This time last week, I woke up to a barrage of social posts on the Meghan & Harry Oprah interview. I had previously dismissed this interview as another publicity stunt because I have zero interest in the Royal Family beyond the fashion looks my mum forwards on to me. But these posts triggered me to watch it.
We can spend the rest of our lives dissing the Royal Family or the institution (whatever that is), telling Meghan and Harry to grow a pair and stop slandering the Royal Family, or arguing that this is just one side of the story, a biased view etc. ALL of these are fair reactions and comments. And you know what, it is biased — like most things in life, like everyone of us. That’s the real lesson here.
What this interview has brought to light are the repurcussions of unnwillingness to challenge our inherent cognitive biases and how that might affect the people around us.
(I tried to keep this succinct but tried is the keyword here, you can skip my ramble to the main point of this post ).
As I listened to the various issues raised by Meghan and Harry and how the Royal Family allegedly handled them, or didn’t handle them, it was actually relatable. What we’ve seen in the interview may have panned out in a grand scale within a royal family in a palace but let’s be honest, we’ve all been there.
We’ve tried talking to friends, family, bosses about issues and things that matter to us and affect us and have left feeling unheard, unsupported and miserable. We may not have gone on Oprah to talk about it but that’s the thing, most of us keep silent, most of us feel helpless and some of us harm ourselves as a result. For those of who do speak up, we’re dismissed as attention-seeking, rebellious, dramatic.
Seeing tabloid headlines about Kate and Meghan side by side has been eye-opening and clear proof of the media’s abusive behaviour towards Meghan. Not to say that the media has treated Kate any better, there was so much more hate and vitriol in the way the media portrayed Meghan.
Regardless, the public comments read that this is what she signed up for; she’s a public figure, she knew what she was getting into, she just needs to tough it out.
Harry in the interview explains how it’s what everyone in the Royal Family know they have to deal with, it’s part of their job, part of their “privilege”.
So, does that mean Meghan should have just put up with unfair, toxic treatment because that’s how it is; despite the fact that time and again, we’ve seen so many who have committed and attempted suicide due to media bullying, one of the Royals included, Princess Diana.
Why should Meghan or any of the Royal Family put up with ridiculous tabloid claims just because that’s part of the job? Why couldn’t the Royal Family, one of the most powerful bodies in the UK, one that should pave the way in social issues like media bullying, stand against it? Why did they stay silent?
In a similar interview with Princess Diana,
“I was the first person ever to be in this family who ever had a depression or was ever openly tearful. And obviously that was daunting, because if you’ve never seen it before, how do you support it?”.
Bear with me while I take a tiny detour down a social psychology rabbit hole.
Cognitive Dissonance refers to the mental conflict that occurs when a person holds two beliefs that contradict one another or when a person’s behaviours and beliefs do not align.
Leon Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory suggests that humans have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and behaviour in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance). We crave cognitive consistency.
Every one of us experience cognitive dissonance, especially when we become aware of inconsistencies between what we believe and how we behave.
Cognitive dissonance causes feelings of unease and tension, and we attempt to relieve this discomfort by “explaining things away” or rejecting new information that conflicts with their existing beliefs.
Dissonance is why issues of racism, colourism, mental illness abuse are so easily explained away with this is how it is, it’s not me, I’m not like that, not all men, not all white people.
When you’ve gone years and centuries where no one has questioned or seemingly opened up about how hard it is to deal with media and the traditions and public image you have to uphold, your build a belief system that accepts these things, however negative and traumatic, as normal.
Media bullying and emotional distress is normalised and is consistent within the the belief system that has been built over centuries and so anyone who speaks up against it, who challenges it, is met with “this is how it is”.
The person who challenges and speaks up, possibly for many others who are suffering and are too afraid to, is labelled hysterical, overreacting, attention-seeking and just needs to tough it out and deal with it.
This is why people who suffer abuse, people living with mental illnesses continue to be afraid to speak up because they don’t want to be the boy crying wolf.
We don’t want to seem weak. It is shameful to admit you cannot deal with issues that everyone else has seemingly managed well. Because admitting “weakness” is inconsistent with the way our belief systems have been built.
The sad irony is that being open and honest about your abuse, about your mental illness, admitting that you have suicidal thoughts, is strength and bravery, because you could so easily be shut down and called “attention-seeking”.
And if the same person were to have committed suicide, in silence, we’d be mourning over a tragedy — why didn’t they say anything?
You’re either too afraid to speak up or you’re shut down for speaking up. Either way you suffer in silence and alone. What is the win here?
We’ve seen this happen time and again. We don’t learn because many of us are still afraid to challenge our belief systems that we’ve accepted as normalcy. Powerful bodies and systems are resistant to challenge their belief systems that they’ve grown to accept as normal over years and centuries.
If my brown-skinned parents who have experienced colourism and racism cannot see why commenting on skin colour is a big deal, how can a family of elite white people see a problem with it?
My parents and I were chatting about this interview and I brought up the “ what would the colour of the baby be?” debacle and said well, don’t you say the same thing — the first question anyone in a brown family asks when a new baby is born is “ is the baby fair? “.
My dad jumped to say, “they stripped him of Archie’s prince title because of the colour of his skin, that’s racist. We just ask about the colour of the baby, it’s just curiosity.” Sounds a lot like what the Royal Family would have told Meghan & Harry — just curious.
