In the midst of our country’s current multi-crisis situation we are losing track of what people want and need the most, which is recognition as valid human beings.
Steve Zolno is the author of The Future of Democracy, The Death of Democracy, and the upcoming Truth and Democracy. He has been leading study groups in democracy since 2006.
Changes in laws or regulations alone have not – and cannot – eliminate our culture of divisiveness. Since the Civil War we have enacted numerous new laws – including three amendments to the Constitution and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968. There have been a series demonstrations that go back to the 1963 March on Washington – some violent and some peaceful. But we have seen only incremental changes in the way that minorities are treated in our country, including by those who have been sworn to uphold our laws equally.
Although we need new laws to curb the abuses of police, laws don’t change instinctive human behavior to see some people as dangerous or evil based on their color or background. Regulations don’t make people respect each other.
When we see others only as members of their groups we fail to recognize that their lives and individuality matter. This is what every human being seeks. Real change happens when we learn to recognize others – and interact with them – as the valuable individuals that they are. The direction our police training needs to go is toward practiced respectful interaction that leads toward overcoming our inherent prejudices.
We need to introduce interpersonal skills training in our schools that provides children practice in relating respectfully to others. This most essential skill has long been neglected. Then similar training must be brought into every work situation that requires interpersonal skills – which is almost all of them – and especially into the workplaces of those who are expected to enforce our laws.
Training in respectful interaction with people of different backgrounds inspires us to see each other as equally valid human beings. Practice at communicating in a respectful manner generates the interpersonal attitudes and skills that are needed to move past the biases that plague our society.
We also need publicly sponsored skills training programs for those who are jobless or underemployed and have become hopeless about their lives. This will change their focus from resentment to optimism about their future. Much of the funding that goes into policing and keeping millions behind bars would be better spent teaching skills that our society needs to those caught in repetitive incarceration.
The way out of our mire of blame is not just more new laws and regulations, or the elimination of old ones. We need to not just preach – but practice – genuine empathetic interactions with others if real change is to take place. When we adopt the view that every individual is an equally valid human being we reinstate the basic principle of human equality upon which democracy is founded. And as a bonus, when we interact respectfully with others we also experience respect for ourselves.
Real change comes only when we begin to recognize others as human beings who essentially are like ourselves.