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Fighting Stereotypes with Faith

July 6, 2011, 3:31 pm | Posted by Nick Sementelli

Daniel Tutt has a useful piece in Huffington Post exploring the neuroscience behind stereotypes:

What we know about stereotyping has evolved considerably over the last 25 years in the wake of the “affective turn” and the use of noninvasive fMRI scans. The affective turn refers to the realization that human behavior is dictated by emotion over and above reason. Neuroscientists can now paint a clear picture of what happens in the brain when someone deploys a stereotype. The vast majority of the time, stereotyping occurs automatically without conscious reflection. It calms the fears and anxieties built up about an “out-group”…

Essentially, stereotypes function as something of an emotional shortcut we use to navigate a world full of anxiety and potential threats. But while making snap judgments about people may have helped avoid danger in our prehistoric past, it clearly presents real obstacles today. The good news is that the same research shows these things can change:

Importantly, neuroscientists have found that the introduction of positive images of “out-groups” does indeed lower levels of fear of the other, and it reforms the hardwired automatic processes.

Tutt uses this point to encourage the Muslim-American community in combating Islamophobia, but it’s applicable to many groups facing barriers to full acceptance. Indeed, real world examples of this tactic have been responsible for some significant political successes (and have been something of a theme on this blog).

As Alyssa Rosenberg has noted, the prevalence of gay characters on television has played an important role in humanizing LGBT Americans. And the growing number of people coming out to their friends and family over the last few decades has demonstrably swung opinions as well.

Similarly, the most inspiring political activism around immigration reform has come from the DREAMers — undocumented high-school students often facing deportation despite personal stories that stand in stark contrast to the negative stereotypes about immigrants. While a GOP filibuster stopped the DREAM Act in December, the students have continued their activism and are changing hearts and minds.

This process of expanding the definition of ‘American’ and incorporating various minority and out-groups into the fabric of our society is essentially the history of America. While it may have taken generations to make initial progress, changing population demographics and the rapid ascent of mass media and information sharing have quickly brought more groups into the mainstream.

Congressional legislation and policy changes are essential, but they must be led and strengthened by this kind of broader cultural movement. The faith community is a natural place for some of this work to happen. Located in every neighborhood, places of worship attract people every week expecting to wrestle with big ideas and tough issues. And the bonds they form with each other serve as crucial supports as they do. As trusted figureheads, faith leaders in particular can serve as highly effective persuaders. Advocating for just immigration reform is one thing, but seeing your own pastor stand publicly behind the immigrant families in your Church is a much more powerful message.

Photo: DREAM Act students stage a sit-in at John McCain’s office.

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