On the Art of Discussing Paradigm-Shifting Topics
Everyone has an intellectual/mental/emotional operating system – a personal paradigm that serves as a frame of reference containing basic assumptions and ways of thinking. This personal paradigm is the means by which we make sense of the world around us. It helps us to filter, understand, and categorise information and experiences. It helps us to know what is “true” and what isn’t; it guides our responses and our actions.
For someone who was raised on the streets, relying on street-smarts and their wits, they may understand the world to be a hostile place with scarce resources and easily manipulated marks. This guides their responses and their actions. However, someone raised in a loving home with abundance and gentle guidance may understand the world to be an accommodating place where hard work and relationships lead to prosperity and contentment.
A personal paradigm develops over one’s lifetime and depends on many things,
One’s macro-culture – that’s the big stuff, like country of origin, current community, heritage, race, and cultural history
One’s micro-culture – that’s the smaller stuff, like family of origin, friends, current family members, or caregivers
Education – this includes the schools one attended, what was learnt, whether they felt successful in their education, and how the individual has continued to educate themselves, including interacting with mentors
Personal experiences – this is the stuff one has experienced in their lifetime and what it’s taught them about themselves, others, and the world around them
Media – the movies that are viewed, the stories read, the news that’s told, the images shown, the podcasts listened to, and the pages and the people followed
This is how we make sense of the world.
When someone is told that they are part of the privileged, they’re going to evaluate that against their personal paradigm, in particular, their personal experiences. They’ll be thinking of whether they were sent to school or educated. Whether they had enough food each day or a safe home to live in. Whether they were beat up or molested in childhood or how many important people in their life died. Or how many times they’ve been sexually assaulted. They may not feel particularly privileged.
Likewise, an individual whose life is filled with opportunity and meaningful relationships may not feel marginalised, despite sharing some characteristics or heritage with traditionally marginalised groups.
An individual with a background rife with adverse childhood experiences loses the perspective that theirs is a life of privilege when compared to those who are denied even more basic human rights due to race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, or heritage. Without connection with others against which to juxtapose their experiences, they are unlikely to understand the meaning of their privilege. Understanding comes through compassionate connection with those whose lives are different and with mentors who can lead the way.
Humans are designed to be in connection with each other. We operate mostly unconsciously through hormones, synapses, and other magical pathways. Our primary operating system is our para-sympathetic nervous system – our “calm and connected” system. This part of our autonomic nervous system keeps our hearts beating, our lungs breathing, and our food digesting. The main hormone of this system is oxytocin – the hormone of love, trust, bonding, and connection. This is why isolation is so effective at crushing and changing people, and why friends and loved ones can heal and nurture new ideas.
Personal paradigms, once settled and serving us reasonably well are most likely to be changed by 2 things: Great Suffering or Great Love.
Since I work in trauma, I see how Great Suffering rips out the core of an individual and changes their very identity, their very essence. And I see how Great Love can bring healing, restoration, a new way of viewing themselves and others, and a new way of interacting in the world.
When engaging in paradigm shifting conversations, such as privilege, racism, cultural appropriation, medical routines, consumerism, religion & faith, parenting, etc., there are a few things to consider:
What is your motive for engaging in the conversation?
Are you hoping to change the other person’s perspective? In this case, you’ll have to consider if you’ll employ Great Suffering or Great Love.
Will your conversation foster human connection?
Will everyone emerge from the conversation grateful for having been a part of it?
The key to engaging in a conversation that fosters human connection, and therefore, the opportunity to encourage paradigm-shifting changes, is empathy.
Empathy is the art of considering something from the other’s vantage, i.e. wearing their shoes (metaphorically) for a mile. It is connecting by establishing emotional resonance with the other person by placing oneself in their situation and looking through their eyes. Empathy is other-centred.
Sympathy is the art of considering something from our own vantage, by drawing upon our own experiences and feelings in order to connect through a shared or common experience or history. It is connection by looking inward in order to establish a common or shared experience. Sympathy is self-centred.
Empathy is the glue that holds us together as humans sharing life on this planet together. When I’m talking about paradigm-shifting conversations, I’m talking about communication between two or more reasonable people. This does not include narcissists or sociopaths. I’m also not talking about advocacy.
Lack of empathy is a defining characteristic of narcissists and sociopaths and they are generally impervious to connection based on achieving emotional resonance or to changing their perspective based on another’s suffering. It’s probably an exercise in futility to attempt to converse in paradigm-challenging topics.
Advocacy is a form of communication that elevates the voice(s) of those who are not being heard or are unable to speak for themselves. It seeks to ensure the voices of those who are disadvantaged, marginalised, oppressed, hurt, or excluded are represented. Their voices may be angry, frustrated, grieving, incensed, or frightened. Advocacy does not target an individual for reciprocal oppression, but rather brings awareness about systems and structures that permit individuals to oppress, hurt, exclude, and marginalise others. Advocacy opens eyes and brings people to the table to talk where empathy connects individuals. Connection, built on empathy, changes individuals who then leave oppressive systems and abandon marginalising behaviours to become agents of change and advocates.
Dominant cultures and dominant paradigms do not need to advocate for their own perspective. It is unnecessary to elevate their own voices or to engage in mockery, derision, denigration, or social isolation for the few that disagree with them.
If we take today’s near hysteria regarding vaccines, how many families who no longer vaccinate their children, for whatever reason, including death or injury of a previously vaccinated child, moral objection to ingredients, scientific investigation, etc., have changed their minds as a result of having their children called “crotch fruit”, or being told they are too stupid to know vaccines save lives, that the lives of their children should be left to the professionals, or that they should be arrested and have their children taken from them? I’ll go out on a limb here and say “none”. Perhaps it’s a good example of how mockery, bullying, and denigration from a dominant group is more about bonding to their own kind than actually changing someone else’s perspective.
Personal paradigms are deeply entrenched operating systems. They don’t change because someone says we are wrong or someone says we are hurting others. Where advocacy opens eyes, empathy reaches deep into our limbic system where cherished beliefs are held. Empathy disarms fear; connection heals emotional wounds.
My paradigm-shifting changes happened because I was in connection with people who cared. They validated my concerns and shared their lives with me. I am changing my perspective on many things today because of deep connections that include mutual validation, concern, and love. I would no more want to hurt someone I care about by my thoughts or actions than I want to be hurt by another’s.
As privileged and marginalised peoples, we will only learn to connect in shared human experiences as members of this planet when we connect in love and empathy.
Paradigm-shifting conversations between two or more reasonable people begin with empathy for everyone’s learned experience, whether we’re talking about racism, privilege, cultural appropriation, marginalisation, consumerism, global warming, vaccinations, obstetrical violence, birth trauma, or veganism. Life has been tough for far too many people so far. Proceed with care.