“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
-Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn
If this was a more rational, psychologically healthy moment in the lineage of human evolution, Steve Hayes, not Donald Trump, would be the household name we instantly recognize. Dr. Hayes is a psychologist whose towering and yet unheralded achievements have permanently altered our field and culture in ways we are only beginning to comprehend. It is our mutual misfortune that too few know or understand this.
As the principle co-founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Hayes is a singularly important pioneer in what is known as third-wave behaviorism. ACT is a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy that leads to psychological flexibility, the features of which involve expansive awareness in the present moment; an open acceptance of reality as it is, even when it hurts; an ability to watch our thoughts; and a non-judgmental willingness “to change or persist in behavior when doing so serves valued ends.”
Thanks to Hayes and ACT, millions of us are learning how to serenely allow our painful internal experiences to be what they are while we move toward what we deeply care about and value.
According to Psychology Today, Hayes is the author of 38 books and over 530 scientific articles and “has shown in his research how language and thought leads to human suffering.”
And in a recent Huffington Post piece, he took a look at “the Trump phenomenon” and the ease with which some of us might feel superior “by calling Trump and his supporters racists and worst.”
While Hayes cites surveys that reveal “that Trump supporters are higher in almost every form of prejudice,” he cautions us to not take comfort in that fact. Prejudice is not the private province of Trump and his fanatic following but is hard-wired into the basic operating system of the human brain.
Through ACT, we train ourselves to mind our minds. We are interested in mindfully noticing how quickly our brains form judgments of other people (and ourselves). Thanks largely to unconscious, cultural conditioning, it takes less than a second after seeing someone before we reach a conclusion about them.
And it isn’t just that we are constantly making snap judgments of one another. We are acting on them. These mental assessments require only a few hundred milliseconds but it’s enough to predict what we will do and say. We are all biased and our secret prejudices control and direct us more than we might want to admit.
Hayes writes, “As a person of Jewish heritage by the maternal line, whose great aunts and uncles died in ovens, I can say it this way: if you stare at the mirror long enough you can find traces of a man with a funny little mustache looking back at you.”
Hayes cites a recent study from his lab that helps explain “the Trump phenomenon and the breadth of prejudice it points toward.” Hayes and his team of researchers discovered something they called generalized prejudice, “a kind of authoritarian distancing.” Many of us have felt this at one time or another. We feel different from and simultaneously threatened by a particular person or group of people and we’re motivated to physically or emotionally “get away” from them.
Like it or not, all of us divide the world up into two camps, those with whom we identify and the group of alien “others,” who we conceptualize as not being fully human. They are not real people. When we label them as belonging to an unsavory group, it is easier to see them as things or objects that do not deserve our warmth, care or compassion.
Some will insist they do not do this. They may claim they don’t hate anyone except for “the haters.” They tolerate “everyone,” except for those who are not tolerant of everyone. Regardless of who we put into the “other” tribe, we all do it.
By contrast, we all have the same criteria for who we allow in or welcome to our club. “Our people” are the ones we enjoy being around. We understand them and are comfortable taking their perspective. We can imagine what it is like to be them – we feel for them – and (this is the key component), we “are willing to not run away psychologically when what (we) find there is emotionally hard.”
Hayes states these three essential ingredients “predict our enjoyment of others.” Think about the people you like, identify with or feel connected to and chances are you will find perspective taking, empathy, and psychological flexibility in your emotional toolbox.
We belong to them and they belong to us. We are together. But what happens if we cannot take someone else’s perspective or feel their pain? We stigmatize them. We otherize them. We reject and ostracize them.
Think of the police and the Black Lives Matter movement. It is complex but many of us will choose one side and stigmatize the other. Or what about Israel and Palestine? Pro-life or pro-choice? Pro-gun or pro-gun-control? Liberal or conservative? And of course, Trump and the various groups he invites us to fear and hate. We all pick a side in these contests.
If we cannot take another’s perspective and feel their pain, we are more likely to “mentally run away” from them when they show up with their humanity and their complicated tale of woe.
The key feature of ACT, Hayes reminds us is psychological flexibility. If we are to be different in a helpful way, we can’t be hypocrites. Two thousand years ago, Jesus pointed out how easy it is to fixate on the speck in the eye of another while ignoring the beam of wood in our own.
We can’t opt out or cop out as we stigmatize a group as the cause of our discomfort. Instead, we are called to “consciously turn toward pain and suffering in an open and self-compassionate way, so that we can turn toward meaning and purpose.”
How many of us can do this? How many of us are willing to try? How many of us cling to our rejection of Trump as proof we are morally superior to the man described as “a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims – 1.6 billion members of an entire religion – from entering the U.S.”
Hayes suggests that we are overwhelmed by the modern world and that this stress helps create the climate for “us and them” to thrive. We are a nation that prides itself on its commitment to Christian values, but don’t expect Trump or any other candidate for president to talk about cheek-turning or loving our enemies.
There are demons in the world, we are repeatedly warned, and we are the angels who have a responsibility to defeat and destroy them. The problem is, we each have a different perspective on what is true and real and therefore, our demons’ and angels’ lists are all vastly different.
What is going on here? Could Hayes be right? What if the problem wasn’t reality but how our minds create their own version of reality?
Our media systems encourage this distorted, adversarial side-taking. Psychological rigidity, not flexibility, is what sells papers and drives up ratings. Generalized prejudice is affirmed. Liberals are coaxed to castigate conservatives and conservatives feel compelled to condemn liberals. It is no wonder the media loves Trump. He speaks their language.
We are truth-seekers. We need to feel we understand this world and that the opinions we form are correct. The fact that there are millions of people who disagree with us is a bit disconcerting. There must be something “wrong” with them, right? It is not surprising we feel threatened by those we view as holding fundamentally different values from us. Their existence makes us feel insecure and so “they” are the problem.
Unless we are willing to change our automatic, reflexive, fear-based response to the world we share, we are likely to preserve and maintain the extreme political polarization that typifies the public conversation and validates violence.
Martin Luther King wrote, “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert.”
Hayes states, “If we can learn to say self-compassionate ‘yes’ to the internal sense of danger, sadness, and fear we feel just watching our many screens, we can then carry these difficult emotions in a compassionate direction. If we cannot, we just feel overwhelmed and say ‘hell NO!’
“If humankind does not find a way to help people acquire a modern mind for this modern world we have created together, with its wars, and refugees, and little bodies on the beach shown in real time, expect more Trumps.”
And more Trump-haters.