It was my privilege last night to be the keynote speaker at the annual awards banquet of the South Coast Interfaith Council. What follows is my address to that group.
It is a great honor to be here as your keynote speaker this evening and I thank you for inviting me. Also, congratulations and well done to all those being honored here tonight. Before I begin, though, let’s take a moment and turn to the person next to you and say in the language of your own faith tradition—namaste, shalom, alssalam ealaykum—peace be with you.
Human psychology being what it is, I am well aware that there is a high statistical probability that right now at least a few of you are thinking, “Who is this clown, what is he yammering about and how long is he going to be up there talking?”
So…there’s a high statistical probability that some of you are worried that you’re about to be bored, that there will be an as-yet-unknown number of minutes of your life that you will just never get back. Not only that, but because this is an interfaith audience, there is also a high statistical probability that at least a few of you are worrying that I might devote too much time to the perspectives of my own faith tradition or that I might say something insensitive or offensive to your faith tradition. I truly hope I don’t. But if I do, please let me know and I will apologize. These worries are, in fact, very human responses to a situation like this. Those very human responses come from a well documented and universal element of human psychology called the Negativity Bias.
The Negativity Bias. I will say more about it in a moment, but first I want to distract you from your Negativity Bias with a story about foxes. Domestic foxes. Pet foxes. And to do that, I’ll start with dogs.
Dogs have been, unarguably, the most important domestic animal in human history. They were the first animal that humans domesticated and we have formed a bond with them that has not only proven mutually beneficial, but has quite literally transformed both our species. Many anthropologists now believe that our relationship with the dog was a significant factor in our own evolution as a species and even enabled us to develop civilization. So well done, Fido.
We’ve known for a long time that dogs are simply domesticated wolves, a fact that’s now been proven through DNA. So that little Chihuahua peeking out of Paris Hilton’s purse? That’s a wolf…which will give you some idea of what can happen with selective breeding. But how did we ever come to domesticate the wolf in the first place? How is it that in some distant past our hunter-gatherer ancestors struck up this partnership with a species that was not only one of our primary competitors, but actually quite dangerous to us—as we were and are to them?
Dmitri Belyaev, a Russian geneticist, wondered about this, too. He believed that our prehistoric ancestors selected wolf pups based on temperament. So, along with Lyudmila Trut, he set up an experiment in 1959 to prove his hypothesis. He set out to see if, selecting for temperament alone, he could create a distinct breed of domestic foxes–pet foxes—a tame version of an animal related to wolves and dogs but one that had never been domesticated.
They set up their experiment in Siberia near the Soviet government facilities where foxes were being bred for their fur, so they had an ample selection of fox pups to choose from. Their selection process was fairly simple. The fox pups that showed aggression or bit them or would flee from the experimenters when stroked or handled were put into one group. Those who responded with curiosity, playfulness and friendliness were put in another group. They continued breeding selectively for these traits of friendliness and curiosity, and in only six generations Belyaev and Trut had succeeded in breeding a new class of foxes they designated as “domesticated elite,” foxes who not only tolerated human companionship, but were eager to establish and maintain it. Foxes who behaved very much like dogs. After 20 generations of breeding, nearly 80% of that group were rated “domestic elite”—suitable as pets and human companion animals. The breeding project is still going and they now help support their research by selling some of these foxes as pets.
Belyaev and Trut were able to create domestic foxes by selecting pups that were willing to overcome their Negativity Bias. See, humans aren’t the only ones who have it. Many mammals have it, especially those with more highly developed brains.
The Negativity Bias is a feature of our psychology that originates in our physiology – our neurophysiology, to be specific. The Negativity Bias arises from the most primitive part of our brains, the amygdala—sometimes called the Lizard Brain. This is the part of our brain that looks at everything as a possible threat and responds with only 3 options: fight, flight or freeze.
The Negativity Bias is a universal factor in human psychology and it served a very practical purpose in our evolution as a species. That thing you’re about to pick up, is it a stick or a snake? That shape on the horizon, is that an antelope or a lion? That person coming toward me, is that a walking stick in his hand or a spear? Is he from my clan or is he one of those people from two hills away? Is he here to offer us a partnership in something or to scout us out for a raid? But the Negativity Bias doesn’t just make us evaluate things, events and people, it biases us toward the negative—it makes us lean toward fight, flight or freeze instead of investigate, make friends, and play.
I’ve done a fair amount of reading about this and I could say a lot more about the Negativity Bias, but I’m mindful that there’s a fine line between a long speech and a hostage situation. So let’s cut to the chase. What does all this have to do with the South Coast Interfaith Council? Well I’m coming to that…but to get there I have to go here.
This is an election year and election years have a tendency to throw a lot of things into sharp relief—and nothing shows up more sharply than the shadow of our fears. Election years in general, and this one in particular, have a way of bringing out the worst in us because candidates and parties play our Negativity Bias like a violin. And since we, as a species and as individuals, are always only one layer of civility away from being ferocious, this is a very dangerous thing.
