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  • Victor C. Bolles

Two Men Walk Down a Dark Street

Two men walk down a dark street at night. One is white. One is black. As they near each other, one of them crosses the street to maintain some distance between them. Is that prejudice or caution?

Later the two men enter a sports bar separately. They take off their jackets and note approvingly that each is wearing a New York Yankees jersey. When the Yankees score, they give each other a high five and scowl at another man in a Red Sox jersey.

I have written numerous times about how people react instinctively to sudden events. Professor Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow, posited that our instinctual brain (the one we share with many other animals on the planet) reacts quickly to external stimuli while our reasoning brain (the one that is unique to humans – or so we would like to think) reacts slowly and more rationally.

I have also pointed out that our instinctual brain developed in order to protect us from various urgent threats that our ancient ancestors faced in their daily lives. And I knew that Doctor Kahneman’s analogy of dividing the human brain into a fast thinking instinctual section and a slow thinking rational section was probably an over simplification that was, however, useful for explaining his theories to lay people.

In his book, Behave, Stanford Neurobiology Professor Robert Sapolsky has shown how this dichotomy can be quantified. The amygdala is considered to be the primordial part of the limbic system within the human brain, meaning that it evolved millions of years ago in lower animals and is buried deep under the cortex. Keeping in mind that the human brain is redundant and plastic (meaning multiple sections of the brain can be involved in any behavior and that, if one section of the brain is damaged, other sections of the brain can adapt to perform the functions of the damaged section), the amygdala is considered a center for emotions, especially fear and aggression, and memories based on emotions. As Dr. Sapolsky says, “amygdala outputs are mostly about setting off alarms throughout the brain and body.” The amygdala prepares the person for fight or flight.

The amygdala reacts quickly, in about 50 milliseconds (about 1/20th of a second). A rapid response is essential for protecting the person from danger. But what the amygdala gains in speed, it loses in accuracy. The amygdala response is so fast it reacts before the cortex is even aware of the danger. It takes about 500 milliseconds (1/2 second) for the prefrontal cortex to become aware of the danger and to determine if the danger is real, imagined or mistaken.

This has real world consequences. A 9 millimeter bullet travels about 550 feet in the 450 milliseconds between amygdala reaction and prefrontal cortex awareness. Dr. Sapolsky cites the tragic case of Amadou Diallo who, in 1999, was shot and killed by police who mistook his moving to get his wallet for getting a gun. Police are supposed to receive training to prevent these situations from happening, but the training is retained in the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala doesn’t like to wait around.

But I am not here to talk about police shootings, as tragic as they are. The amygdala also has an important role to play in facial recognition. And facial recognition is important because it the first step in determining who is Us and who is Them. As Dr. Sapolsky notes, “fifty-three milliseconds exposure to the face of someone of another race activates the amygdala.” And people have rapid and automatic biases against a person identified as a Them, just as they have automatic biases in favor of someone from a group identified as Us.

These biases arise because of the production of oxytocin. Oxytocin stimulates uterine contractions in the bodies of females and promotes lactation. It also stimulates maternal behavior and has been said to make “organisms less aggressive, more socially attuned, trusting and empathic.” But oxytocin has a dark side that, while promoting the sociability of the Us, raises defenses against the Them that might threaten her offspring. Dr. Sapolsky goes further and states, “Oxytocin, the luv hormone, makes us more prosocial to Us and worse to everyone else.” It “exaggerates Us/Them-ing.” His book features many experiments that support this hypothesis.

The outlook appears pretty grim. Biases that favor Us and spurn Them are preprogrammed into our DNA (and that of other highly evolved species). But evolution has an answer. If the Us-vs-Them directive was so strong that it mandated that an Us group member could only mate with another Us group member, the Us group would become so inbred that it would cease to exist. But Dr. Sapolsky notes that male chimpanzees often leave the Us group and join a Them group (while bonobo females do the same thing – or is the other way round).

But, we can change groups! And while it takes only 53 milliseconds for a person to detect a face of a different race, Dr. Sapolsky points out that while the Us-vs-Them directive has evolved over millions of years, racial differences among humans have only existed for about 100,000 years; not long enough for racism to be baked into our DNA. this changes everything.

Animals can change their Us groups and humans, being the most complex animals on the planet, can not only change groups we can belong to multiple groups, depending context. We can belong to a racial group, a national group, a political group, a hobby group, a team sports group and even a philatelic group. All at the same time. And a person who is a Them in one group can be an Us in a different group.

Maybe there is still hope for America.


And while we’re at it:

As I said, we can change groups. Our affiliations, our groups, are not cast in stone. They are contextual. And if the groups we belong to are contextual and malleable we can overcome all the divisions that is tearing our country apart. We can do it by relying less on our amygdalae and relying more on our prefrontal cortexes.

But this is made difficult as all the presidential candidates (as well as the President himself) are pushing identity politics designed to separate us and tear us apart. They do not see an American culture. They see a welter of different cultures, all equally valid in their eyes. In fact, the only culture that the left seems opposed to is the American culture. Meanwhile, President Trump wants to recreate an Ozzie and Harriet version of American culture that never actually existed and is completely foreign to a large swath of an increasingly diverse America.

It appears that the goal of the progressive left is to create a welter of separate (and equally valid) cultures protecting the identities of each of these cultures and administered by an all-powerful state. It reminds me of the Soviet Union where there was a plethora of SSRs (soviet socialist republics) for each ethnic identity in the vast expanse of the soviet empire. These SSRs were, in essence, conquered countries and vassals to the Russian state that fled that oppressive relationship as soon as the Soviet state collapsed. Is this the goal of the progressive left; to create a fragmented, disunited mélange of group identities and cultures, detached and alienated from each other and easily controlled and dominated by the government (of course, a government run by the progressive left wing of the Democratic party)?

Is it really the goal of the progressive left to create a “safe place” for all the innumerable oppressed identities (and their inevitable proprietary pronouns) that litter the American landscape? Do they truly think that a larger more powerful government will help to protect these delicate identities and their fragile adherents. Ask the Uighurs how the People’s Republic of China protects their identity. For that matter ask the Christians in China and the practitioners of Falun Gong. The Soviet Union didn’t protect Jews or the Kulaks. Current day Russia doesn’t protect homosexuals or lesbians (just ask Pussy Riot).

Why in the world would the progressive left believe that if the big and virtually omnipresent US government doesn’t sufficiently protect these delicate identities that making the government even larger and more omnipresent will provide greater protection to oppressed minorities. No, government protects itself and in socialist governments the needs of the state take priority over the needs of the individual (even if that individual belongs to said oppressed minority).

And President Trump is trying to create an oppressed majority of threatened white folks for much the same end. America once was an Us that included only white people with everyone else as an easily forgotten Them. But that America was fatally flawed and did not work and cannot (and shouldn't) be recreated in the future.

Even pure democracy cannot protect the rights of these oppressed and/or threatened identities. The Founders feared the power of government to oppress people, but they also feared the ability of a powerful majority to oppress minorities. A written constitution that guarantees the rights of minorities and that also does not fluctuate with the fickle whims of popular opinion is the best way to protect the rights of minorities. Oh, wait a minute. That’s what we have right now (or at least what we should be working toward).

It will not be easy to get a transgender person and a blue-collar factory worker to think of each other as part of a great American Us. Nor will it be easy to include an ethnic Vietnamese manicurist from Texas, a black community organizer from Chicago, a Chicano day laborer from Chico Rivera and a white coal miner from West Virginia. But Dr. Sapolsky says we can do it. And I believe him.

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