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Friday, April 27, 2012

Diversity and Stereotypes

In a recent post ("What Counts for Diversity?"), I argued that diversity of thought (e.g., theology, ideology) is one of the most important forms of diversity we should seek on boards, committees and so on because it makes them more effective and less prone to extremist views. I also noted that attaining such diversity is anything but easy as we humans tend to hang out with people like ourselves. This is known as the homophily effect and is captured by the phrase, "birds of a feather, flock together." Such clustering often cuts across class lines. As one of my friends once told me, he is more comfortable hanging out with other professionals (he is an attorney), regardless of their race or gender, than he is with what have traditionally been called "blue collar" workers, for the simple reason that he shares more in common with other professionals than he does with blue collar workers.

An unintended consequence of associating with others like ourselves is that we tend to develop stereotypes of people who are different, that is, people who run in social circles other than our own. Moreover, studies by social psychologists have found that we tend to regard those within our group as superior to those who are not. For example, we are more likely to value the opinion of an in-group member over an out-group member even if the in-group member has no idea what he or she is talking about (this is true for both liberals and conservatives, by the way). We are also more likely, especially in the political realm, to regard out-group members as either immoral, stupid or both, which is neither fair nor smart.

Thus, it seems that if we're interested in promoting a civil society, then we need to make a concerted effort of hanging out with the so-called "other." Democrats need to spend more time with Republicans, and conservatives need to spend more time with liberals. Likewise, mainline Protestants need to break bread with evangelicals, Catholics need to share the peace with Mormons, and Orthodox Jews need to spin the dreidel with Reform Jews. Interestingly, some of the worst stereotyping I have witnessed has come from people of faith discussing religious "others" within their own faith tradition (e.g., evangelicals discussing Mormons, mainline Protestants discussing evangelicals and Catholics). Many seem convinced that religious others are the devil incarnate, poised to ruin the world if given the chance.  Somehow, we need to reduce the development of such religious stereotypes (assuming, of course, that we genuinely want to do so), but how?

A mainline Protestant friend of mine suggested that one thing we (i.e., mainline Protestants) can do is that sometimes instead of sending our youth on mission trips where they will spend a week working on behalf of and with the rural or inner city poor (worthy endeavors, to be sure), we should send them to spend a week working alongside Mormons in Utah or evangelicals in Tennessee (where, of course, they can still work on behalf of and with the poor). In so doing they will discover that these religious "others" are surprisingly quite normal, hold many of the same values that we do, and aren't the demonic souls many of us make them out to be. With luck, such experiences would last a lifetime and impact how they treat and speak of others when they're adults.

Of course, that only addresses mainline Protestant youth, and some of the worst religious stereotyping I've encountered has been from adults. Perhaps, we need to go on mission trips as well. That would be interesting.

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