Sexuality, Work spaces and Me Too

This is a politically incorrect piece. It can easily be misconstrued as a defence for the predatory behaviour of several powerful men (and some women)and/or victim shaming of those who have suffered at their hands. My intent is to do neither but only to highlight how the present deluge of “victim-perpetrator” narratives can trivialise the very serious matter of sexual exploitation.

In the present deluge, there is a preponderance of the “victim-perpetrator” lens. The prevalent narrative is that these “victims” have at last found the courage to expose their predators. Not surprisingly, a counter narrative has begun to emerge viz. these are women who used their sexuality to get ahead in life and are now crying foul (significantly, in many cases, after reaching a stage when either they don’t need the patronage of their erstwhile perpetrators and/or when their sexual prowess is on the decline)

This bout of allegations-counter allegations is likely to be counter productive. One because these are rarely “black and white” situations but more importantly, because it is likely to create a situation where we may get desensitised to the severity of allegations. Admittedly, to begin with some heads will roll(which in turn may act as a deterrent) but simultaneously, we may start looking at them as “routine affair” and treating everything as ambiguous. This would be alarming as the “victim-predator” lens is crucial in some situations, but when it is applied indiscriminately, it becomes self-defeating.

Accident prone zone

Admittedly, there is a very thin dividing line between sexual misconduct and sexual exploitation, but it is important to differentiate between the two. A lewd comment and rape may stem from the same seed of “male entitlement” but putting the two together in the same basket, desensitises us about the severity of rape. Sexual exploitation is primarily concerned with use of coercive power (physical or positional) to gain sexual advantage over the “vulnerable other”. On the other hand, Sexual misconduct is an inappropriate action in a sexual situation. It may or may not have elements of exploitation, but when this misconduct occurs vis a vis a person who is lower in power/status hierarchy, it is likely to be seen as a case of sexual exploitation.

The complexity arises from the fact that a large part of the game called Sexuality is covert in nature. Very few women would blatantly seduce and very few men would directly woo or coerce. While in some cases the transactions are explicit and direct, in most others they are “implied” and hence subject to the ability of the parties involved to read the messages accurately. Just as there are many women who complain that their overtures were wrongly interpreted as “come on” signals, there are many men who feel surprised that what they considered as a “consensual arrangement” had a very different meaning for the other party.

Thus the realm of sexuality(particularly in work spaces) is highly “accident prone”. While many of these “accidents” have strong elements of sexual exploitation, not all of them do. If all such misconducts are viewed through the “victim- perpetrator” lens, unwittingly we end up reinforcing the source from which the problem emerges vis. the sexual codings which see Man as a predator and Woman as a prey

The predator and the Prey

There are many codings that we carry around sexuality. This is not the space for a detailed exploration of their origin and how they may differ between men and women. However to appreciate the complexity of the issue, it may be worthwhile to look at some of them.

1. The sexual act carries strong connotations of Dominance and Submission. Several everyday expressions like F You, got screwed, up yours etc. are a clear evidence of it. In the popular film Three Idiots, the friends of the protagonist acknowledge his superiority by “offering” their backside to him.

2. Powerful men often assume a certain “sexual entitlement” and many women in less powerful positions often assume “sexual obligation”

3. A certain amount of resistance by the woman is not just treated as “par for the course”, but is also held as desirable.It is also believed that it is the job of the male to overcome this resistance either through “wooing” or through “coercion”.

4. Men are assumed to be more promiscuous than women in sexual conduct.

5. Unwarranted sexual initiatives by men are likely to make the woman feel “violated” (e.g. expressions such as outraging the modesty of a woman). On the other hand, unwarranted sexual initiatives by a woman may seem offensive or disgusting but are less likely to be seen as “outraging the modesty of a man”

6. The sexual act is often seen as a “means to an end” for the woman and an “end in it self” for a man.

7. Physical attraction and sexual fidelity are of greater significance to men, whereas women put greater emphasis on resources/power/status and emotional commitment.

