I grew up in northern New Jersey, in a relatively diverse town of about 50,000 residents. When I entered high school at the tender age of 14, I found myself associating with some girls who may not have been the best influences. I craved adventure. I craved rebellion. After all, I had a developing frontal lobe. Some of the girls I grew close with would steal from the Mandee’s clothing store closest to the high school. These girls were cool, and I wanted to fit in. At first, I thought it was cool enough just to be around those kinds of activities. But after a while, the rush faded. I had to do it for myself.
Without fully registering the risk of the undertaking, I went for it. My first-round of shoplifting consisted of a few pairs of underwear completely inappropriate for a 14-year-old, which I knew would appall my mom. (I’d hand-wash them in the bathroom and hang them to dry in the eves attached to my bedroom.) I did it by walking in the store, grabbing some jeans and a few shirts to try on, carefully hiding a few pairs of underwear in between the garments, and heading into the dressing room. I added the three pairs of underwear to my current set and put my regular pants back on. I walked out of the fitting room and said the clothes didn’t fit right. I looked around at a few other things to prevent suspicion and walked out the door.
I walked to the next block where my friends were waiting, and I proudly showed them the items I snagged. We all laughed. My new friends were proud of me and hell, I was proud of myself. That was easy! And what a rush!
It’s All Collective
If I had been hanging out with a peer group that shunned stealing and breaking the law, I wouldn’t have done it. There would have been nothing in my mind to make me (A) think it was okay to steal or (B) brazen enough to try it. I don’t blame my friends. I was out there seeking their adventures. But I do blame the collective consciousness that made us think it was okay.
I like to think I’m a good person. I like to think I have morals. I like to think I have a sound conscience. But I’m also a realist. Even with a fully formed frontal lobe, I’m likely still able to be convinced to make some terrible decisions.
In The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, a true and gut-wrenching tale of a gentleman named Lale Sokolov who was responsible for tattooing numbers on prisoners on their entry to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. After reading the novel, my head was spinning. I could picture myself in his shoes, trying to survive my imprisonment by tattooing innocent people. There were characters on both sides of that story that forced me to look at myself in different ways than I’d ever have imagined. Could I have been a Nazi guard performing the unthinkable?
It’s less difficult to treat other people terribly or ignore laws when those around you are doing the same. It’s common to begin acting even more terrible if you get away with minor infractions. While my stealing three pairs of underwear after school one day might not have the same effect on the world as the Holocaust, it does have one thing in common: the potential danger of a collective consciousness.
The definition of a collective consciousness is the “fundamental sociological concept that refers to the set of shared beliefs, ideas, attitudes, and knowledge that are common to a social group or society.”
Thinking of the potential danger, I ponder a few difficult questions. If I were surrounded by people who imprison, torture and kill Jewish people, would it be difficult to follow their murderous orders? If I lived in the Southern portion of the United States 80 years ago as a white male, would it have been unfathomable to torture and kill African Americans? If I worked in a prison, would it be difficult to demean inmates? If I grew up in a community that vilified the LGTBQ community, would it be difficult to bully and torture a transsexual woman walking down the street?
No. If you or I were in any of those positions, we’d act horribly human, not humanely compassionate.
It’s 2020. A pandemic has forced me into the comfort of my own home. I still haven’t given up on my no TV streak: I proudly have 16 months under my belt. But I’m home. After working full days, raising two kids, being a conscientious homeowner, and caring for my two dogs, five chickens, and one spider, I habitually crack open a book and read. But lately, I’ve been spending more time on Instagram.
I imagine that may not seem positive to some folks out there, but it’s helped me to widen my perspective in a quicker manner than reading books. I’ve started following people of all nationalities, races, locations, and sexual orientations. These are not people in the media who are pushing agendas. These are people – like you and me – that are sharing their stories and perceptions of the world.
It’s a profoundly powerful place to be. It’s increased my empathy. It’s widened the scope of the collective consciousness to which I belong. And I recommend it to anyone. Let’s stop conforming to our confirmation biases and start widening our perspectives.
Let’s stop acting human and start being more humane.