Arthur Ciaramicoli came to my attention a few years ago upon the publishing of his last book, The Soulful Leader: Success with Authenticity, Integrity and Empathy. He sent me a copy and I’ve come to rely upon it as a guide to the tenets we embrace in our ministry.  We’ve stayed in touch since. Below is an excerpt from Arthur’s latest book out this week, available on Amazon: The Triumph of Diversity: How to Rejoice and Benefit from the Interconnectedness of Mankind. This book addresses the increase in hate crimes and prejudice as well as providing means to end this awful trend in our society. He presents contemporary research and client examples of how diversity leads to greater health, creativity and equality in the educational, political and corporate worlds. As always, please feel free to send me your thoughts and comments and I’ll gladly pass them on. – Jeff

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My Country is the World; My Religion is to do Good. Thomas Paine

I am writing this book because I am brokenhearted about recent developments in our society. I hope through the exploration of the topics I will share with you that we can address the rising tendencies of prejudice and hate within our culture, while discovering a formula to counter the fear of diversity and difference. I will tell you stories about people who have overcome prejudice and stereotypes, from Neo Nazi white supremacists to a teenage Muslim boy, from religious, business, and education leaders to ordinary everyday people.  I will show you how having an open mind and an open heart has enriched their lives, and how it will enrich yours, too.

I have always believed that as Americans we are the leaders of the free world. Yet I am saddened by the number of Americans who don’t seem to care about others in the world, or about those who seem different from us, or who seem to threaten our beliefs if theirs are dissimilar.  I have been haunted by a comment made by one of my Latino clients: “If you are Jewish, Brown, Black or of an other than heterosexual orientation, you are no longer wanted in America.” I hope with every fiber of my being that his perspective is not wholly accurate.

Most historians and social commentators agree that America today is more polarized than at any time since the Civil War. Such polarization not only suggests individual and societal confusion, but begs answers to a number of questions: Have we as a society come to a time when differences in color, religion, sexuality or nationality are seen as threats to our way of life? Has exclusion and lack of interest in those suffering in other parts of the world become a knee-jerk response meant to somehow protect us from our own irrational fears?

Groupthink is a concept developed by psychologist Irving Janis in 1971. Janis defined groupthink as the psychological drive for consensus at all costs, which suppresses disagreement and prevents the appraisal of alternatives in cohesive decision-making groups.

When we close the door on those who seem dissimilar, we limit our own potential for growth, and ultimately, our happiness. Diversity is the antidote to groupthink. It expands the mind and enriches the soul.

Disdain of diversity almost always manifests as an us/them dichotomy, an in-group and an out-group, which is often the dynamic elemental to the creation of cults and the normalization of dogmatic thinking. The out-group is disdained, if not totally condemned. A stereotypical view of the out-group is maintained, with direct pressure on dissenters to conform to narrow perspective. Groupthink often creates an illusion of invulnerability and unanimity.

Such groups attract the insecure and the fragile among us, offering a convoluted certainty to lives that have been lived with ambivalence and uncertainty.

But the opposite is true of diverse groups, those which share ideas from many different perspectives absent of the threat of not conforming. Ideas flow and minds expand as a result of variety and novelty.

In contrast to the growth in ethnocentrism, a movement is taking place throughout the world called deliberate polling (a random, representative sample of people engaged in deliberation on current issues through small group discussions, with experts as moderators, for the purpose of creating more understanding and broadening thoughtful reflective opinion). This movement brings individuals of varying perspectives, including those from opposite points of view on various subjects, to a civil dialogue on many issues. The result seems to be that fixed views can change when people have a chance to hear opposing views and examine facts without bias or outside influence. According to Professor James Fishkin of Stanford University, the creator of this process, about 70% of participants change their minds.

America in One Room

Recently a project called America in One Room, an example of deliberate polling, gathered 526 people from 47 states in Grapevine, Texas for a weekend of bi-partisan discussions regarding the major political issues of our time. Pre-discussion and post-discussion surveys were conducted. Interestingly people who felt that American democracy is working increased from 30% in the beginning of the event to 60% after the event. Participating individuals also said they felt less skeptical of those with opposing political views at the conclusion. Participants who thought that those on the opposite political side were not thinking rationally dropped from 51% to 33%. Most amazing was that 95% stated that by participating they learned a great deal from those they had previously considered to be very different from them. group discussions, when facilitated by experienced leaders, can lead not only to greater understanding, but to less conflict while increasing the chance of reaching compromise.

How Beliefs Change

This recent consultation is an example of the type of bias that can be altered with an empathic approach.

