Friday, October 5, 2018

To Suffer Is Not Enough: The Negativity Bias and Sustainable Activism

I delivered this talk at the Community Christian Church on September 30, 2018. It has been lightly edited. 


I know it may be difficult to remember those now idyllic times before the endless news cycle revolved around the tweets of a certain horrible person turned celebrity turned president, but that world did exist. If you happened to love obscure news, you may have noticed a social experiment in December 2014. The City Reporter, a Russian news website, decided to publish only good news for one day. They teased the experiment by asking, “Do you feel like you are surrounded by negative information? You don't want to read the news in the morning? … Do you think good news is a myth? We'll try to prove the opposite tomorrow!” And they did. They featured positive headlines, like, "No disruption on the roads despite snow.” They made announcements of mundane progress, celebrating “that an underpass would be built in time … .”

The result was overwhelming, but not positive. The website lost about 2/3 of its readers that day. The deputy editor reflected, “We looked for positives in the day's news, and we think we found them, … . But it looks like almost nobody needs them." ( ) There’s a popular narrative that news outlets drive negativity, that consumers are hungry for something positive but just can’t get it. The trouble was that, when The City Reporter went out of their way to report good news, the people went looking for bad news.

Earlier that same year, in March 2014, Marc Trussler of Vanderbilt and Stuart Soroka of McGill universities, wrote about “Consumer Demand for Cynical and Negative News Frames” in The International Journal of Press/Politics. In contrast to the assumption that “news norms” limit people’s choices by prioritizing bad news, they explored the notion that “news may be negative and/or strategy-focused because that is the kind of news that people are interested in.” They began with a survey asking participants to self-report their preferences for positive, neutral, or negative news. They then tracked the participants’ eye movements while they browsed news online. When they analyzed the results, they found that, “regardless of what participants say, they exhibit a preference for negative news content.” ( ) People said they wanted and preferred good news, and that popular media overemphasized negative stories. Yet when presented with the opportunity, they chose the negative ones. ( )

This is probably more interesting than surprising. I’m reminded of an iconic line from that charming and problematic movie, Pretty Woman. Vivian remarks that, "People put you down enough, you start to believe it." Edward counters with a compliment, "I think you are a very bright, very special woman." But Vivian knows that it isn’t that easy, and says, "The bad stuff is easier to believe. You ever notice that?" And all of us nod – yes, we’ve noticed. Because psychologically, this is exactly the case. We recognize negative events more quickly and remember them more deeply.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense. The human nervous system is the product of about 600 million years of evolution, every bit of it depending on the ability to pass genes on to the next generation. Our ancestors needed to eat enough to stay alive, and stay alive long enough to reproduce. So an important part of our affect system focuses on what things we label as pleasant and desirable – the “I like that and I want more of it” parts of our brains. We like things that feel and taste good, or put us in a position to get more of what we want. Yet as essential as these things are to the survival of the species, a creature can’t do them if it is dead. So our affect systems also let us know when we are likely to be in danger and need to protect ourselves. When a threat arises, all the other stuff can be put on hold. We label some aspect of our experience as unpleasant, disgusting, or dangerous and we take action – the “I hate that and want to get away from it” part of our brains. This reaction needed to be strong and urgent. If we manage to survive, we can look for more food or mates tomorrow. But if we die, that’s the end.

This negativity bias, as painful as it is to experience, has been very effective at helping us survive. Rick Hanson, a psychologist specializing in contemplative neuroscience and neuroplasticity, sums it up -

All this makes human beings super-sensitive to apparent threats. Basically, in evolution, there are two kinds of mistakes: (1) You think there is a tiger in the bushes but there isn’t one, and (2) You think the coast is clear, no tiger in the bushes, but there really is one about to pounce. / These mistakes have very different consequences. The first one will make you anxious, but the second one will kill you. That’s why Mother Nature wants you to make the first mistake a thousand times over in order to avoid making the second mistake even once.” ( )

Practically speaking, Rick continues, this means that,

To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). This is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.” ( )

This is a fantastic line: the negativity bias “is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.” And I think we all know what Rick means: constantly “overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources” is a recipe for never-ending stress, making it difficult to sustain healthy relationships and communities. But let’s acknowledge that the negativity bias would not exist if the world was not a dangerous place; sometimes there is a tiger in the bushes.

