When I came to New York from Japan to attend art school in the late 80s, my English was quite poor. Now that I’m fluent, I can understand how awkward and cumbersome it must have been to talk to me then. These days, when I talk for a long time to someone whose English is poor, talking to someone who is fluent afterwards makes me feel relieved. So, it’s understandable that most people did not want to talk to me in college. After all, why volunteer to be an unpaid English teacher? But I had several friends in college who went out of their way to get to know me. I’m not sure what motivated them but I suspect they were generally curious of foreign and unusual things. I didn’t approach them; they approached me. I’m forever grateful of them. They not only taught me English but the culture and the various subcultures of this country too.
Getting to know people who are different from us doesn’t naturally happen. If we left it up to how we naturally get to know others, we would simply be in a bubble of like-minded people, reinforcing what we already believe in, like, and value. Our lives would become a long process of building a confirmation bias. It’s probably because of this that I take it personally when my daughter doesn’t want to try unfamiliar foods, and looks at them as if she is looking at rotten foods. I end up identifying with those foods she rejects and ignores, as if they have feelings.
As the Milgram experiment proves, our need and desire to belong and conform to people around us is deeply ingrained in us. If we did not make a conscious effort to step outside of that comfort zone, we would naturally become more isolated, and the world outside of our own bubbles would begin to look increasingly more foreign and strange, therefore scary.
From this perspective, affirmative action makes sense, but I’m against it because if we were to force everyone to step outside of their own comfort zones, nothing would truly change. In fact, it would make people want to snap back to their comfort zones more. What we want to do instead is to show people the value and the beauty of deliberately crossing the border into a foreign territory. In this sense, I shouldn’t force my daughter to eat unfamiliar foods either. All that I could, and should, do is to keep eating all sorts of strange foods in front of her.
As I write this, there are many protests going on for what happened in Ferguson, Missouri. They are mostly about race and police brutality. Here in New York, the majority of people (at least the majority around me) are supporting Black people and are against the police. Voicing any opinions that deviate from their line of argument seems rather dangerous at this point unless I move elsewhere. It’s easy for us to disagree, criticize, and/or express our anger towards people we do not interact with face to face every day. And, it feels great to unite with people immediately around us. But what I see as the ultimate cause of all these problems is that we are too scared, lazy, or uncurious to go out of our way to get to know things or people we are not familiar with.
I personally have no idea what it is like to be a policeman. I have no idea what it’s like to be a black person either. So, I do not feel that me protesting for or against any of these people would achieve anything meaningful. If I felt that police brutality is an issue that I really want to solve, the first thing I should do is to get to know policemen and become friends, just like my friends in college did for me. Right now, I do not know a single policeman personally, so I have no idea what they are like, how they see the world, what they value, etc.. The fact that they are foreign to me makes it quite easy for me to be angry at them, yell at them, criticize them, or even attack them. But that’s the problem; it’s too easy, especially in a crowd.
I read some articles about war psychology which explained that it’s easier to shoot at enemies when they are far away, doesn’t speak our language, and look different. It is much harder to pull the trigger when they are standing in front of us, speaking the same language, and looking similar. If we are angry at any group of people, chances are, it’s probably because we don’t really understand them, because they seem foreign to us in their values and perspectives. Surrounding ourselves and uniting with other like-minded people would only encourage us to be angrier because we would feel less fearful in being so. What we need to do instead is to deliberately go outside of our own comfort zones, and cross that border to the foreign world where their values seem morally dubious and objectionable. Once we get to know them personally, are interacting with them in meaningful manners, we could then talk about our differences in more constructive ways. Without big placards in front of us. Just human to human, face to face.