Luke is a mid-western protestant who called for help with his anxiety in the workplace. Interestingly, he looks very similar to country singer Luke Bryant; he is tall and lanky and speaks in a manner that conveys naiveté. His HR representative describes him as having difficulty with colleagues who are not like him. He becomes defensive with those who are not American born, and also those who do not support his rigid religious beliefs. He is seen as a talented contributor but very uneasy with his Indian colleagues as he often retreats in their presence. During our first meeting he mentioned that he was glad I was a Christian so he could feel free to talk openly. “My last psychologist was Jewish, and I just couldn’t relate to him.” I asked Luke why and he could not specify: “It was just a feeling, an uneasiness.”

When the origin of prejudice cannot be identified it is often the result of conditioning from the past that was not examined earlier in an objective manner. What we hear in our homes can very easily become a belief in a young person’s mind.

I inquired if Luke had had experience with Jewish colleagues or Jewish friends. “We didn’t have any Jews in our tow;, no blacks, no Asians, just people like me.” I asked him why he assumed I was Christian. “Because of your last name. Aren’t you Italian?”  I answered in the affirmative but also let him know that there are Italian Jews in Italy, and in this country, too. One thousand or more Italian Jews died in Auschwitz, and it is estimated that 45,000 Jews live in Italy currently. Suddenly Luke looked very uneasy. His comfort level had dissipated based on a new classification of the person in front of him.

In my experience, Luke’s story is fairly typical. He believed what he’d learned early in life from authority figures─parents, teachers and clergy─lessons based on distortions that were passed down from generation to generation.  But as we formed a bond Luke gradually became open to examining each of the ideas embedded in his psyche that may or may not have been true. His fear of my being Jewish dissipated through the empathic bond we formed. He gradually felt more open to question me and to explore his own belief system. For instance, he asked why Jews would not accept that Jesus was the Messiah. My answer: “How could they when the Messiah, according to Jewish scripture, is expected to create an age of universal peace, end all hatred, oppression and suffering, and unite humanity through the knowledge of the God of Israel, none of which he did.” To his credit, Luke listened and learned. “Jews are not disparaging Jesus, they simply are adhering to the signs that they believe would indicate the messiah’s presence. Slowly, Luke’s empathic range expanded. Over time he became comfortable within the diverse world in which he lives.

It is a scientific fact that when we form empathic bonds, we change brain chemistry for the better, producing the near miracle neurotransmitter oxytocin, which creates trust and a willingness to listen and to learn.

After eighteen months of weekly meetings, Luke began a session by asking why he had never seen my wife or kids in the yard or around the house (I work from an office in my home). I responded, “What makes you think I have a wife and kids?” With a mischievous grin on his face and said, “Oh, great; now you’re going to tell me you’re an Italian, gay Jew”. I asked Luke if it would matter. “Not any more, Doc,” he said, “were past all that foolishness.” Mission accomplished.

The Triumph of Diversity 

The experience I had with Luke over those months is similar to the experience I have had with many individuals, particularly those who have joined my leadership and communication groups. Those groups, which have been ongoing for more than thirty years, are populated by Iranian Christians, Indian Hindu’s, British Episcopalians, Australian protestants, Black Central Africans, Gay men, Lesbian women, obese individuals and straight white Americans. The members of the group appear to be very different on the outside, but over time each comes to understand their shared humanity. Such an experience is infectious; once a person learns how to relate empathically to others, he feels more comfortable and more secure in the world. A brain change has taken place that markedly reduces fear and the need to be afraid of differences; empathy opens the door to commonalities.                   

Hopefully, this process can be manifested in all of our lives so that we may counter the divisiveness currently gaining momentum within our country. We are in desperate need of more of those who unite rather than ostracize.

Now, let’s examine the recent resurgence of hate and prejudice within our culture.

Anti-Semitic occurrences reached a record high in 2018. The Anti-Defamation League recorded 1,879 incidents of vandalism, harassment or attacks. The worst attack at a Pittsburgh synagogue left eleven people dead, the most dreadful attack in modern history in the United States. The greatest amount of hate crimes against any religious group targeted Jews, an increase of 664 from 2015 to 2016.

The number of assaults against Muslims rose significantly from 2015 to 2016. There were 307 incidents of anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2016, a 19% increase in one year. The total number of anti-Muslim incidents rose 67% from 2014 to 2015.

Regardless of political persuasion, we must work to end Islamophobia and anti-Semitism because the struggle is the same: to preserve diversity, inclusiveness and the freedom to be and speak without fear of reprisal.

Half of all hate crimes in the United States are race related (the FBI indicates that 47% of hate crimes are racially motivated). 2,013 incidents involving Black or African American as victims occurred in 2017. The majority of Americans believe race relations have worsened.