The important issue is not whether these codings are an accurate reflection of reality or not. So long as they exist in our minds we will see Man as “ever ready” and Woman as someone who has to be wooed or coerced. Note for instance that we generally use the term “sexual favours” in respect of what a Woman offers to a Man, and very rarely, the other way. Thus we almost take it for granted that proactive initiation belongs to Man and resistance/vulnerability to Woman. The most sinister side of this basic configuration is the motif of predator and prey. Sexual exploitation is a direct consequence of this basic configuration.

This configuration stems from both socio-cultural factors (such as patriarchy)and also bio-existential factors (e.g.role of the two genders in the propagation of the species)and is not likely to disappear in a hurry.However, by viewing all sexual misconduct of Men through the “victim- perpetrator” lens, we may unwittingly reinforce it even further. The more we strengthen the “predator-prey” motif, the more sexual exploitation are we likely to encounter.

Sexuality in the work space

Work spaces are human collectives where men and women bring their values, beliefs, orientations etc. including some of the codings described above. It is neither feasible nor perhaps desirable to make them sexually sterile. Whether we acknowledge it or not, Sexuality plays a huge role in the human dynamics of work spaces ( see my earlier piece on sexually charged workspaces)

In most part of human history, men and women have worked (and even lived) in segregated spaces with fairly clearly defined codes of engagement. The tight demarkation of roles is fast disappearing and increasingly men and women find themselves having to engage with each other in workspaces. This requires them to deal with sexuality in a hitherto unfamiliar space. Purely in evolutionary terms, we are ill-equipped to handle this in a mature, responsible and dignified manner.

Unfortunately most organisations pay very little attention to this need. While they invest heavily in promoting Diversity, these efforts rarely go beyond the usual rhetoric of bias, prejudice, equal opportunity and affirmative action. The only time sexuality enters the picture is in respect of transgressions and prevention of sexual harassment and misconduct. The basic assumption is that either sexuality does not exist in workspaces or that it is purely a personal matter. So long as there are no transgressions, we can all close our eyes to the impact of sexuality in workspaces.

The more we adhere to the perspective described above and push issues of sexuality under the carpet, the more prone we will become to looking at all sexual misadventures through the “victim predator” lens. Ironically, it will reinforce the codings described above and hence make us more vulnerable to sexual exploitation. It is high time that we accept that if men and women relate spontaneously with each other, sexuality will necessarily enter the picture and bring all its messy side along. Rather than getting embroiled in the “victim-perpetrator” frame, we need to invest into enhancing our ability to deal with sexuality in work spaces (including its messy side) in a responsible, mature and dignified manner

I , Me and We

George Herbert Mead made an important distinction between I and Me. His contention was that all of us are both individualistic and innovative beings (I) and social and relation beings (Me). These two interdependent aspects are part of every human being and create an inevitable dualistic plurality between need for autonomy and need for belonging.

These two orientations have some interesting implications for how we look at “We” i.e. our idea of a collective. Many societies (for example, India) have traditionally placed greater emphasis on the relational (Me) side. In this scenario, “We” acquires an all pervasive presence leaving very little space for I. In contrast, the modern day societies place emphasis on I. In this scenario, “We” becomes essentially a convenient collation of I’s, which must exist primarily to serve the needs of the I,  with no distinct identity of its own. In fact, any assertion of salience on part of the We is often experienced as an intrusion and unnecessary limitation to the freedom of “I” to embrace any identity that it wishes to.

Thus, differentiations based on collective identities(e.g. race, religion, gender, etc.) become problematic. Such differentiations are often seen as (and many times are) discriminatory, prejudicial and stereotypes. Reference to racial/gender differences carry with them the risk of being labeled as racist/sexist. Besides the obvious confusion between differentiation and discrimination, there is also the apprehension of dilution of individual salience. While there is an understandable concern that people should not be seen ONLY in terms of the collective identity of their belonging system, often it manifests itself through a complete denial of the collective identity of the individual.  The underlying belief seems to be that human beings are only I and there is no Me in them. Some of the manifestations of this stance are-

a) human beings have ( or at least should have)  unlimited freedom to chose who they are and who they wish to become,

b) messages and influences received from systems of belonging should not play any part in this process of “individuation” and

c) people should be seen and engaged with only in terms of their “personal attributes” and all references to the codings from their belonging system are necessarily prejudicial.