This last week, we witnessed one of the more public demonstrations of this fact, watching the unfolding drama surrounding the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. There were so many difficult moments, perhaps especially for those of us who have experienced sexual assault. Never mind that Kavanaugh’s judicial record already indicated he was unfit to serve as a justice on the Supreme Court. Never mind that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund released a 94 page report that revealed that - “Kavanaugh's record on affirmative action, voting rights, police misconduct and other key issues in the scope of racial justice and civil rights is ... deeply concerning … .” Never mind that Kavanaugh’s

jurisprudence will solidify the civil rights retrenchment with devastating consequences for the constitutional and legal protections of those who are most marginalized in our society for decades to come." ( )

It is terrifying to me that none of these issues were sufficient to cause the Senate to reject Kavanaugh’s nomination. It is more terrifying still that a public display of classic abuser behavior – denying, attacking, and reversing victim and offender roles – was not sufficient to immediately end his nomination. ( ) These are moments when we understand clearly that powerful people do not have the well-being of most us in mind.

I stress this point because working with the negativity bias should not be confused with avoidance or denial. We are not trying to pretend that injustice and oppression don’t exist, or that we don’t experience loss and grief. An unwillingness to work honestly with suffering is unhealthy and counterproductive. We all need breaks, to step away and rest. But avoidance and denial is something different, transforming compassion into indifference. So here we are, in a dangerous and desperate world, full of suffering. We have to deal with our long histories of discrimination, exploitation, and oppression. None of us is untouched, and most of us are tired. Compassionate action, for ourselves and others, is both beautiful and excruciatingly difficult. We have a negativity bias, and we want to also have open, loving hearts. How?

Let’s begin by cultivating gratitude for our negativity bias. For all of us, especially for those of us that belong to marginalized communities, we can be grateful that this bias has helped keep us alive. It is healthy to have healthy boundaries and wise to have functional mistrust. There are plenty of people who don’t care about our well-being, or who have their own ideas and agendas for what is good for our well-being. There are plenty of people willing to sacrifice our well-being for what they think is politically expedient, economically advantageous, or religiously comforting for them. It is healthy to have healthy boundaries; it is wise to have functional mistrust.

This might be one of the hardest lessons for folks who want to be in solidarity to learn, but it must be learned. We must honor the suffering in one another, and respect the lived realities of folk who are oppressed, without taking it personally. White folk, it is 100% legitimate for people of color to not trust us. Men, it is 100% legitimate for women and nonbinary folk to not trust you. Cisgender people, it is 100% legitimate for transgender folk to not trust you. Wealthy people, it is 100% legitimate for the poor to not trust you. Temporarily-able-bodied folk, it is 100% legitimate for disabled folk to not trust us. That trust may grow within mutual and equitable relationships, but no one in a position of privilege should assume it of a person in a marginalized community. When we expect it, and have our feelings hurt when we don’t receive it, that is a function of domination. When we act like we are entitled to the goodwill of any person from a marginalized community, we are only proving the necessity of the negativity bias. When the late and great Muhammed Ali was asked about the “good white people” involved in anti-racism and civil rights work, he replied:

There are many white people who mean right and in their hearts wanna do right. [But they’re so few.] If 10,000 snakes were coming down that aisle now, and I had a door that I could shut, and in that 10,000, 1,000 meant right, 1,000 rattlesnakes didn’t want to bite me, I knew they were good... Should I let all these rattlesnakes come down, hoping that that thousand get together and form a shield? Or should I just close the door and stay safe?” ( )

So we begin by honoring the wisdom of the negativity bias: this world is dangerous, and we have to be wise to survive. But this bias does have repercussions on our well-being. We have generally evolved to deal with acute, not chronic, stress. After all, the safest assumption for most of evolutionary history is that a creature will have an early death. If we live a long time with this kind of suffering, with no relief, it takes a toll. So we need tools for healing our bodies and minds. This is where discussions about universal health care, basic income, affordable housing, accessibility, and equity in education intersect. Eliminating poverty, racism, sexism, disablism, and gender and sexuality antagonisms would also reduce the negative experiences in our lives. All of it is connected and all of it is necessary. But it is a long road to travel.

