In social situations, respecting another person’s right to live and grow requires uncovering their needs and responding in a way that serves everyone’s best interest. Of course, we don’t agonise over every word we speak or write in conversation—it’s an issue of limited brain space in a world full of distractions. Excuses, excuses, right?
Not so fast. The fields of psychology and philosophy are beginning to show the surprising ease with which our minds can play tricks on us; implicit bias is perhaps our most damaging cognitive quirk. As the name suggests, these kinds of assumptions are buried in the way we assess one another (and ourselves) out of necessity and habit. Words that link the subject of assessment to any social group carry a ton of baggage, no matter how open your mind is. As if that weren’t enough, what psychologists call “status quo bias” exploits our fears and insecurities to ‘protect’ us from change, and we often have to surmount this radical doubting mechanism in order to unlimit our understanding of each other.
A few common examples of innocent assumptions I’ve witnessed recently illustrate my point. A friend of mine at a party asked another guest several questions which assumed he was straight, when in fact he identifies as bisexual. In student government, a decision about finances was given priority over the interests of transgender students. A professor spoke lightly to the class about the then-upcoming holiday as a source of fun and relaxation when many of us have heavier work schedules on the ‘break’ to try and earn some cash. Each of these assumptions is understandable, but to call them excusable on grounds of ignorance alone is a step too far.
We each have to do the best we can to treat others as people with complex stories. As much progress as we are making on issues that cause social friction, the onus will always be upon the free individual to have an elastic definition of a human. More than that, we need to learn a deep attentiveness that takes account of the variability of human perspective, particularly in regards to diverse sexualities and gender identities. As biology teaches us, what may seem simple is often complex, and it is easy to have a negative impact despite the best intentions if we fail to find the limits of our perspective.
Over 2000 years ago, Socrates assumed only his own ignorance. If we can strive for the same, we may find cause to celebrate our differences and curb the fears of rejection that stunt our personal growth.