The problem of prejudice, the purpose of anger & the power of social media

A few of sources of inspiration motivated me to write this. I had two recent opportunities to talk to parenting experts on the purpose and value of anger (here’s one example). I’ve also been recognizing how social media can be utilized as a way to communicate ideas to people I normally wouldn’t reach. But what really got me going was that Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen both made some offensive Asian jokes during the Oscars. The same #OscarsSoWhite ceremony that was supposed to heighten awareness of racial disparities. So being human, my biggest motivation to do something was initiated by an unsettling, unpleasant feeling – in this case, anger. But rather than reacting, which is where we tend to get in trouble with our emotions, I’d like to take advantage of this opportunity and use this emotion to respond effectively, which is how our emotions (including the unpleasant ones) activate us to make things better. With anger in particular, it’s going to need to involve you as well because anger is a positive, purposeful, pro-social emotion. What? That’s not normally how we think about this particular emotion, right? Please read on.

How Emotions and Anger Work

I’m an ABC (American-Born Chinese). The jokes made me mad. They made Jeremy Lin mad too. Constance Wu was also upset. Admittedly, I wasn’t as mad about the #OscarsSoWhite controversy before the broadcast, but then when those three unsuspecting kids were brought out on stage and used as a prop for a joke based on Asian stereotypes, then I got pissed. Why? Because the normal human emotion of anger is triggered when:

1)  We experience something that we believe is wrong, and

2) It affects us in a personal way, and

3) We believe that others should be responsible (at least in part) in making it right.

We all instinctually know this is the universal trigger for anger because it’s hard-wired into our brain. To prove this point, let’s say you see a little kid that is clearly upset. A very likely initial response from most people would be to engage her and ask “hey, what’s wrong?” When someone tells an offensive joke, like at the Oscars, we groan and think “that’s so wrong.” When we’re mad at someone we might think something like “Chris! WTF! You’re supposed to subversively enlighten the masses with your witty truthful observations about the idiosyncrasies of the human experience, not reinforce negative stereotypes! And you used a bunch of kids as props! What’s wrong with you!” So that’s where anger starts.

If wrongness is where it starts, where does it end? What’s the goal of anger? To get help to make things right. In order to accomplish this, a series of automatic responses unfold, designed to equip you to accomplish your goal. All of our basic emotions follow this pattern of a universal trigger followed by a universal response that sets to resolve the problem at hand. Each emotion has a unique trigger and a specific response. For example, the trigger for anxiety is a perception of potential harm, and the reaction is the familiar “fight or flight” response. When we perceive that something is wrong but we believe that it’s exclusively our own fault, we feel a restless guilt that compels us to go fix it.

Now with anger, we believe that at least in part, others are needed to make things right. Sometimes it’s the people we believe caused the problem. They should fix it. Sometimes it’s not the people that caused it, but the people we believe are capable of making things right in our lives – like our parents, our significant others, or our elected officials. They are supposed to help us. That’s why we’re most likely to experience anger in our families, in our relationships, and in our politics. Which brings us to the next part of what anger does.

Human beings are designed to express anger. We don’t even need words to do this. Our body language and facial expressions convey this just fine. It even seemingly drips from our pores and escapes from our ears. In fact, even when we try to mask our feelings, we still effectively broadcast our anger. That’s because in addition to being really good at sending out anger signals, we are just as equipped to sense it in others. Ever walk into a room and just know that someone is having a bad day? In ways that are not quite yet explained by research but can be consistently observed, we can accurately pick up the “emotional wifi” signal of those around us. With anger in particular, we have no problem getting full bars.

Once we become aware of another person’s frustration, there’s a natural inclination to become curious as to why – “I wonder what he’s so upset about.” This is the part of anger that draws others in, even against their will.

Now sometimes we have to dig deep to act on this curiosity when we’re in the range of someone else’s broadcast. Our competing reaction may be a desire to distance ourselves, but maybe that’s because somewhere along the way we’ve learned (incorrectly) that anger is always bad or even dangerous, so it’s actually another emotion, anxiety, that is telling us to flee.

Rage, which is dysregulated and dysfunctional anger, can be harmful. However, appropriate and healthy anger is not. Since anger is attempting to urgently engage others, when people leave it just makes angry people feel more angry. Doesn’t this make more sense when we think about our own experiences with anger?