In the meanwhile, grieving is one of the most important and often overlooked aspects of social justice movements. We need to have spaces, places, and practices available that help us process and move through the grief. Otherwise, we can easily get stuck. Hanson’s description of the negativity bias as a tendency for “overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources,” is one that I think most organizers, activists, and social workers would recognize. We need robust networks where we can process the injustices we experience or witness.

There’s a story in the Mahayana Buddhist traditions of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who takes a vow to not enter nirvana until all beings are freed from suffering. For ages, he works tirelessly, until the ocean of suffering is emptied. Triumphant, he returns to the Buddha-of-Infinite-Light, Amitabha, who says, “Look again.” Avalokiteshvara turns and, to his dismay, sees the realms of existence already overflowing with miserable beings. Overwhelmed by the idea of working with such anguish for untold ages yet again, he doubts himself. “I cannot keep my vow,” he thinks, and with the thought, splits into a thousand pieces. But Amitabha gathers the broken pieces together and recreates Avalokiteshvara with a thousand arms and eyes. With this renewal, the bodhisattva is empowered to return to his work.

That image resonates with many of us. Even when we experience success, even when things go well, we look back at the world and see an ocean of suffering. We despair. How can we go on? Our hearts break. We break into a thousand pieces. But Avalokiteshvara’s story reminds us that this shattering may not be the end. If we are able to integrate those experiences, to grieve and heal, we may find an even deeper ability to bear with suffering and work for liberation.

This re-integration is possible because we have also inherited another set of tools, which let us enjoy well-being within ourselves and with others. When we feel safe and can trust that our needs are being met, contentment can arise – the “I can relax and enjoy this” part of our brains. Many creatures, including and perhaps especially humans, are able to nurture, care for, and connect with themselves and one another. But, living in an unjust and consumer-based society, this third part is often woefully under-developed. We usually bounce back and forth between the “I hate that and want to get away from it” and the “I like that and I want more of it” parts of our brains, leaving little time and energy to strengthen the “I can relax and enjoy this” part. Is it any wonder that activists suffer from burn-out and compassion fatigue, and activist communities are rife with conflict? We don’t just burn the candle at both ends, we throw the candle into the fire.

My request this morning is that we not only honor our negativity bias, but that we also become increasingly intentional about cultivating the calming and connecting parts of our brains. Because self and community care can also be activism. Building trust in community can be activism. Understanding and supporting each of our strengths and limitations can be activism. Treating each other, including children, with kindness and respect can be activism. Making art can be activism. Planting flowers can be activism. Creating resilient and sustainable communities can be activism. Honoring and celebrating all types of activism and activists can be solidarity.

The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh and his community faced the terrible suffering of the Vietnam War firsthand. Like Avalokiteshvara, I am sure his heart broke a thousand times. But what emerged from that honest engagement with suffering was a community of service during the war, and a lifetime of building communities of peace and justice after the war. One of his teachings, forged in the flames of that terrible conflict, was simply this: “Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life.” ( )

It has been another rough week, and we know there will be rough weeks ahead. Our negativity bias will have plenty of fresh material. And we will need to find ways to keep going and not give up and never stand idly by. Because the work we are doing, the anger we feel, the hope we muster - all of this is directed toward living into a future where our activism is unnecessary, because we’ve finally come to know community that is truly just and equitable and full of love. The negativity bias can also remind us of just how crucial it is to keep recognizing, appreciating, strengthening, and enjoying the healthy connections we have right now. “To suffer is not enough.” The negativity bias is only meant to help us survive. But to live, we learn to cherish the ordinary. To live, we learn to cherish the mundane. To live, we learn to love, to celebrate love. To live, we learn to create, and to support creativity. Because our suffering "is not enough. We must also … touch the wonders of life.”