05 October 2011


The misconception ~ You do nice things for the people you like and bad things to the people you hate.

The truth ~ You grow to like people for whom you do nice things and hate people you harm.

This is the premise of The Benjamin Franklin Effect by David McRaney. His discussion draws upon research in psychology, with plenty of examples to keep things clear. At its core, this interpretation of social behavior runs like this ~ "For many things, your attitudes came from actions which led to observations which led to explanations which led to beliefs. It is well known in psychology [that] the cart of behavior often gets before the horse of attitude. Your actions tend to chisel away at the raw marble of your persona, carving into being the self you experience day-to-day. It doesn't feel that way, though. To conscious experience, it feels like you are the one holding the chisel, motivated by existing thoughts and beliefs. It feels as though the person wearing your pants is performing actions consistent with your established character, yet there is plenty of research to suggest otherwise. The things you do often create the things you believe."

Puzzled? Intrigued? Check out the article, and see how your self-perception may have shifted by the time you've finished. My thanks to Jennifer Ouellette for the link.

Coming at human behavior from another direction, fifty years ago novelist John Howard Griffin (a white man) "devised a daring experiment. To comprehend the lives of black people, he darkened his skin to become black. As the civil rights movement tested various forms of civil disobedience, Griffin began a human odyssey through the South, from New Orleans to Atlanta."

The book he wrote about that experience, Black Like Me, was based on the 188-page journal he kept during his six weeks of traveling by bus, or sometimes hitchhiking, through the racially segregated states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, passing as a black man. His goal was to feel and describe the difficulties experienced by blacks in a racist society. He succeeded beyond all expectations ~ according to Bruce Watson in a Smithsonian Magazine retrospective, Griffin's narrative remains invaluable for several reasons ~ "It's a useful historical document about the segregated era, which is still shocking to young readers. It's also a truthful journal in which Griffin admits to his own racism, with which white readers can identify and perhaps begin to face their own denial of prejudice. Finally, it's a well-written literary text that predates the 'nonfiction novel' of Mailer, Capote, Tom Wolfe, and some others."

The book was published in 1961, but I was not exposed to it until a decade later. Attention in the nation had shifted from the civil rights movement to the feminist and antiwar movements, yet I was riveted by the originality and daring of Griffin's experiment, and by the hard truths he revealed about bigotry and oppression, and how they can leach human lives without anyone even being aware ~ until someone like Griffin comes along, grabs us by our lapels and shakes us and says "See? This is what we've allowed to happen. This is who we are." Half a century later, the South has come a long way. But the South, and the nation, still have a long, long way to go.

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