Prejudice is not a dirty word

Prejudice as a phenomena, and not as a problem

Most of us are prejudiced against prejudice. We tend to regard prejudice as something undesirable and a problem to be eliminated. Thus a large part of developmental initiatives in the area of diversity, focus on dealing with unconscious bias and prejudice. Ironically, this way of looking at prejudice only creates guilt and shame and usually leads to politically right stances without dealing with underlying beliefs and predispositions. The end result is that  prejudice is only denied or suppressed and often turns even  more vicious. Perhaps we will be better off, if we try to understand and befriend our prejudice rather than regarding it as an enemy and fighting it. This will require looking at prejudice as a “phenomenon” rather than as a problem to be eliminated.

As a phenomenon, prejudice can be seen as “an unintended consequence of a  natural and essentially healthy mental process of making associations and categorisation”. No matter what our epistemological beliefs, we can hardly deny the importance of association and categorisation to our learning and effective living.

Associations and Categories

Virtually all our learning comes from making associations. We associate food with nourishment, fire with danger, air with breathing, visual appearances with identities of people and so on. These associations are placed into different categories which are extremely helpful in making sense of the world around us. Thus when we meet a stranger, several categories are “at play”. Based on the complexion, body structure, features, clothes, mannerisms etc. we make inferences about the person’s gender, race, age, socio-economic status and even personality traits. These inferences are made on the basis of mental categories that we have in respect of these features. The inferences are not always valid, but it would be impossible to live without them. In such instances, where the society believes that the there should be no ambiguity, care is taken to make the association explicit, for example, through assigning uniforms to cops. Even such cases are not hundred percent “error-proof”. After all, one can always run into someone who is wearing the uniform of a cop and masquerading as one.

Thus, the process of association and categorisation always carries the risk of error. These erroneous inferences can be quite harmful both for the individual concerned and others,particularly the people who are at the receiving end of these inferences. However,more often than not, the individual concerned is not even aware of this harm because from his/her point of view the inferences are valid and reasonable. The person usually remains blissfully unaware of the associations which are at the root of the  erroneous inferences and attributes his/her beliefs and judgement to a very different set of factors. Thus a person may carry the association of untrustworthiness with people of a certain community but may remain totally unaware as to how his/her judgement of a person from that community is being impacted by this association.To complicate matters, a large number of associations that we carry in our heads have nothing to do with our direct personal experience and have been handed down to us either genetically or through process of socialisation/acculturation.

There is considerable research evidence to suggest that almost all of us are a lot more prejudiced than we realise. What this means is that while at a conscious level we may regard ourselves as egalitarian and free of prejudice in respect of race, gender,age, sexual orientation etc., our actual predispositions are being determined by a host of “associations in our minds” that we are blissfully unaware of. However, condemning these associations  as unconscious bias and prejudice does not help anyone. It is only likely to make us feel misunderstood/wrongly accused/defensive or guilty and ashamed. It is for this reason that interventions for making people “prejudice-free” are rarely effective. Instead, it makes more sense to focus on how these association lead to erroneous inferences and how best to avoid them.

Pitfalls of assocations/categorisations

As stated earlier, the process of making associations, putting them into different categories and then applying them to specific situations, has many potential pit-falls. There are several sources of error,which can derail the process. Some of the most common ones particularly in respect of prejudice are as follows-

  1. Universalisation of a category association                                                                          Associations in respect of a category may have some validity but are not equally applicable to all members of the category. Thus association of a certain body structure with gender (e.g. men are taller, stronger etc.) may have an overall validity but is certainly not applicable to each and every man and woman. There are many women who are taller/stronger than most men. In case of a tangible factor like physical attribute, it is easy to spot the error and correct it but when it comes to intangibles like psychological attributes ,the situation is a lot more complex. Firstly, their validity can not be determined in an objective manner and secondly when they are being applied universally, the error is not so obvious. Thus a person may associate aggression with north indians and then assume that it is applicable to all north indians and their individual differences may not even become visible to him/her.
  2. Over magnifying a category                                                                                                                Every phenomenon can be related to multiple categories. However when we choose to focus only on one or two categories, we run into problems. Imagine the plight of a person who associates fire with only danger and overlooks the other categories to which it belongs like light, warmth, transformation etc. This is a major source of erroneous inferences in respect of other people.                                                                                                                                                          In relating to others, there are always multiple categories at play. Thus our response to a colleague is being influenced by several factors e.g.  gender, age, profession, role status,ethnicity etc. The associations in respect of these categories may converge or diverge. Thus if one associates softness, sensitivity and compassion with the category “woman”, then one may experience some difficulty in coming to terms with a demanding and aggressive female boss,  even if such behaviour is consistent with other categories associated with her role.                                                                                      While most of us try to focus only on contextually relevant categories, the pull of some of the categories may be so strong that it may not be easy for us to ignore them. Invariably, each one of us has a a propensity to pay greater attention to some categories and underplay others. Some of us may magnify the gender category whereas others may pay greater attention to age or ethnicity or professional affiliation. Consequently, one or two categories end up clouding the rest of the person and the person becomes only a symbol of these over-magnified categories. In such a situation it becomes extremely difficult to draw meaningful inferences about the person.
  3. Frozen associations                                                                                                                                        All associations are made in a certain context. However over a period of time, these associations become frozen and tend to acquire an absolute character irrespective of the context. The saying “once bitten twice shy” captures this process whereby an association arising from one bad experience becomes a determinant of all future engagements.                                                                                                                                       At a macro level, the impact of these frozen associations is clearly visible in the area of gender relations. Our associations in respect of gender identity and dynamics belong to an era of human context (largely agrarian patriarchy) which no longer exists but the associations continue to influence us even though we may consciously resist them. Such associations can not be discarded like a piece of old clothing. Whether we like them or not, they are sitting right within us and by pretending that they do not exist we only make them more virulent. Perhaps the best we can do is to be mindful of them and not let them lead us astray to the erroneous inferences which may be detrimental both for ourselves and for others.
  4. Emotional valency of associations                                                                                                            All associations come with a feeling tonality. If darkness is associated with danger, then for most people it will have a negative feeling tonality. Similarly if brightness is associated with hope, then most people are likely to hold it in a positive tonality. This attribution of feeling tonality is much more applicable to associations in respect of people categories. Thus if one associates untrustworthiness with people of a certain community then it is likely to influence how one feels towards the people of that community. More importantly, this negative feeling is likely to impact all other associations in respect of that community i.e. one is more likely to associate other negative features with that community (for example, that they are also selfish,mean, uncaring etc.) and generally ignore and dismiss any evidence that shows them in positive light. In other words, the emotional valency of associations makes them self-selective and self-reinforcing.

This perhaps is the biggest source of “erroneous inferences”  because

a)  it  can completely blind us to  those features of a category which carry the opposite valency and

b) it makes the grip of the associations that much stronger on us.

In many ways, the earlier three pitfalls can be seen as derivatives of this. Thus the higher the emotional valency of associations with a category the more it is likely to be magnified, frozen and universally applied. For instance, if a woman has strong negative and emotionally loaded associations about men (e.g. they are uncouth, selfish, aggressive etc.) then it is highly likely that these associations will be applied indiscriminately, become frozen and the category “man” will supersede all other categories.

Hence recognising the emotional valency of the associations with any category is the doorway to dealing with all other pitfalls leading to erroneous inferences.