Uprooting Social Discrimination

We all experience a competitive instinct from time to time -- sometimes against another person, sometimes against a whole category of people -- and sometimes it bubbles over into nasty behavior. But where does anti-social behavior come from? How can we learn to accept one another's common humanity better for more constructive relationships?

When I was in fourth grade, I qualified as a finalist for my school spelling bee. Determined to snatch the title, I studied hard for the three weeks leading up to the live contest. Even though my family took a ski vacation during one of those weeks, I brought my books with me, memorizing words like "emu" and "cantor" late into the night. After all the work I put in, I felt confident that I had a shot -- which made me very nervous.

When the day of the competition came, I took my place among 11 other 10-year-olds at the head of the classroom, palms clammy. After making it through two rounds, I nearly got eliminated on the word "embarrass" -- how ironic that would have been. Eventually, the fray got whittled down to me and one other, very brainy, boy. I didn't know Glen very well, as he was from another class, but I liked him well enough -- until that moment. Under the glare of the class' gaze, we successfully made it through four more rounds together, and then my cool began to crumble. His turn came up.

I blurted out to the teacher, "Make this a hard one."

She called out the next word on the list for Glen, a word I do not even remember -- what I do remember was that he missed it. The contest was over. I had won.

So many of my friends gathered around to congratulate me. But Glen and I didn't talk much after that.

Occasionally over the 3.5 decades that have followed, I have remembered this event, and always with shame. In the stress of the moment, I felt such a need to grab the glory for myself that all regard for the feelings of my fellow competitor, and my self-control, vanished. In truth, it was no victory.

In November, when I interviewed Dr. Michael Fanselow, Staglin Family Chair in Psychology at UCLA, for my monthly Brain Waves webcast, his description of his findings on how anxiety influences the brain began to shed some light for me on the kind of ruthless behavior which I so ably modeled in the spelling bee. Fear "can change who we are in a fundamental way," he said.

I did a little research, reading his and other neuroscientists' work: Essentially, acute stress signals the brain's emotional processing center, the amygdala, to start a physical cascade of reactions that transforms us into an "effective defender against environmental threat," activating a "fight or flight response" that reduces behavioral involvement of the prefrontal cortex, the brain's center for higher thought, rationality and patience.

At present in U.S. society, I witness this shift writ large. As online communications enable the demands of our increasingly competitive work lives to intrude ever more into our personal time (while encouraging us to isolate into our screens), the resulting relentless stress is creating a more anxious, fearful population, a process chronicled brilliantly by Dr. Peter Whybrow in his prescient book American Mania. In recent years, I believe this anxiety has amplified discrimination among people in society -- the media reports clashes between Americans of different political parties, races, ethnicities, faiths and economic classes daily. Based on my interpretation of the research of Allen Hart et al, this discrimination is akin to the fear-induced "fight or flight" response expanded in one's mind toward defense against a whole social category.

The kind of discrimination I am most familiar with is that based on one's state of mental health. Since age 18 I have lived with schizophrenia, and have a few times been on the receiving end of prejudicial treatment. My experience matches what I have heard from others with mental health challenges: Being discriminated against feels dehumanizing, and is debilitating.


The Living Arts Playback Theater Group creatively dramatizes a personal story of mental trauma during the Turning Points gathering [photo by Maria Sestito, Napa Valley Register]

What do we do to reduce such discrimination? Studies in the mental health arena have shown that we can reduce stigma by getting to know one another. A recent experience played out this idea. Last Wednesday, my wife and I went to a gathering called "Turning Points." The evening was the culmination of a storytelling project by an organization called On the Move, funded by a California grant for innovations in mental health treatment. About 250 were present at Napa's Jarvis Conservatory, many of who, like me, had contributed their stories of living with mental health challenges. Poignant quotes from each of these stories were on display at the reception.

The crux of the evening came next, in the auditorium: Three volunteers from the audience told their stories on stage, and each story was dramatized by the actors of the Living Arts Playback Theatre. Listening to each volunteer tell of the incredible difficulties they had faced, from parental abuse to domestic violence to psychosis, brought home the need for community support for individuals in distress. I felt resonant pain for these brave storytellers. Many in the audience wiped away tears, and guests said the stories inspired compassion, courage, and freedom to breathe. As the evening concluded, I felt more strongly committed to help others with mental health challenges find their paths to wellness.

Yes, I often have more to do than time to do it, and yes, chronological pressure can steal my civility, but I thank God that I can still recognize the things that matter. Participating at that beautiful gathering reminded me to always find time for these things: health, love, family, and community. In accepting others' experience, my own world expands, and in sharing my experience, maybe I can expand others' worlds.