Monday, December 22, 2014

Useful Prejudice

The thing with generalisations is that they are often useful. The world has a long way to go till we can't gather quite a lot of information about what a person is like from how they look, what they are wearing, what language they speak when they open their mouth, their accent, and their body language. Prejudice is normally a strength, because normally it is right. Right in the sense that it reflects the judge's view even once they know the facts. Then evidence and consequences overwhelms and the prejudice is changed... painfully. Magicians use the fact that we fill in the gaps to amaze us with things that seem impossible. They often seem impossible because they are. We saw something that didn't happen. We survive by creating stories quickly out of a few facts, and weaving them together to make sense of the world. This is a useful shortcut, but the downside is huge if we don't realise that it is just that - a shortcut.

Jonathan Haidt, author of one of my favourite books of all time, 'The Happiness Hypothesis', followed that up with another classic, 'The Righteous Mind' which is subtitled 'Why good people are divided by politics and religion'. The gist of this book is that people don't reason through things and come to their world view through logic. A lot of it is emotional and based on the story that weaves their society together. When too different groups clash, it isn't a case of breaking down the logic and proving who is correct. It is about get to the heart of each others stories.



I have always found my story rather awkward. I am a white, english-speaking, male, middle-class, university educated, professional. Considering I would also count myself as a capitalist if pushed (I don't like labels), if you added a few million bucks I would neatly fit into many peoples generalisation of evil. I actually think I am a pretty good chap. I am certainly not disadvantaged in any way though and if I stuff up, I have only myself to blame. I do find it a challenge though when engaging in discussions about how to unwind some of the disadvantages that have built up. In many cases I think it is better to just shut up and let the others, who are disadvantaged, take the lead in the fight. Part of me wishes though that the approach wasn't to emphasise the differences and take pride in the previously disadvantaged identity. Part of me wants a new story. Obviously because I think a more harmonious society where people get on is desirable but also so that I can be a part of it. Perhaps Brett is right in his guest post 'Learning & Unlearning' and you have to pay more than lip service and consciously and actively create that new story.

As a South African, I had targeted 2014 as a year when I would stop saying 'White' on forms which ask my race. With Apartheid ending in 1994, I figured 20 years was long enough to try and even the playing field. That was naive and the playing field isn't yet level. I get that some of these labels are still 'useful prejudices'. In good cases, the assumption that a group has been disadvantaged is useful and largely true so corrective action can be introduced. This still leaves me uncomfortable but I see the huge progress still required. We need to make generalisations less useful.

Hopefully, by giving people a bull quota, we can suspend our disbelief and get to the good stuff behind people's stories. We can create new stories. Perhaps one day we will start realising that superficial information doesn't carry much value, and we need to listen to the individual.
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