Friday, May 30, 2014

Stages of Prejudice

I don't want to become a downer, I really don't, but when the urge to write hits, I write, and here I am again with another post on prejudice.

I will admit that the immediate trigger for this post is the Elliot Rodger case, but although that's obviously at the forefront of our minds right now, let's not kid ourselves into thinking that a year-and-a-half from now, anyone not directly connected with the case will still be thinking hard about it.  There will always be new tragedies—that's part of being human—and focusing too closely on one of them leads to the fallacy that one makes progress in apprehending a forest by understanding each tree individually.

Still, let's start with that case.  It seems evident that there were some serious problems with Elliot Rodger, to say the least.  It also seems evident to me, however, that those problems mostly just exaggerated attitudes that are already floating around in society all the time: that for men, women are prizes to win, plot devices to negotiate; that because some men are awful, a man deserves a woman's love merely for not being awful; etc.

Now, it may seem ridiculous to say that people think this all the time.  I'm quite certain that if I were to ask a hundred people if they thought like that, and if all hundred were to answer the question sincerely (a big if, I concede), very few—maybe none—would admit to thinking like that.  Because when you put it that baldly, very few people—though not none—do think like that.

But those attitudes are there, all the same.  I don't think there is anyone, myself included certainly, who is completely free of these attitudes.  Such a person would probably have had to grow up completely isolated from everyone else.  Do you think there are numbers of such people around?  I don't.

Listen: Arthur Schopenhauer, whom I've quoted before, once said, famously,

"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."

That's probably painting with an overly broad brush, but there's a kernel of truth in it.  (I guess I don't know if it passed through three stages.)  At the risk of oversimplification, a similar process happens to prejudices on their way out, but in the reverse order.  First, it is accepted as being self-evident.  When racism was at its post–Civil War peak in the United States, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it was received wisdom that African Americans were simply inferior to European Americans, and could appropriately be treated as such by the latter.  (Other groups were subjected to racism, too, but none so violently as African Americans.)  To be sure, the African Americans didn't tend to feel that way, but their opinion was roundly ignored, coming as it did from inferior African Americans.

Eventually, there was violent opposition to this attitude, coming to a boil in the middle part of the twentieth century.  There was always some violent opposition, even before the twentieth century, but it never managed to change societal attitudes.  We can speak all we like of peaceful opposition, but I'm not sure we get what advances were made in the 1950s and 1960s, and later, without violent opposition of some sort.  (I know that's not necessarily the kind of violence that Schopenhauer was talking about, but I find the parallel poetic, OK?)

Finally, it is ridiculed.  And I do think we have, to a certain extent, reached a point where racism, open racism, is ridiculed.  Even an assay at a kind of academically-treated racism (in The Bell Curve) was ridiculed, albeit in a meticulous, academic sort of way.

(Incidentally, you would think that we're fighting thousands of years of racism, but racism in the way that we think of it today—based principally on skin color—is a comparatively new phenomenon.  Several hundred years ago, Europeans considered Africans unusual-looking, but not inherently inferior.  It was only when they found they could manipulate them with marginally more advanced technology that they then had to justify the manipulation.  We don't even know for sure whether the Egyptians of the dynastic era were "Nubians."  As I understand it, we think they were, but we don't know, because people of the time didn't think it noteworthy enough to comment on consistently.  That's not to say that they weren't prejudiced, but their prejudices apparently had more to do with place of origin than with skin color.)

And do we have it there, are we done with it?  Have we put racism to bed?  Not by a long shot, for after all, it is still around to be ridiculed.  We do not have to go back into the history books, to find decades-old instances of racism to poke fun at.  There's more than enough to go around now.

Part of the problem, of course, is that racism, like most prejudices worthy of the name, is subconscious, automatic.  It's difficult to reason away, even if you realize it would be better to do so.  We are not so different from little children who, when scolded for drinking directly from the milk jug, don't actually stop drinking directly from the milk jug.  They just figure out how to do it without getting caught.

So we've learned, as a group, how to be prejudiced without getting caught.  We learn that if we denounce racism openly, we're less likely to get caught for being racist covertly.  We learn that if we apologize for our prior racism, we're less likely to get caught for our present racism.  We learn that if we have a non-racist cover story for a racist act, we're less likely to get caught.  We even learn—in one of the few examples of the random person on the street "getting" statistics—that if our racist decisions are parsimoniously made, we're less likely to get caught, because the sample size is too small.

There's nothing special about racism, in this regard (and this regard alone).  The kind of sexist prejudice that reigned in the Elliot Rodger case is at about the same stage.  Open sexism is (mostly) ridiculed, so it's been sublimated, suppressed in favor of covert sexism.  You know, the kind where we root for the loyal nerd friend crushing on a girl over the glib jock, because he's, well, loyal, and all guys know how irresistible it is when an otherwise plain girl is always there for us.  Well, don't we?

In some sense, there's been progress made, because it's now clear that We Won't Stand For That Anymore (In Public).  On the other hand, it might be a lot harder to stamp out the covert sexism, the hidden racism, especially if it's the 90 percent of the iceberg hanging out under water.  It might be insuperably difficult to root out every last bit of it.

In fact (and I recognize that this is a controversial question to even ask), is there much point in trying to root out every last bit?  Before you excoriate me, let me draw an analogy with science.  Science is a social endeavor in which the community at large attempts to address questions about nature in an objective manner.  It does this, not by attempting to eliminate bias in scientists (for it's recognized that this is plainly too hard), but by having procedures in place for recognizing biases and even potential biases, and compensating appropriately for them.  These procedures, when properly applied, are so successful that it is difficult for scientists to influence their results materially without getting caught—so difficult, in truth, that it must be done intentionally and consciously, if it be done at all.  It cannot be just the result of subconscious bias.

The measures that we take in society at large to deal with biases are not at that relatively advanced stage yet.  These so-called "social programs" are bluntly applied, and although they can and do help, that bluntness also tends to make them easy targets for their detractors.  To be fair, the biases they deal with are probably more intractable.  Science has the luxury of dealing with one almost infinitesimally small question at a time.  Society is, at least with our present understanding, much more tangled.  But the present practice of avoiding getting caught won't work in the long run, and I have a sneaking suspicion that when prejudices are finally dealt with successfully, if they ever are, it will be by having such measures in place that are considered culturally de rigeur, and not by eliminating them entirely.

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