Through the Wormhole – Are We All Bigots?

Morgan Freeman has a Science Channel series called Through the Wormhole. I highly recommend the series for those interested in learning about a broad range of topics from is the universe a simulation to is privacy dead.

One of my favorite episodes is about the nature of racism: Are We All Bigots? In this episode Freeman comes at this question from a number of angles, as he does the topic in every episode. Below is, what I think, is one of the most important segments.

If you like that clip then I highly recommend you watch the entire episode. You can buy it on YouTube for $1.99 (No affiliation with RunPee.)

Opinion
I have to accept that part of my brain is bigoted. It does things (and sometimes gets away with it) that I don’t like.

That may sound like an odd thing to say: my brain does things that I don’t like. What am I if not my brain and it’s decisions? I think its clear, especially if you watch the entire episode of Are We All Bigots, that our brain instinctively makes decisions without the consent of our brain’s rational consciousness. (Not that consciousness is always rational.)

What researchers have proven is that we are not always in control of our thoughts and actions. It’s not an excuse for bad behavior, but it’s a reality we have to deal with. For instance, when someone is addicted to gambling, or food, a drug, whatever, you can’t attribute that to poor character, or weakness.

Our brains evolved to cope with many situations we no longer face. In this modern age we can manipulate those situations in ways that were never possible while the circuitry in our brains was evolving to help us survive. When we eat carbohydrate-rich food — bread, rice, cake, sweets, etc. — our brain says, “OMG, this is great. More please.” That’s because during our evolution there was hardly a chance that we could overeat those things because of their scarcity. That part of our brain doesn’t understand that we now have unlimited access to calories, and don’t need to overeat at each opportunity. The only way to stop ourselves is to use our rational consciousness to intervene and put the breaks on. Again, the rational part of our brain isn’t always in control — much as we might wish it.

It’s the same for how our brain reacts to people who are different from us. Generally speaking, for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, people from outside their tribe wasn’t always a good thing. Like a dog barking at a stranger, we evolved to be wary of different than us. It’s only through life experience that we can retrain our brains. Essentially, we need take that part of our brain that makes snap judgments and pet it, and say, “Hey, it’s okay. These different people are okay. Don’t get worked up.” Over time, that part of our brain will relax. But, we must recognize that it’s always there, ready to wake up again and bark at the next different person that passes by.

I want to make racism go away; from myself and my country and all of humanity. I believe the only way this will be possible is to acknowledge that part of our brains evolved to be wary of different people — because it gave them an edge in survival.

When we see racism, in ourselves or others, we need to make an effort to retrain us/them. And just like training a dog, the best method is positive reinforcement. Because when you yell at someone for being bigoted it’s about as effective as yelling at a dog — pointless and counterproductive. (Even though it feels as good as eating chocolate cake dripping with melted fudge and covered in icing.)

Creator of RunPee. Aspiring author.

7 Replies to “Through the Wormhole – Are We All Bigots?”

  1. This article very inspirational and respectable. Self-awareness is the first step of changing in the right direction. While I agree that addictions are NOT ENTIRELY signs of poor characters and weakness(there are also genetic attributions), I do think people should realize that they are in control if they dare to. It’s like working out; you need to exercise your brain too.

    As in the specific matter of racism, I think of it as simple as a logical failure. A person’s skin color is merely pigmentation. Nothing more. It doesn’t tribute to the person’s character or intelligence or anything else. Our brains love patterns, even made-up ones.

    1. I agree that a person’s skin color is just a reaction to pigmentation, and nothing more. There’s no intrinsic relationship to pigmentation and intelligence, as some have falsely claimed, or any other attribute. That being said, if you’re walking down a street alone and you see a big dog coming your way you’re going to stop in your tracks. Everyone has a built in danger detector and that will certainly set it off. But that reaction is only to the shape and size of the dog. It could turn out to be the most lovable doggie you’ve ever met. But that initial reaction is programmed into the core of our brain.

      Our only hope is to condition ourselves to see beyond the initial reaction and try to make a rational decisions.

  2. I love this article. I was talking to the RunPee family yesterday about just this. Something a lot of people don’t know is that we’re not the only animals that are racist. Dogs and chimps have demonstrated this too, and even older animals like fishes.

    When I worked with dogs, I noticed something I read about previously — that in a group/pack situation, dogs will seek out firstly others of their breed, and, failing that, will seek out dogs of its own color. So a black lab would look for other labs, or at least other black dogs. Eventually a dog would make its own ‘friends’ outside of those boundaries, but those friendships still come with unassailable hierarchical positions. Dogs respect hierarchy above all else (the reason they obey us — if they do — is because they see us as higher in the pack scale as Alpha, hopefully).

    I think my point here is to agree with you totally. We see different as scary. We feel uneasy in a very primitive part of the brain. Fear and anxiety – and decision-making — are controlled in the amigdala, and that’s buried deeply in the brain’s cortex. Our primal limbic system, as you said, tries to protect us with knee-jerk responses to a variety of potentially dangerous stimuli. Run! Fight! Hide! Bark! This worked for a long time and got us where we are today.

    Hopefully, we’ve had enough cultural evolution to think mindfully instead of reactively to every new encounter. I think this is a major reason I treasure Star Trek so much. We see an enlightened society where greed, racism, hunger, and war-like qualities are mostly eradicated, replaced with a humanist outlook on life. (Look at someone like Captain Jean-Luc Picard for the finest example of a Renaissance-level human on TV The reason so many people are excited that he has a Picard show coming soon and so we can watch our hero again and feel inspired to be BETTER. ) So, yes, Star Trek FTW: I love this kind of positive outlook on the future.

    I think my favorite part of your article is about taking our old racist brain parts and pet them. Yes, avoiding *different* was once a source of support and longevity, but we in H. sapiens have had enough cycles of comfort and prosperity (relatively) that we can TEACH ourselves to be more tolerant. This is my hope. And, right, we have to work at it. Constant vigilance!

      1. Dan, I know! Too freaking true about the Humanist aspects of Star Trek The Next Generation, and also Voyager, which keeps the theme going). Deep Space 9 was more of a settling the frontier/war story. Enterprise and Discovery we really don’t speak of. 🙂 And I do take Warp Drive and Transporters for granted now. The Orville doesn’t have transporters, which is a little strange, since it’s so much like ST. Now, replicators: with 3-D printing, we’re starting to have those. And holodecks are probably not that far off.

        But a society of equality is something I really believe we will achieve. One by one , the various ‘other’ barriers will drop.

  3. I’m going to watch that episode of Wormhole to get additional clarity on your thoughts. So cool that you wrote this. I believe Self Awareness is THE key to a better world.

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