Trust Your Gut — But Verify

Near the beginning of the movie Men in Black, Will Smith‘s character is being tested to see if he has what it takes to be a man in black. He and the others who are being tested run a gauntlet of monstrous-looking cutouts, and must make split-second decisions about which to shoot. All the candidates except Will Smith shoot every monster. Smith points his gun at them but does not pull the trigger until the last cutout, a little white girl with a pile of schoolbooks. He shoots that cutout through the forehead. When asked why, he explains that each monster looked dangerous at first, but then he noticed something that made it clear that it wasn’t a threat. He shot the little-girl cutout because she didn’t belong in the neighborhood and the books were too advanced for her, so it was clear that she wasn’t as she presented. He is chosen to be part of the organization, and none of the others are.

In our culture, we are frequently urged to “trust our gut.” We place a high value on instinct, on gut feeling. In self-defense classes, I was taught to believe “that ‘uh-oh’ feeling.” In parenting books, I read that my instinct as a mother was most often correct. And I can certainly think of situations when I didn’t trust my gut and it turned out to be right.

The problem is, sometimes our instincts are wrong. We can learn reactions that become gut feelings. When my older daughter was a toddler, she loved to run up to pigeons on the sidewalk, until one suddenly flew up close to her face. Startled and terrified, for a long time afterward she would scream when she saw a pigeon and refuse to walk toward it. Her gut told her that pigeons are scary and dangerous, though they are not. In Men in Black, Will Smith’s character is able to look at strange-looking aliens without prejudice, assessing them instinctively based on factors other than their appearance.

Many people have learned, one way or another, that people with black or brown skin are dangerous, or that those dressed in Muslim garb are dangerous. In reality, they are no more dangerous than people with light skin, or who don’t wear clothing indicating they are Muslim. The perception that young black men, in particular, are dangerous has had tragic consequences when it is police officers who get a gut feeling that their lives are endangered and shoot these young men.

The story of the Exodus is Judaism’s foundational story and is important to many other traditions as well. It begins with a Pharaoh who makes an assumption about the Israelites, that they are dangerous because they are numerous. He enslaves them, and his reaction to his unjustified prejudice ultimately leads to tragedy for Egypt, which is devastated by the 10 plagues that precede the Exodus.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to know when our instincts are wrong and when they are right. It can help to live in a diverse environment where we daily encounter people who are of all different races and ethnicities, and we can see that prejudices are often unfounded. We can work to retrain our brains to recognize real threats. For me, learning to physically defend myself helped me to see more clearly where there might be danger, and helped me to be less fearful overall.

There are people who are criminals, who are terrorists, who are murderers. But they are not most people, and we are better off training our instincts to identify danger through behavior rather than skin color or clothing. Let us look for the humanity in others, respecting our instinctive response to them, but working against prejudice that is unfounded.

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