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Sunday, 13 December 2015

Prejudices, Stereotypes and Anger

Prejudice is judgement exercised in the absence of, or prior to, experience or information. In principle, prejudice can yield a favourable judgement just as much as a negative one – but it is the negative ones we hear about.

To the best of my knowledge, I have never in my life eaten raw fish even though in my country it has become a very popular thing to eat under the name of “Sushi”. But I don’t want to try it. I wouldn’t like it and, worse, I would get food poisoning. Of those things I am fairly convinced. This is prejudice in pure form – though I should perhaps add that it does not extend to other foods marked “Japanese”. In fact, I am an enthusiastic down-market diner at wagamamma.

But it’s a prejudice which links back to eighteen years of narrow home and school childhood diets – I never ate a curry or pasta until I went to University -  and which leaves me still rather timid and even fearful about strange foods.

Most prejudices aren’t quite so pure. They get started or are triggered by at least some scrap of experience or information. A bout of diahorrea after a visit to an Indian restaurant turns into a habit of avoiding all Indian restaurants; a newspaper story about dodgy practices in a Chinese restaurant does the same for Chinese cuisine.

In the 1950s, a Chinese restaurant opened in my childhood Dartford small town hometown and not very long after featured  in the local newspaper: it had been prosecuted for serving tinned cat food, the evidence provided by the very many cans carelessly left out in piles with the other rubbish. Clearly, enough of a talking point for the adults around me that I still remember it, though perhaps the story told with enough amusement for it not to have put me off Chinese food. Even a shock reaction to MSG in 1969 at a restaurant in London’s China Town didn’t stop me. It was only the advent of cheap Thai cuisine in England – just so much better than cheap Chinese – that did that.

In this little story, one can begin to see something of the unpredictability of prejudice. In terms of idiosyncratic negative experience and information, I had more reasons to avoid Chinese than to avoid sushi. But the prejudice actually went the other way and stayed that way. That is consistent with the idea that prejudice is essentially irrational.

When someone claims that a lot of experience or a lot of information (reading, TV programmes) informs their prejudices then – if and only if those prejudices are negative – they will often enough be accused of stereotyping. The correct response to this accusation is to accept it. A stereotype just is a judgement which, though not scientifically informed, has some grounding in experience or bits of information. We would find it hard to live – in fact,  impossible to live - without stereotyping. A philosophy or psychology  student could prove that in a short essay.

One way to think straight about stereotyping is to think about how we react to stereotyping which is expressed in positive judgements, not negative ones. Someone has taken several holidays in Italy and this gives them confidence to say, “Italians are so warm and welcoming!”. Nobody gets called out for such remarks. Why not? Stereotypes are stereotypes whether flattering or derogatory.

But, in truth, it seems that nor do we always get called  out even for negative stereotyping, “Italians are so warm and welcoming; not like the French”.

This is actually quite an interesting example: many English people feel free to negatively stereotype the French as a miserable, unwelcoming bunch and few of their compatriots turn on them and challenge the judgment. That the French are a miserable bunch is a matter of general consent and common knowledge.

It helps that the French agree: in the very recent past, French tourist authorities have launched Nudge campaigns urging French people (Parisians especially) to be at least a little more friendly to foreign tourists (who generate a lot of income for France). Parisians have been given little lessons in how to smile, how to be helpful, how to be polite.

You could see this as an abject response or you could see it as recognition of the fact that some stereotypes are true.

It is absolutely essential to understanding prejudice and stereotyping to recognise this. In everyday life, we arrive at our judgements by largely or completely unscientific means but quite often we arrive at the truth. How could it be otherwise? We would not survive if we always got it wrong.

Of course, we can’t be sure that we have arrived at the truth until someone better qualified than we mere Persons in the Street crunches the numbers, if we are looking at something where number crunching is relevant. In America right now, some of Mr Donald Trump’s supporters wear tee shirts proclaiming “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims”. This looks eminently testable – but for the fact that inability to agree a definition of “terrorist” may prevent us ever getting to the actual number crunching.