Another reason why we might feel an urge to leave is that it’s normal and deliberate that anger creates discomfort in others. Why? For the same reason that I’m writing this. One of the principle ways in which human beings get activated to urgently do something is to resolve acute personal discomfort. When you are in the vicinity of an angry person, your own distress motivates you to do something to feel relief – either get away or contribute to the solution. So some people choose to boycott. Others choose to roll up their sleeves and help fix it. Optimally, we are all mutually incentivized to make things right when we share the same discomfort. That’s why we might implore others to “hurry up and just apologize” or even try to jump in a situation and act as peacemaker. There’s also a sense of bonding if a bunch of people are upset about the same thing because it feels validating and comforting. The angry mob isn’t inherently a bad thing. That’s where activism comes from. So though it may seem strange to think of it this way, anger is a pro-social emotion. It recruits and connects people in the moment to help solve a problem together. 

Now like all emotions, if our needs are met then the emotion subsides, because that emotion has done its job. So boycotting may distance you from the problem, but it doesn’t actually resolve the anger. Trying to calm down or distract someone from what they are feeling isn’t enough because the trigger of the emotion, the initial problem, still remains. This is why if it is possible, it’s better to try and fix things than to ignore or leave it. When people engage and take shared ownership of the problem, then anger has accomplished its goal and it starts to disappear. It doesn’t even require that the problem is solved. Anger just wants people to acknowledge that there’s a problem and make an attempt to help.

So What Exactly is the Problem Here?

So back to the Oscars and the Asian jokes. At the core, what’s so wrong about what happened? It’s wrong to make jokes about a group of people because it dehumanizes them, turns them into caricatures, and reinforces negative stereotypes. It comes from a place of prejudice and judgment.

It’s also wrong because it’s deceptive and sneaky. We get away with it because it hacks the reward center of the brain to think that it’s actually a good thing because laughter feels good. Also, because others laugh with us it diffuses our personal moral convictions and creates a semblance of acceptability in the “everyone else is doing it so it must be okay” thread of marginal logic.

It’s also wrong because one group’s pleasure is at the expense of another group’s pain, which is sadistic. No really, that’s what that word means.

But when we look even deeper, including the larger controversy around what #OscarsSoWhite represents, it’s that whole groups of people are made to feel insignificant, invisible, or diminished. Now this is something we can all get angry about because at one time or another, we’ve all suffered through this kind of discrimination.

So how do we make it right? Maybe we try and get Chris Rock to apologize. But that doesn’t accomplish much. Apologies rarely do because they don’t address the core problems. Perhaps we can counter-discriminate against all the racists so that they can feel how we feel. But that’s hypocritical and chances are it’s only going to make things worse. Well perhaps instead we should first examine why racism, xenophobia, or prejudice exist at all. I’ll use my own vulnerabilities as an example.

I grew up in a conservative Christian home. My parents were immigrants. My community wasn’t diverse. I lived in the suburbs. All of these shaped (and in retrospect limited) my beliefs and worldview at the time. My views on race were based on narrow stereotypes learned from TV and immature jokes kids would tell each other. My view of homosexuality was based on church doctrine. My views on gender roles were built around religion and culture. So in the past I’ve held racist beliefs. I’ve described things as “gay,” and it wasn’t complimentary. I’ve put people down by telling them they were acting like a girl.

I’m not evil. I wasn’t intentionally prejudiced. Sure, in part it was just immaturity. However, I think the larger problem was something much more subtle. I was surrounded by people who were very similar to me, and I didn’t have the opportunity or intention to diversify my exposure. Thankfully, I’ve come a long way since then and it’s because of broader experiences and a willingness to get to know others – as individuals, not as representatives of a stereotype.

During my residency was the first time I knew anyone who was openly gay. When you spend four years together working 80 hour weeks, you get to know people through your commiseration. What I found, or didn’t find, was that their “moral depravity” and mine were roughly in the same ballpark. Other than a different distribution of X and Y chromosomes, their romantic relationships weren’t that different either. We had way more in common than we had differences. As much as I don’t ever remember choosing to be straight, I know that they never chose to be gay. And I’ve never met anyone who’s defining characteristic was their sexual orientation. It was just one of many things I learned about them.

I played pick-up basketball at a local gym for a couple of years and got to know some of the regulars. Unlike the Oscars, it was a racially diverse group, and yes, a lot of them were Black. Like the retired aerospace engineer who invented something and seemed pretty wealthy because of it. Or the publisher of educational workbooks for elementary students. There was the reality TV producer. And also the tech entrepreneur too. I was the uncharacteristically tall Asian Psychiatrist. Either we were all exceptions to the rule, or the rule wasn’t right to begin with.

