“The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”
There is more truth than ever to that quote by British writer G.K. Chesterton, as our society becomes increasingly — and I would add gloriously — diverse. Yet, just as in Chesterton’s day, we still have trouble loving our neighbor, enemy or not.
Our struggle for peace, understanding and love among diverse populations is the genesis of my family’s American story. It starts in Ireland, where my great-great-grandmother Peterson, known to the family as “Petey,” was a good Catholic girl. That is, until she had the audacity to fall in love with a young Protestant man. They married, and were promptly kicked out of both churches, cut off from their families and driven from their homes. Like so many others in our immigrant nation, they found a new life in America.
Today we know too little about Petey. Her and great-great-grandpa Peterson’s family records in Ireland were destroyed by church authorities, both Protestant and Catholic, determined to erase their existence. But, her story has always saddened and inspired me. It is a part of what drew me to the Episcopal Church, the Via Media, or middle road, between Catholic and Protestant. It is a bigger part of my desire to see bridges built between our society’s diverse segments, where chasms of fear and bigotry may otherwise dominate.
But, more than 100 years after Petey immigrated, we still face the same toxic mix of stereotypes and ignorance that drove her from Ireland. I was reminded of this recently when someone, blissfully unaware of my religious leanings, informed me in hushed tones Catholics worship idols, don’t believe in the Bible and must be saved from their faith. I’m sure Petey would’ve loved that. Another well-meaning commenter informed me I’m not actually Christian because I am Catholic. I spared them the classic Episcopal paradox of “I’m definitely Catholic, but I am also definitely not Catholic,” and chose to just be a bit extra-Catholic that day, out of spite.
These bouts of stereotype and misinformation are amplified when I write anything about Muslims, or any faith tradition other than Protestant. And, it’s certainly not limited to faith. A recent story about the Marshallese population in Enid stirred up all kinds of ugliness, born of ignorance, and the same happens frequently around the LGBTQ community.
I believe the vast majority of these cases aren’t born of malice, but simply a lack of understanding and firsthand experience of other faiths, cultures and lifestyles. Into that void creep less-than-accurate media outlets like Fox News, or even respectable outlets like the New York Times, which Institute for Social Policy and Understanding director Dalia Mogahed recently said has portrayed Muslims “more negatively than cancer or cocaine.” And, if you rely on social media for information on people who reside outside your small circle of firsthand experience, well, chances are that void has been filled with pernicious, hate-mongering falsehoods.
Most people don’t have malicious intent in believing and sharing misinformation and stereotypes about “the other.” But, however benign our intentions may be, when we allow ignorance to overpower compassion and understanding, we create an environment in which the hardcore bigots and violent extremists can thrive.
So, what is the cure? It’s not more ideology. It’s not more angry Facebook memes. Sharing verified information is important, but psychologists have found facts alone don’t dissuade our bias. The only thing that works, it seems, is old-fashioned, face-to-face interaction.
A 2016 study by Stanford and UC Berkeley found as little as a 20-minute conversation with someone from another group can reduce bias.
And that reduction of prejudice was found to be just as strong three months after that short conversation.
The effects are more profound when those brief conversations blossom into “intergroup friendship,” said UC Berkley psychology professor Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton in 2011.
“If you looked and looked at all of the solutions proposed by scientists over the years to combat prejudice and racism, you’d be hard pressed to find a more effective antidote than intergroup friendship,” he said.
Mendoza-Denton, in an earlier article, found simply knowing someone from another group is powerful enough to overcome the kind of hatred and ignorance that drove Petey and so many others into exile.
“Cross-group friendship is powerful,” he said, “so powerful, in fact, that it has even been shown to reduce animosity among Catholics and Protestants in Ireland who have lost loved ones as a result of conflict.”
That power resides within us all — the power to reduce ignorance, fear, hatred and violence, and build up a world better-defined by empathy, peace and understanding.
To get there, we simply need to make more, and more different, friends. But, it doesn’t just happen. Each of us must be willing to initiate and accept these new encounters with people outside our personal experience and cherished comfort zones.
Who is the “other” to you? Your gay neighbor? Your Catholic neighbor? Your Evangelical neighbor? Your Trump-voter neighbor?
Whoever the “other” is, you will lose nothing by simply having a friendly, compassionate conversation with them. And, our horribly fractured, stereotype-driven society may just gain a great deal.