There are many forms of objectification. Some historic and current examples I am aware of include:

  • A common complaint by women is that men objectify them. A woman, for instance, is seen for sexual utility, and not for the person she is. I grew up with the proverbial Playboys under my bed, and I spent a lot of time noticing ‘attractive qualities’ and disregarding those I deemed unattractive. As unpleasant as this demeaning process is, it is very common. Now with the availability of pornography, objectification of those meeting a person’s sexual preferences is even more prevalent and pronounced. They become sexual objects to be used, whether in reality or fantasy, rather than people who hold intrinsic value as themselves.
  • In 1974, Marina Abramović, a performance artist, stood for six hours with the audience invited to use any of 72 objects on her as they desired, Marina taking full responsibility for the consequences. Some were objects of pleasure. Others were destructive. Initially little happened, other than photographers taking pictures. Then people started to touch her, move her. She was then touch intimately. Items were attached to her. A man cut her neck with a razor blade. Her clothes were cut off. A loaded gun was put in her hand and aimed at her head. By the end of six hours Marina’s body was a canvas of how others had objectified her and taken licence because she was “an object” and they faced “no consequences”. When the six hours was finished, the gallery announced the exhibition had concluded, and Marina then moved and walked among the audience. No one would engage with her, experience the confrontation of what was done by them to a real person. (See article about the exhibition and an interview with Marina Abramović about the exhibition)
  • Hitler’s regime is well recognised for concentration camps and the heinous treatment of those sent to the camps. Jews are well known as targets of the cruel and barbaric treatment. Other groups singled out for specific attention included blacks, homosexuals, gypsies, those with disabilities, among others. Growing evidence highlights North Korea’s atrocious treatment of their own people, where three generations of a family may be sent to “work” camps for life for supposed crimes of one of the family. Starvation, torture and other acts of cruelty are alleged to abound. Recently allegations have been made that Chechnya has set up internment and torture camps for anyone who is, or is thought to be, part of the LGBTQ community, with abductions and murders apparently becoming more prevalent.
  • In the early 1970’s Ford fast-tracked its design and production of the Pinto, getting it to market with a design flaw it knew about. A low speed, rear-end impact caused the fuel tank to rupture. Deaths occurred. It took the tragic deaths of three teenagers in a fire ball, as they were going to church, to initiate a recall. Part of the decision to release the car with a known severe fault was a cost-benefit analysis. A dollar value was placed on a person’s life, and the fix (about $10 per car) applied to all cars cost more than the likely number of deaths multiplied by the value of a human life. In this case a human life became a financial object and an unethical decision was made.
  • A common approach within organisations is to consider and treat people as resources. This allows the utility of a person to be assessed, valued and applied (or discarded) based on operational merit. The approach allows decisions to be made that impact people with the decision maker holding a sense of distance from the human consequences. The same is true of a general choosing to send military forces against an enemy. While such analysis and decision making is needed for the machinery of civilisation to grind on, they are example of objectification.
  • People with Autism (and Asperger’s Syndrome, which has now been merged into Autism) tend to view other people as objects in their world, without much or any of the usual sense of human connection. Their objects can be interfaced and interacted with. There are objects that hold more meaning than others, such as parents, who are familiar and serve a more significant function than others. Those with Autism rely on objectification to define their world.
  • Stereotyping, whether by age, religion, gender, education, culture, colour, or any other attribute, is used to define difference and distance self from the group based on difference. That ‘difference’ may be perceived similarity when speaking as ‘we believe…’, ‘we want…’, ‘we hate…’ etc.
  • Gossiping is a marvellous way to objectify. The target of such stories, whether those stories are fact-based or not, becomes isolated and excluded from the group, the object of bullying, without necessarily knowing it is going on, by whom or why.

The antidote for objectification is engaging your humanity, which enables us to see and recognise the intrinsic uniqueness and value of each person, and feel compassion. If we hold a question open around who they are it is more difficult to objectify and dehumanise them. Their “differences” become a matter for inquiry and inquisitiveness, a chance to meet someone new and perhaps gain an alternative perspective on life. Often our fears of ‘the other’ are rooted in ignorance, and insecurity about our own sense of self, and whether we will survive meaningful connection.

How many wars, crimes and aggressions would happen if both sides truly sought to understand the views and perspectives of the other, allowed themselves to see the humanity (including vulnerabilities and frailties) of the other, without wishing to crush and exercise power over them.

In what ways would the assessment of a person’s value shift in a business environment if more humanity was applied? How would it impact culture and values of the workplace?

How do you recognise, acknowledge and value difference? In what ways do you objectify others? What would happen to those relationships if you were to connect with them with genuine interest to know them as people of value? Would decisions and actions you take in work and other settings be different if you recognised the humanity of those your decisions impact? Have you ever tried to reverse roles with others to gain insight into different views and beliefs?