I go on to try and explain why it is contentious because there is an intention that the ideal scenario would be to have a child who is more fair skinned. I share examples of how our skin colour was compared as children amongst our cousins — and how being darker skin was less favoured. I explained how my cousins who were darker skinned were affected by these comments and how it affects their self-esteem because it was made to seem that they were less desirable.
And they said it’s just “சும்மா பகுடி” (just for laughs) you can’t pick on everything. They then immediately go on to defend themselves saying that they’ve also had conversations with us about how some white people aren’t so good looking.
That isn’t the point. It just wasn’t getting through. And this isn’t the first time I’ve had this conversation.
I try a different method and asked my mum why she tells us not to go out in the sun because we’ll become darker. She says no, it’s not about getting dark, it’s about all the skin problems you might get. So why do you say dark then, I ask, why can’t you say you need to take care of your skin, don’t spend so much time in the sun.
She senses the issue in her statement but then dismisses it saying it’s just the natural way we’ve learnt to say it — இயற்கை. It’s just how we grew up. It’s just how the world works.
Their belief system accepts “fair skin” as superior and has normalised that thinking. They no longer see a need to challenge it because they’ve survived it, they’ve learnt to live with it. They’re potentially also afraid to challenge it. Us kids challenging their/our norms is perceived as a personal attack because there is a sense of guilt because they’ve done something wrong or the fact that they’ve done nothing to correct it.
My mum in particular often starts with don’t talk about these things with me when I open up even the smallest conversation around sexism, racism and colourism. She craves consistency so much, that she doesn’t even want to listen because it will disrupt her inner harmony.
So, imagine Harry calling his family out on questioning the colour of his baby’s skin, only to be dismissed as being over dramatic. And worse, being told that he’s been influenced or corrupted by his wife, a woman of colour. (the plotline of most Indian drama serials).
In a twisted way, in their defence, they just cannot see why this is a big deal. If my parents who have experienced racism and colourism in their lives, can label it as a “just curious” question, how can the Royal Family, the epitome of white privilege, see a problem with it when they’ve never experienced the consequences of questions and comments like that. They’re just being curious, is that so wrong?
Harry himself says in the interview that while he has had educated himself around issues of racism, he didn’t quite understand what it was like until he experienced it first hand on how it affected Meghan.
You then sit and wonder, but then, why is Prince Andrew being protected and defended for sexual trafficking and sexual abuse? Why can’t Prince Andrew tough it out and deal with the consequences of his own behaviour and actions?
When someone speaks up and asks for support and help, because they’re at a breaking point of abuse, they’re called dramatic, hysterical, over-reacting. People feel discomfort by the openness or “aggressive” nature of victims’ pleas and cry for help at their breaking point seemingly ignoring the aggressiveness of their bullies and perpetrators in all the time up to that point.
The shame embarrassment and regret caused by a perpetrator’s action causes less conflict — there’s a clear mistake that people recognise but are too afraid to question. Because public shame of a perpetrator is worse than the personal trauma of a victim.
It’s some sort of unsaid ridiculous expectation that an individual should be able to cope with trauma themselves while shame is unfathomable. That’s why Prince Andrew is protected and Meghan and everyone else who has experienced media abuse is left to their own defences. This is why victim-blaming is so prevalent.
Cognitive dissonance can explain many of these issues raised by Meghan and Harry and issues every one of us face in our daily lives. But, it is not an excuse for people taking accountability and responsibility for their actions or worse, inactions and silence.
The amount of discomfort speaking up around abuse, mental illness, sexism, racism, colourism is a good thing. In fact, Festinger describes dissonance as a drive for change. And that’s the learning here.
The three features of his concept were that dissonance is:
- experienced as discomfort
- it propels people to take action
- people will feel more comfortable after the action has been taken
If we don’t speak up, people will never realise where society is going wrong.
If people are not challenged, if they don’t feel discomfort, they will never be pushed to think differently and act differently. It takes time and concerted effort to get there, but every conversation is a baby step towards change.
In many brown cultures especially, we are taught not to comment, taught to keep silent, that’s how we keep peace. Let’s call that bullshit.
Meghan Markled is now a thing and its important for people to see how liberating and critical it is to speak up and move away, if and when an environment or a situation is toxic — even if the other party may feel otherwise, even if the other party thinks you are making a big deal.
It is not shameful to admit you weren’t able to cope — you shouldn’t be expected to cope with anything no matter what the job scope is. You are allowed to say this is too much for me. Let’s support people when they reach out, no matter how trivial you think it is.
We need to continue questioning and challenging people’s beliefs and biases until they reach a turning point of discomfort where they are willing to change versus explain their biases away. And when I say challenge, I don’t mean doing it in a way that makes them feel that what they’re thinking is wrong or incorrect.
The way we respond to comments and issues is shaped by our own personal experiences. Each of us have different things that trigger us. We don’t know what someone has gone through and what triggers them just like how someone may have no idea what you have gone through and what triggers you.
It’s about sharing and learning from each other’s point of view, recognising that every one of us have our own experiences and perspectives and we may not see the world the same way. Let’s be more open and discuss triggers and issues that affect and matter to us.
We need to accept when we might be in the wrong. We often fail to recognise how comments, that we personally may think is inconsequential or has no malicious intent, can actually affect someone greatly.
And I am guilty of making stupid jokes that might have hurt people. It’s about realising and recognising that you have made a mistake, that you have made a comment that has hurt someone — especially when someone tells you that it has hurt them. It’s about apologising and being more aware of not making the same mistake again. Let’s be more sensitive to and be aware of the triggers of other people.
If you’ve read all of it, thank you!
Hope I made sense and share with me what you think.