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Opinion: 'Are you criticising someone because they're mirroring something you don't like about yourself?'

In this extract from Ubuntu, the granddaughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains how we can learn to live without bias.

Mungi Ngomane

Nompumelelo Mungi Ngomane, the granddaughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has written a new book called Everyday Ubuntu: Living Together The African Way. Ubuntu is an ancient Southern African philosophy about how to live life well, together. In this lesson from the book, Ngomane writes about how we can overcome negativity bias. 

HUMAN BEINGS ARE cursed with negativity bias, where our brains tend naturally to focus on the negatives. To overcome this bias we can decide to question it.

A famous Yoruba proverb says, ‘If you damage the character of another, you damage your own.’ That’s to say, if we criticise and stand in judgement of others, we also hurt ourselves.

My grandfather was horrified by some of the graphic crimes he heard about during his time as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, but it didn’t stop him from believing in the good of the people who had perpetrated them. He took on board the fact that both black and white people were suffering, that nobody was spared, and he chose to acknowledge that people were giving testimony for the wider good of the nation, no matter how difficult it was to hear.

He believed you are not the worst thing you do in life and that nobody is born to hate anyone else. Everyone is capable of evil, we all have good and bad in us – the light and the dark – but ubuntu is when we choose to act on the good.

In everyday life, when we choose to see the good or bad in someone, whatever we decide is often reflected back to us. If you attack, you’re likely to be attacked. If you approach someone with loving kindness, assuming the same will be returned to you, you’re far more likely to experience that.

Psychologists call it our Reticular Activating System (RAS), a small part of our brain close to the top of the spinal column, which, among other things, helps us to direct our attention. If we focus on one particular thing – something negative, for example – then we will find more of it. If we focus on something positive, then we will also find more of it. If we believe young people wearing hoodies are trouble, for instance, our RAS will look for evidence of this.

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Imagine you subscribe to this belief – that most young hoodie-wearers are up to no good. Now imagine seeing a cyclist wearing a hoodie and riding on the pavement near you. A whole wave of bad thoughts might begin to pass through your mind. If, on the other hand, we decide to look for the good, we might find ourselves thinking differently.

We might consider that the young person is trying to cycle more safely because the traffic is fast-moving on that particularly ;busy stretch of road. We might also spot how they slowed down to allow us to pass. We might even consider that they are out running an errand for an elderly relative. We might also go so far as to make eye contact and notice them thanking us for stepping aside. We can instil kinder beliefs if we choose to look for them. The more we do so, the more we retrain our RAS to find the good in people.

Ubuntu reminds us to try to do this in all aspects of our daily lives. At work, it can help us to make progress with colleagues. Focusing on co-workers’ strengths and talents will foster a positive work culture in which all can thrive. If your boss believes in you, you’re far more likely to excel in your role than if he or she is actively looking for your mistakes and trying to catch you out. At home, if you believe in your children and reward them for good behaviour, they’re more likely to behave well.

Ubuntu teaches us not to feel threatened by the good of others. Instead, we should seek it out and encourage those people to shine. That way we all bring out the best in one another.

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See the good in yourself first of all. It stands to reason that if we berate ourselves constantly, we’re more likely to act the same towards other people. If we find ourselves criticising someone for doing a particular thing, we’re unconsciously judging ourselves, because it’s probably something we do too.

We might look at someone and silently criticise their choice of outfit, for example, because we don’t feel comfortable in what we put on that morning.

We might judge someone for the way they made a speech, because deep down we know we’d be very afraid to stand up in front of a crowd of people and talk. Take the opportunity to catch yourself in the moment and ask if what you’re really doing is mirroring something you don’t like about yourself.

This extract is taken from Everyday Ubuntu: Living Better Together, The African Way by Mungi Ngomane published by Bantam Press, out now.

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Mungi Ngomane

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