My daughter is four. She loves princesses, ballet, and her purple high-heel shoes. She’s such a girly girl, right? She also builds complicated projects with glue guns, has an occasional tendency for violence when she’s upset, and recently told me that Star Wars (the original) was her favorite movie. “Girly” doesn’t really seem to capture the essence of this little person with the big personality that I share my life with.

Our Plan to End Prejudice

So remember where we started – the value of anger, the reach of social media, the problem of prejudice. Maybe the Asian jokes didn’t really bother you because it didn’t feel personal. But we’ve all felt wronged at some point for being stereotyped. Maybe because of your gender. Or your age. Your religion or your atheism. Or the era you were born into. Perhaps it’s something about the way you look. Or your job, or your lack thereof. That you’re seeing a Psychiatrist. Let’s take this pro-social emotion of anger, and respond in a way that actually makes an attempt to solve the problem. Let’s correct these stereotypes by making what is “typical” as complex as we really are.

Stereotypes are dehumanizing, so let’s make it personal. Put a name and a face and a person behind the label.

Instead of deception and sneakiness, let’s be accurate and authentic. In some ways we actually do fit certain aspects of the stereotype. In many significant ways we don’t. True diversity simultaneously acknowledges ways in which we are different and ways in which we are the same.

Instead of exclusion and conflict, let’s collaborate and learn from each other. The most subversive source of prejudice comes from being limited in what we are exposed to. But we now live in a day and age where the internet and social media can overcome those limits easily. The more we share, the more empathy and compassion we’ll cultivate. Prejudice will automatically fall to the wayside.

Also, let’s keep our sense of humor without being offensive. Wit can be insightful and thought provoking. Avoid sarcasm because it’s actually aggression disguised as humor. Do have fun.

The end result should be something like the time my 7 year old son decided to try on the panda Halloween costume he wore when he was a toddler – an entertaining and memorable experience of absurdity. Where what you see is all the extra stuff busting out in unexpected places because it’s just doesn’t fit. Got the picture?

Here’s Your Part!

I mentioned earlier that part of our human motivation comes from personal discomfort. Another source of motivation comes from a more positive place – opportunity. We are most effectively motivated when we use both – start with pain, finish with opportunity. How? Let your Facebook account fulfill its true potential! Please share this post with your social network and encourage your friends and family to also read, learn, and participate. In the comments section of your post, start a thread by sharing a few specific things about yourself. First, identify a group that you relate to where you’ve experienced a negative stereotype. Then follow this form:

  1. I am a typical ___________
  2. Describe how you fit this stereotype
  3. Describe how you don’t fit this stereotype
  4. I am a typical ___________

By sharing your own experience, you’ll teach something to someone else and broaden their perspective. It will make it harder for people to stereotype you. By reading someone else’s sharing, you’ll broaden your perspective as well. It will make it harder for you to stereotype them.

Here’s a personal example:

I am a typical Asian.

I’m a doctor. I’m good at math and science. I got good grades. I do eat rice frequently. I’m a fan of Jeremy Lin. A big part of it is because he’s Chinese. In my extended family there’s five accountants and four other doctors.

Even though I’m a doctor, I decided to become a Psychiatrist who mostly practices therapy, so I spend most days talking to people about their feelings. And I do frequently cry during movies. I’m artistic. My mom is not a tiger. My parents didn’t push me to be successful, but I did feel loved – that turned out pretty well for me. They speak to me in Chinese. I speak to them in English. It works. I love all kinds of food. Somewhere along the way I’ve discovered that I have a high tolerance for alcohol. If I had to choose between Jeremy Lin and Steph Curry, I’m taking Steph Curry. I’m a fan, but I’m not irrational. In my huge extended family, 87.6% are not accountants, doctors, or lawyers. The 87.6% is a vague estimate because I’m not that good at math. I don’t play the violin or piano, but do play a mediocre guitar. My cousin played drums in her indie rock band. I’m roughly six feet tall and have relatives that are taller than me. My son will probably be around 6′ 2″. In high school I ran Track & Field and was faster than our quarterback, running back, and wide receiver in the 100 meter dash. I wasn’t on the football team but I was at every game – because I was in the marching band. My skin color is a medium pink-brown in the winter, a browner pink-brown in the summers. It’s never been any shade of yellow. Even when my son had jaundice when he was born, his skin wasn’t yellow. It was orange. I can grow a full beard in a week.

I am a typical Asian.

Okay, it’s now your turn. There’s tons of stereotypes that need fixing. You can even tackle a few if you can relate: I’m a typical woman, man, teenager, Millennial, American, Christian, Muslim, immigrant…

Hmm. I’m feeling less angry already. Can we make #IAmTypical a thing?

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