If we see someone, be it at work, on the street or in the supermarket, we usually put that person immediately into certain categories: familiar or stranger; men or woman; black, white, or a different kind of skin color; westerner, easterner or somewhere in between; straight, gay, bisexual, transgender or another kind of label. But is that who we really see, or do we see whom we think? In other words, do we perceive reality directly or is our perception a reflection of our mind?
Though often we believe that we see things and living beings as they are, it turns out that we ‘see’ them more as we are. For example, no one is born a ‘westerner’. A baby does not come into the world with such a label attached to it. Besides, the meaning of ‘westerner’ depends strongly on who you ask, where and when. To someone on the east-coast of the United States it means something else than a person in India. This clearly reflect that categories or ‘labels’ we connect with people and things are more a reflection of our mind than reality.
You might wonder why this is important to understand. The reason is simple: our categories or labels or oftentimes not neutral. Maybe if we say that something is a ‘flower’ or a ‘moon’ there are no ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ consequences of such illusory concepts. But is that also the case if we think about sex, skin color, culture, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity and so on? They usually come along with more meanings attached to it. Which leads us to view some as ‘positive’ and others as ‘negative’. As ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’. In short, a bias is born.
It is easy to see how such a biased mind creates a separation between ‘me’ and ‘the other’. It gives rise to mental barriers, and the ‘other’ becomes a possible threat. This dynamic does not only happen on an individual level, but also in groups, cultures and institutions. A biased mind leads to the view of ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’. Of ‘us’ and ‘them’. In the past, present and future.
Combined with historical, social-economic and cultural conditions, a biased mind brings phenomena like systemic sexism and racism into being. It equally presents groups in opposition to each other throughout the world. Conflicts, and phenomena like oppression, occupation, annexation, refugees and illegal immigrants are all coming from this sense of ‘ours’ and not ‘theirs’. This does not reflect a natural order of things, but follows our own biases.
It is important to rise up against these barriers, simply because they are destructive and cause suffering everywhere. Constantly. Mental barriers turn into emotional distance, structural boundaries and physical walls. On an individual level they feed harmful speech and actions. On a structural level they create policies, institutions and collective behaviors that favor some over others. And walls on the ground directly segregate and divide.
We need to break all these barriers down in order to build fair, peaceful and kind societies. Together with the physical and structural ones, this means we need to look at our mind and cut through our biases.
The question, then, becomes: how? Which will be the key question of a next article.