Maybe my favorite episode of Northern Exposure is the one where Maurice Minnifield (played by the great Barry Corbin), the bigoted, pompous, ex-astronaut is surprised to discover he has a son, Duk Won, conceived during service time in Korea. After grudgingly admitting that Duk Won’s claim is real, Maurice has a conversation with Chris, the town’s DJ and amateur philosopher, about how difficult this is. Their conversation concludes something like this:
Maurice: I wouldn’t have had such a problem with this if only…
Chris: If only he were white?
Chris: Well, that’s a reason for hope.
Maurice: What? What are you talking about?
Chris: Because racism is a learned behavior. And that means it can be unlearned.
I’ve been thinking about that exchange a bit, given the horrific racial and discriminatory incidents that punctuated 2014. And I think Chris gets it right. The evolutionary history that shaped us gave us the tools to overcome attitudes like racism. I have hope that, as we continue to learn more about how our brains work, how we learn, how we perceive, how we connect—we will figure out more and better ways to help people see beyond superficial differences. And yet at the same time, I also think that these lessons will always be needed. Because these same tools are also a part of how things like racism arise in the first place.
Evolution selected for terrific pattern recognition abilities in humans. The Man in the Moon. Constellations. The Periodic Table. All examples of people seeing patterns in the world. Another key attribute in bringing us into today’s modern world is the ability to find stories in those patterns—to identify causality. You do this, and then this other thing happens. The connections lead to culture, to safety, to reliable food supplies and sustainable patterns of living. And eventually smartphones and drones. Those individuals with the strongest such abilities tended to survive more often and pass those traits down to future generations, until in the here and now, toddlers can figure out how to work an iPad in minutes.
But pattern recognition and storytelling ability in and of themselves have no morality, no exculpatory power. They’re just parts of who we are, tools we’ve evolved to use in many different ways. And if we don’t recognize this, don’t acknowledge and understand the biological basis for the ways in which we sometimes think and act, then achieving moral and ethical behavior gets a lot harder.
And that brings me back to the beginning. We see differences and patterns among different ethnicities, different cultures, different genders. And we make up stories about those differences, and often those stories are wrong. I’m not sure that will ever change. How we evolved, what makes us human, is intricately tied into our ability to see patterns and try to find meaning. We need to be mindful of the mistakes our pattern recognition can sometimes make, and then take steps to correct those mistakes. To unlearn things we once learned.
It’s hard work, both for the teachers and the learners—and we all are both. It can be done, and it has to be done, and the work of building on teachable moments will never end. But that’s okay. We pay for gifts, one way or the other don’t we? I’d rather pay with diligence, vigilance, empathy, understanding and time than pay with sadness and tragedy and rage.