LBGTQ workers also face considerable discrimination in the workplace. One of out of every twenty-five complaints about discrimination is reported by LGBTQ employees. Transgender workers experience even higher discrimination, with 97% experiencing harassment. Additional studies have found a significant negative bias toward LBGTQ individuals in the medical community as well, making it harder to obtain quality medical care.

In a Pew research center survey in 2017, 42% of women said that they had experienced some form of gender discrimination. One in five women said they had been sexually harassed at work, while one in five women under age thirty said they had been sexually harassed online.

Three years ago, the United States ranked 28th in gender equality according to the World Economic Forum study of 149 countries. Last year, the US ranked 51st.

An analysis of 214 studies and 91,000 teenagers in the Journal The American Psychologist found that perceived discrimination led to depression, low self-esteem, lower academic performance, lower motivation, substance abuse and risky sexual behavior. Other reports have found that women who reported sex discrimination were three times more likely to experience clinical depression.

However, many under the age of forty still want and seek out diversity. They are the most diverse group of Americans in our history. They have rejected old stereotypes, racial divisions and prefer to work with and live in communities composed of various ethnic groups. They are as we all should be, committed to not allowing our communities to be divided along religious or racial lines. The most successful American cities, like Boston, Seattle, Chicago, and Washington have significant numbers of ethnic groups and all have thriving LGBTQ communities. A study in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law found that US cities with greater gender pay equality had more advanced laws against sexual orientation-based discrimination.

The encouraging news, according to a 2019 CNN and Kaiser Family Foundation poll, is that 81% of Americans say that the increasing number of people from different ethnic groups, different races and different nationalities is enriching American culture. This is an increase from 70% in 2016. There is, however, an increase in those who believe ethnic and racial discrimination has worsened. The survey also indicated that Latino Americans and Blacks report that they feel their lives are in more danger than they were in 2015.

The Empathy Dilemma

Empathy is the capacity to understand and respond to the unique experiences of another. It is essentially the ability to see beyond the surface and into the heart and soul of another. Countries with higher levels of empathy, according to a Michigan State University study, have higher levels of self-esteem, agreeableness, conscientiousness, well- being, prosocial behavior and collectivism. Unfortunately, in recent years there has been a reduction in empathy and an increase in self-absorption in America. A study from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research discovered that college students currently have higher levels of narcissism and lower levels of empathy than those of the previous generation.

Interestingly, additional studies found that women in their fifties are more empathic than any other group, with middle age adults being more empathic than older and younger adults. I imagine being immersed in motherhood has expanded empathy for many women, as well as women who have been caregivers, spouses or parents.  Researchers have proven, however, that empathy can always be expanded, and that such expansion contributes to a sense of well-being. Hannah Schreier of Penn State University split Canadian high school sophomores into two groups. One group volunteered at a local elementary school, the other group was on a waiting list for volunteering. Three months later those who had volunteered had lower body index and significantly lower cholesterol levels. Those most interesting result was that those who had the highest empathy had the lowest inflammation levels, and those with the highest altruism had the lowest cholesterol levels. Of course, this particular study was conducted with high school sophomores, so it is not clear what we might generalize about the adult population. Yet other studies have shown that volunteers who think about others decrease their mortality risk markedly. Empathic immersion in the lives of others changes our entire physiology for the better. One key way to increase empathy is to feel compassion for those suffering in the world, in your area, nationally and internationally. In other words, following Thomas Paine’s quote, my favorite of all quotes. An exclusive approach to the world restricts empathy; ignoring oppression, wherever it takes place, robs us of our humanity.

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About Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D. and The Triumph of Diversity: Have we come to a time where differences in color, religion, sexuality, or nationality are seen as threats to our way of life? Has exclusion and lack of interest in those suffering in other parts of the world become a way to protect us from our fears? When we close the door to those who seem dissimilar, we limit our potential for growth. Diversity expands the mind and enriches the soul; it is the antidote to groupthink. In The Triumph of Diversity, Dr. Ciaramicoli analyzes prejudice by tracing it to personal origins and relates true stories of courageous individuals who have overcome hatred, cruelty and sadism to become open-minded, loving resilient people. He re-emphasizes that we are in desperate need of those who unite rather than those who ostracize. Dr. Ciaramicoli shares his observations as a psychologist in clinical practice, his interviews with laymen, clinicians and clergy, and data from current research to conclude, as Thomas Paine said, “My Country is the World; my Religion is to do Good,” and that learned prejudices can be laid bare and redirected to give way to genuine empathy and inclusion over exclusion. Dr. Ciaramicoli can be reached at balanceyoursuccess.com.