That is connected to the fact that stereotyping, when strong enough – and perhaps even when quite weak – interferes with our ability to understand what experience we are having or what information we are being given. For Mr Trump’s supporters, “Muslim” and “terrorist” are not independent variables so no number crunching is possible. The Muslim couple who went on a shooting spree at San Bernardino are terrorists (who incidentally took advantage of the ready availability in the USA of weapons and shooting ranges where you can learn to use them). But white racists who go on shooting sprees are not terrorists; they are just deranged.

The way in which experience is filtered through prejudices and stereotypes is obvious in contemporary relations between men and women which in some contexts are now so fraught as to be almost paralysed: She objects to what He did, He says “I was only trying to be helpful”, She dissents, and He concludes that the only way forward is not to be helpful in future, so there.

Back in 1969, in my early twenties, I recall a student party. I wasn’t in the room but in a  corridor when a man in the room, drunk or on drugs, took a dislike to a painting on the wall – a painting in fact by a then-young and  now-famous Indian artist Vivan Sundaram - drew a knife and slashed it. A young woman who I didn’t really know, ran from the room into the corridor and came in my direction, clearly very distressed and tumbling out a version of what was happening. Either I stopped her or she stopped and, either way, I put my arms around her, without thinking, held her and said the usual things about everything being all right. As I recall it, a few days she thanked me.

Today, I doubt I would risk doing anything like that. The likelihood of misunderstanding would just be too great. I would be paralysed and she would just have to deal with her own distress.

“Hands off” policies can be metaphorical as well as literal. When people narrate to me their experience of contemporary job interviews I have the sense that they have not been interviewed at all. A group of po-faced interviewers have taken turns to ask po-faced questions, agreed in advance, and identical for each candidate. Anyone who gives anything other than po-faced answers risks goodness-knows-only what kind of (denied) stereotyping from the paralysed panel. How you can decide who is the best candidate in such circumstances I cannot imagine. ( I recall an interview panel twenty five years ago where I was a member. In discussion of the candidates, one of my male colleagues supported one of the female candidates saying “She ticks all the boxes” only to be answered by a female colleague exploding with a “That’s the problem! That's all she does!” – and that was true. Nowadays, she would get the job).

None of this cool discussion will seem to touch the heart of the problem which is that the prejudices and stereotyping we really worry about are fueled by anger and provide a target on which that anger can focus, often brutally.

But the cool discussion does allow some insight into the heart of the matter. The anger and hatred channeled by prejudices and stereotypes pre-exist the channel through which they are expressed. They have specific origins, most often in brutal childhoods - the existence of which we don't much talk about because it involves talking about the effects of poverty, drugs, alcohol and stupidity. 

There is a fairly sound body of knowledge which will tell you that brutality at the right time and in the right doses will precipitate things like paranoia and the paranoia has to go somewhere. Sometimes it will go against the parents, who will be murdered. More often, it will go against locally available targets - Jews, Blacks, Muslims, Men, Women,Whites. There are people who grow up needing every day to pick a fight. Many will be satisfied with ordinary football hooliganism which is semi-organised violence on a Saturday. Some will join the Army, travel to far-away countries and brutalise people there. Some will become racists and -phobes of one kind or another, their anger mixed with the underlying fear which is also the product of a brutal childhood. And right now, from across Europe, those needing to pick a fight will go and join ISIS.

It's very difficult to address such anger and fear, because it is not assuaged by the usual kinds of anti-bigot propaganda. There is little  point in telling people that their hate figures are actually quite cuddly though it has been tried: skinheads in Germany have been offered the chance to hold refugee babies in their arms.

Extreme prejudice and stereotyping is quite often linked to lack of experience rather than mistaken interpretation of experience. The most racist or Islamophobic voters - in France or Poland for example - are often to be found among rural populations who have never actually encountered any blacks or Muslims. Here it does seem that actually having to meet and mix with the Other does sometimes reduce hostility - people will grudgingly accept that their local Blacks /  Muslims are not like the rest of them. For small mercies, we should be grateful. But the larger background problem of anger and hatred which has other origins than its present target still remains.

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