Monday, July 15, 2013

When signals hurt

Franz de Waal emphasizes in "Our Inner Ape" that there are good reasons for nature's gift of empathy to female humans and other primates.

Men, of course, can also be quite good at empathy and understanding another person's emotions.

The experience on the Navaho reservation described in "Navahos Wear Nikes" (2011) by Jim Kristolfic.  His single mother was hired by the Navahos as a nurse and she brought her children to the reservation from Pennsylvania.  Jim attended school with Navaho boys who were diligent in joking about him and steady in putting him down in any way they could manage.  Some of their hazing was physical but the kidding and put-downs were on his mind nearly all the time.

We like to say that "sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me" but that is not strictly true.  Rejection or ridicule by a single person or a group can be painful.

The social and emotional function of groups, gangs, clique and professional societies is well-known.  Classrooms and church activities are also shot through with social relations and they are not always positive. I am listening to "The Undivided Past" by David Cannadine, a work that explores how much historical exaggeration and oversight have resulted in pictures of forces such as religion dividing people into opposing groups when actually there was plenty of support and mutual aid between Muslims and Christians or the poor and the rich.

It is true that being accepted by a group can feel very good.  But that sort of means that being rejected by a group can hurt.  Of course, if they kick me and hit me, it will hurt but it also hurts when they turn their backs to me or walk away from me or won't speak to me or point at me and laugh in a derisive way.

Quite a lot has been made of the discovery that some cells in the brain are involved in taking a given action will fire if the person (or ape) sees another doing that action.  They have been referred to, quite logically, as mirror cells.  There are acts that give me physical pain or social/emotional upset when committed by others.  Those acts I don't want to sympathize with.  However, it is difficult to judge my own worth, competence, attractiveness.  So, when others send me signals that they reject me, find me repulsive or ugly or morally deficient, I may accept the signals as they are meant to be and inflict additional pain on myself.

When student teachers have an unpleasant experience with a pupil in their classes, especially if they are young, nubile women, they can find it very difficult to ask themselves "What is that pupil's problem?" instead of asking "What is wrong with me that I elicited that reaction from a student?"

It can help when thinking about social matters to remember that signals that have sent an unpleasant message are signals.  They may mean that indeed one should try to dress in more socially approved colors but they can also mean the signaler is jealous, envious and frightened.

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