Six months ago when conflicts and violence were on the rise in Europe because of the huge influx of Syrian refugees and other immigrants trying to escape war, Amnesty International conducted an experiment. Building on the work of psychologist Arthur Aron, who discovered twenty years ago that four minutes of gazing into another person’s eyes was long enough to bond people, Amnesty brought together a bunch of refugees and citizens for a little experiment. Participants of all ages, genders and backgrounds were asked simply to sit face to face with a stranger and gaze in his or her eyes for four minutes straight. The experiment took place in Berlin, which given its unforgettable history of divisiveness, made the results all the more poignant. You can watch a portion of the experiment on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7XhrUoD6U. The participants discovered that when you see a person up close like that, he or she becomes much more human and easy to relate to than when you think of that person as a category of individual, such as a refugee, a Muslim, a white man, a woman, etc.. In just four minutes, the people in the experiment started to care for one another. They started to be concerned about how much the person across from them was suffering; or started seeing the ones they thought hated them as allies.
The video clip is very moving, and reminded me of another clip I saw, also from six months ago, involving men and female sportscasters and writers. (www.youtube.com/watch?vCEfjTfYIFpc). ABC news hired some men to sit face to face with female sportscasters and read to their faces the mean tweets and posts that men had sent them anonymously. The comments were not simple critiques of their work. Most of them were personal attacks on the sportscasters using crude and violent language. They were hostile, abusive, undeserved attacks. The men, who had not written the tweets themselves, could barely bring themselves to read the words out loud to the women they could see sitting in front of them. By the end of the experiment, the men were apologizing profusely, and even refusing to read any further the posts. They could not look the women in the eye and say the horrible things that others had written.
Both of these experiments demonstrate a truth that may not be a new discovery, but is nonetheless one which we desperately need to recognize again immediately: it is much easier to dismiss the humanity of someone you have not met. It is much easier to say hateful things when you know you are cloaked by the distance and anonymity of the Internet. The Internet was designed to be a tool to bring us all closer together by enabling us to connect in unprecedented ways across the globe. But in this past year especially, it has been used to grow and share hate more than love. It has unleashed our basest instinct and darkest fears. As a result, we have not only become desensitized to misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and bigotry, but in our refusal as a society to condemn such comments and behavior publicly and decisively, we have also enabled the hate behind the comments to thrive, and to move beyond the digital world into the real world. Now some are writing hateful things on people’s cars and mailboxes, desecrating church property and school yards; now people are attacking others in person, and leaving whole categories of people very afraid.
If we don’t put a stop to this very soon, it is going to be very difficult for us to contain or recover from the damage that will be caused to individuals and society both. Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves, not to love the neighbors who look like us or believe what we do, and attack all the rest. He told us to love everyone. So it is essential that we start seeing those we deem “the other” as we see ourselves. We need to look individuals in the eye until we can see past their religion, dress, skin color, sexual orientation or gender to the fact that they are moms, daughters, men trying to earn a living for their families, children wondering if they are safe. We need to gaze at them (with neutrality not hostility) long enough to be able to ask ourselves, “What if I was in his/her shoes? What if someone said those things to me, my parents or my child?” We need to close our Twitter and Facebook, Instagram and other accounts until we can find the self-restraint to communicate like kind and decent human beings again.
The brand new Amy Adams movie, Arrival depicts in a beautiful and haunting way how violent communication contributes to violence, and non-violent communication contributes to understanding. It also reminds us that whether we like it or not, we are interconnected, one with another. If we want a future with hope, we must learn to understand each other more and fear each other less. We will not have peace for all of us until hateful speech and violence are condemned not condoned; and we will not be able to do that until we are willing to look each other in the eye in the grocery store or doctor’s office, on the Metro or the playground with grace not hate, and learn from each other. So next time you find yourself reaching for your phone or tablet to vent your fear or rage, try to stop yourself. If you must express how you are feeling right that instant, do it on a scrap of paper. Then take a minute again and look at the hate that came out of your heart and throw the paper away. Do not say or write a word that someone else could hear or read until you have spent enough time gazing at an actual living breathing representative of “the other” to be kind. Do not judge another until you can first see your own reflection in their eyes.