If you choose to engage with this area of exploration, it can open a rich wealth of learning and meaningful human connection.

What Story Do You Carry?

You get to choose which stories you use!
You get to choose which stories you use!

I felt moved as I read the transcript from a Ted Talk given by the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie, titled “The Danger of a Single Story”. She spoke of her early love of reading, initially always Western children’s books. When she wrote stories in school they mirrored what she had read, not her experience. Later she went to university in the USA. Her roommate met her and voiced stereotyped expectations of her, a view developed from the stilted view portrayed in Western media of the African “country”. A professor even rejected her writing, now of her experiences in growing up, as not being authentically African, because she wrote of reading and speaking English, having a happy childhood, and not to his flawed idea that all of Africa was war torn, starving and destitute. She shared other stories of a similar ilk.

We all carry stories. A few may be inspiring, liberating and expansive. These rare gems will act to open the mind to possibilities and lift judgements placed by others to uncover potential. I am all for this type of story.

Generally, the stories we naturally carry are restrictive, declaring the nature of groups and individuals based on their fit to some specific characteristic. As such they cloud our ability to see others as they are when the stories we apply (without even realising it!) rule out any other possibilities as being reasonable. They get in the way of us appreciating the diversity of others. They are essential for bigotry to occur. The stories separate people, cultures, groups, nations, political parties, gangs and peer groups. Their liberal use stops us seeing others for who they really are, and connecting in a meaningful manner. With a story clouding our perception we tend to mentally validate our story by finding any matching attributes, and filtering any mismatch. It is a mechanism the brain uses to simplify processing the complex data. It leads to erroneous and limiting judgements: “This person is a … therefore”:

  • they are …
  • their experience and background is …
  • they judge me as …
  • they expect …
  • they cannot …
  • they don’t know …
  • they value …
  • They are different from me because …
  • they should be [pitied / hated / loved / shunned / included / excluded / listened to / … ] because …

And so the list goes on.

The really interesting thing is we also can and do carry stories about ourselves. All the above may be rephrased with “I” instead of “they”. We then have a belief about ourselves that indicates the story we hold about who we are, what we can achieve, our strengths and weaknesses. This story is often inherited from our childhood, and we then fail to update the story as we grow and develop. We can hear old stories of ourselves from inside that are long out of date. Unchallenged, they persist. Even when they are challenged, these old familiar stories return on the slightest indication that they will be tolerated.

A great thing about coaching is the powerful assistance it can provide in recognising and adjusting the stories you work with.

How Can I Respond Usefully to a Story I Carry?

First, recognise that any of the above sample scripts, or others similar in intent, are running. Whether about you or someone you are meeting, these statement of judgement are a clear indication a story is running, that you are generalising about this person based on some arbitrary criteria.

Second, acknowledge to yourself that this process is limiting your perception and there may be a different or broader perception to be had of this person. Again, this applies as much to stories about ourselves as it does of those about others.

Third, ask questions of yourself that open your mind to alternatives. Examples include:

  • What [does this person / do I] bring to this situation that is of value and different from what I know (I.e. my current story)?
  • What do I notice about [this person / me] in this situation that is outside my previous experience (I.e. Different from my story of them)?
  • What is one thing of value [this person bring / I bring] that I hadn’t recognised and acknowledged? What’s another one?

Each of these questions serves to challenge the mind in a way the mind likes to be challenged. They are open questions asking for investigation and inquiry. The mind will respond with answers, and in so doing will have to adjust the story it was carrying. That said, some stories are so deeply burned into our psyche that it will take many such intentional challenges to create a shift to a new one.

Forth, actually engage with the person in an open dialogue, mentally holding the possibility that your story is incomplete or incorrect. Become a ‘naïve inquirer’ and ask questions of them to understand who they really are and what matters to them.

One of the stories I carry about myself is “I am inadequate.” That shows up in almost every context, is generally thoroughly unfounded, and the monotony of repeatedly retraining my brain can be frustrating. However, the breakthrough of doing so is worthwhile because then I shift mentally and emotionally into a free space where productive action becomes possible. In fact, when I step out of my story of inadequacy the question about success does not show up. I am in the “zone” and make things happen as a matter of course, the mind not interfering.
What is getting in your way with yourself or others? What groups or individuals do you exclude because …? Are you prepared to entertain the possibility that the stories you hold may be invalid, even if only for the person in front of you?

Freeing yourself of the limiting effect of stories opens the possibility of new and exciting opportunities, relationships and outcomes. Which of your stories needs to be dropped? All the best with the adventure of redrafting your world through changing your stories.