Are you at least a little overwhelmed and exhausted by the constant influx of difficult news and divisive rhetoric?
Though we often hear about more bad news than good, reality reflects a more mixed picture. For example, did you follow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai’s #GirlPowerTrip across four continents? Before beginning her university studies, she and others made a powerful call to increase global funding for girls’ education. This incredible movement is just one example of many efforts to address discrimination and violence, and it grew out of a murderous assault on Malala in 2012. She was targeted by the Taliban for speaking out about her right to go to school in her local Pakistan community.
Though Malala showed incredible resilience after she was attacked, her story is a reminder of systemic problems that remain. Too-frequent stories about gun violence, sexual violence, child abuse, animal cruelty, and other forms of aggression remind us that we still have a lot of work to do. But bad news – even when it doesn’t directly affect us – stays with us and interferes with our sense of empowerment to affect change.
The opposite is also true. Compassionate, meaningful stories inspire and embolden us, especially when we’re part of them.
So what can we do in our everyday lives to address big problems with seemingly small acts? Like Malala has done, we can start by acting locally and thinking globally.
Connect. Studies have shown that the more common ground we find with each other, the less likely we are to develop empathy gaps that can lead to bias and violence.
Recently, I was listening to a conversation between NPR’s Terry Gross and Homeboy Industries founder Father Greg Boyle, who has spent 30 years working in Los Angeles with gang members and young people transitioning out of prison. Boyle made the point that we need to transform pain to avoid its re-infliction – in part, by building inclusive communities rather than sowing division. He’s seen how social connection can help individuals heal after trauma – whether it’s after child abuse, intimate partner violence, or mass crimes – and stop the cycle of violence in its tracks.
Tolerate. We are going to have to tolerate our superficial differences in order to connect on a deeper level. Boyle does this, and I’m learning how to do the same. When I put myself in the uncomfortable position of talking with someone who disagrees with me, I often discover things about myself and the other person that deepen my understanding of the world and our shared vulnerabilities. Civility is a step toward progress.
Stand Up. There are many injustices that shouldn’t be tolerated. Anger and outrage are valid emotions – and they are often a rational reaction to unfairness and inequity. The courage and act of standing up for someone else who is harassed, assaulted, or forgotten is incredibly empowering – for the individual who is targeted, the person standing up for them, and society more generally.
As I’ve listened to the #MeToo stories that have emerged since the sexual harassment and assault charges against Harvey Weinstein became public, I’ve been reminded of a woman who stood up for me. At the time, I was a medical student and my supervising physician was sexually harassing me. I reported the series of incidents to my superiors, both male physicians, who laughed off my complaints. But somehow their administrative assistant learned of the incident. She told me I’d never have to go back to the clinic where I was harassed. She followed through and went an important step further, promising not to send other students to work with the same physician. With one seemingly small act, she made a tremendous difference for me and other students. She also set an excellent example of how to be an Upstander instead of a bystander.
It is worth asking ourselves how we each contribute to violence in society by tolerating or promoting injustices against the most vulnerable members of society, including animals. Norms and decisions (even the choices on our dinner plates) that allow for the creation of suffering in animals represent a form of structural violence that can also affect people. For example, intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and child abuse are endemic to communities where slaughterhouses are located.
Pass It On. Kids learn very early on about respect, fairness, and compassion. They can develop empathy – and gaps in empathy – as soon as preschool. Children continue to develop a sense of justice throughout adolescence, as their brains are pruned and rebuilt in response to numerous social cues. They also discover a sense of their own and others’ boundaries early in development – which can inform how they interpret and respect the worth, sovereignty, and consent, assent, or dissent of others later in life.
Today, policymakers attempt to address violence in all forms, from that which occurs in the home to the street to military conflict zones. Psychologists, neuroscientists, and many others join them. But this problem isn’t as abstract as some might like for us to believe. All of our behaviors have consequences – from our actions as neighbors, citizens, and consumers to judgments about how we guide and educate children.
Solutions are often right in front of us, next to our common sense and decency.