Remember those other foxes? The pups who bit or acted aggressive or fled from their human handlers? Well they did a breeding experiment with them, too. And the results are terrifying. On the other side of the compound from the tame foxes are the cages that only specially trained handlers can enter. They have to wear protective gear when they go in to feed these other foxes, because these foxes delight in attacking. They live for it. They are bigger, meaner, and astonishingly aggressive. And now nobody knows what to do with them. Animal rights people don’t want them euthanized, but there’s also a very real worry that they might escape into the wild–and that could be a whole new ecological disaster. They are a living object lesson for us.
Election years tend to bring out that aggressive fox inside us, the one we’ve kept somewhat subdued, barely restrained in the tension between first-amendment free speech and laws against hate speech. There is a spirit of meanness and fear abroad in our country that wants to manipulate our Negativity Bias, that wants to make us suspicious of each other, that wants to make us feel threatened by each other, that wants us to imagine each other as enemies so that we can be directed to vote for the manipulator who promises to be our great leader and protector, who promises to keep us safe.
Religion is one of those traditional dividing lines that can be easily manipulated if we’re not careful. Religion has always been a productive field for those who want to play on our Negativity Bias. There are loud voices right now in our culture who not only want to make scapegoats of particular religions, but want to widen the divisions within our religions. There is a loud noise of Xenophobia and unbridled racism shouting in our land, and I have to say that right now, as a white, male, Christian Protestant, speaking to this wonderfully diverse and eclectic group of people, I feel like I should apologize for some of the things that other white Christian Protestants are saying and doing. Quite frankly, sometimes I am ashamed of my people. We have a lot to answer for. But that’s another speech for another time.
I’m not here tonight just to tell you what you already know about the bad news, about anti-Muslim rhetoric or blatant racism or the long litany of injustices that are all manifestations of our fears, especially White Anglo-Saxon Protestant fears. I’m not here just to tell you the bad news about our Negativity Bias. I’m here to give you the good news that there is an antidote.
There is an antidote. It comes in two steps. First, it’s necessary to acknowledge the Negativity Bias. Admit that it’s there. Second, it’s important to intentionally focus on positive possibilities and positive dynamics. Focusing on possibilities allows other parts of our brains and psyches, more highly developed parts, to take the lead instead of those instincts driven by fear.
You are here tonight, we are here tonight because we are the tame foxes. We are the ones who have had enough curiosity, bravery, friendliness and even playfulness to look beyond the edges of our own religious traditions to try to see what others are seeing, to try to understand what others are understanding. We are the ones who are curious enough to learn to appreciate a different perspective without abandoning our own. We are the ones who have read past the rare verses in our sacred texts that would exclude us from each other or pit us against each other if taken in the wrong context to find the rich and plentiful vein of gold in those same texts that calls us to transcend that impulse, to be inviting, to be accepting, to embrace the stranger. We are the ones who see that our destinies are woven together. We are the ones who hear that clarion voice in every one of our traditions that says simply and firmly, “Be not afraid.”
There are things we can do together as an alliance of faith communities, things we have been doing, that can show the rest of the world that religions do not have to be in competition with one another or antagonistic to one another but can cooperate to achieve things together even more effectively than what we can achieve independently. The Farmers Markets initiated by this Interfaith Council, the support of Centro Shalom, the Habitat for Humanity building programs—these are all great examples of how we make a positive difference together, of how we “intentionally focus on positive possibilities and positive dynamics.”
But there’s more that we can do together. We can advocate for improving the status of women. We can brainstorm about how to improve education…and access to education and affordable child care. We can find ways to address injustices in our policing and criminal justice systems, particularly those injustices endured by persons of color. We can work together on water and environmental issues—after all, regardless of whatever else we do or don’t agree on, we’re all riding through space and time on the same planet.
I would especially like to suggest tonight that we unite as advocates for the homeless. We can speak with one great, united, faithful voice to our cities and counties on behalf of a people who have been literally swept to the curb. We can get creative together to imagine new ways to address this growing problem that all too often winds up on the doorsteps of our houses of worship. We can advocate for comprehensive housing-first programs that address the needs of the whole person to give those forgotten souls a new lease on life. And we can do it all in the name of God, even if we don’t mean exactly the same thing when we say that.
We need to be doing good things together and we need to be very visible in the doing of them. We need our positive interfaith actions to speak louder than their anti-faith words.
I can’t help but think sometimes that maybe we are at a tipping point in the domestication of our own species. Who will win? The aggressive foxes or the tame ones? The aggressive foxes have been let out of their cages. This is no time for us to sit quietly in ours. This is the time for the tame foxes to come out and play. With gusto.
Peace be with you. And be not afraid.