These beliefs are particularly strong amongst people who Joseph Heinrich has called WEIRD( see my blog piece on “Democratic Condescension). WEIRD is an acronym for Western, Educated,Industrialised,Rich and Democratic). Heinrich’s hypothesis is that a large part of our understanding about human condition is based upon this “statistical minority” , which we then apply to the entire human race..

For the greater part of my life, I have subscribed to this perspective of the WEIRD, and to a large extent still do. In many ways, both my personal and professional lives have been governed by this perspective.  However, I am also becoming aware of the limitations that it has imposed on my understanding of people who do not share this perspective. Rather than acknowledge that the relationship between I , Me and We is configured differently  in them, I have been quick to judge them as immature, dependent, parochial and regressive.

I have also begin to realise that in this process, I have actually not transcended the codings of my belonging system, I have merely shifted my allegiance from one reference group to another. Perhaps real “individuation” does not happen with turning one’s back on Me, but only through the difficult path of co-holding both I and Me.

Do share how you have experienced the relationship between I, Me and We in yourself.

 

 

Cricket and Gender

Post the world cup, interest in women’s cricket has risen exponentially. Undoubtedly the performance of the Indian team has much to do with it, but it is also a fact that this is not the first time that our women’s team has made it to the final. Consequently, it is reasonable to assume that at least in part, some non-cricketing factors have also contributed to this  new fascination with women’s cricket.The live T.V. coverage was a big factor, but I think, the whole process began with Maithali Raj’s interview. Several people who had no idea about her or her massive achievements on the cricket field, started taking notice of her.

When Raj was asked by the interviewer as to who her favourite male cricketer was, she retorted with a counter question- would you ever ask a male cricketer about his favourite female cricketer? This was not a plea for Gender Equality- it was an un-ambiguous demand to be recognised in her own right and a refusal to piggy back on men’s cricket. Fortunately she and her team more than justified her stance.

It therefore saddens me when women’s cricket is viewed through the lens of men’s cricket, particularly when it comes from people who wish to support women’s cricket. Today, I came across a comment from  a India player ” This world cup saw women clearing the boundaries convincingly. The standard of batting has improved to another level. Women do have powerful game. All I can say is we can definitely give 60% of what men give.” I have heard same sentiment being expressed by many experts in “support of women’s cricket”

While I sympathise with the intent, I also believe that this propensity to look at women’s cricket through the lens of men’s cricket is counter-productive because it will keep the women’s cricket in a never-ending “catch- up” mode. The 60% will rise to 90 % or 95% but it will still remain behind men’s cricket. The reason for this is very simple- the rules of the game have been laid down by men.

In contrast, I find much more sense in the stance of Sunil Gavaskar who believes that in their essence the men’s cricket and women’s cricket are different games and both are enjoyable in their own right. In his words “men’s game is mostly about power, whereas women’s game leans towards grace”

One may or may not agree with Gavaskar’s view but what it clearly highlights is that the same game can have two very different interpretations and appeals. This can be easily witnessed in case of Tennis. It is meaningless to look at women’s tennis as some kind of an inferior version of men’s tennis. They are two different kinds of games with their unique respective appeal. Personally, I enjoy the long rallies and deft placements of women’s tennis as much, if not more than the quick fire and power packed  serve and volley game of men’s tennis.

When this distinctiveness is not appreciated, we end up with a monolithic interpretation which is essentially defined by men. Since several spaces of human endeavour have been traditionally dominated by men, invariably  women are compelled  to prove themselves in situations where the rules of the game have been laid down by men. This phenomenon is  is not confined to the cricket field only and can be witnessed in virtually all spheres- be it the world of corporate houses or academia or any other field for that matter.

In my work on gender and diversity, I rarely come across people who are willing to see how their notions about managerial effectiveness and leadership have been primarily shaped by the masculine perspective. For most such people the issue of gender equity rarely goes beyond being unbiased and giving equal chance to women to “show their worth”. That the rules of the game are loaded against them is rarely examined. Ironically, when some of the women are able to do so, in spite of this handicap, they are beaten for being “too dominating and aggressive”

Perhaps it is time that the gender narrative moves forward from the usual discourse of bias and prejudice and starts examining how do we value and cherish differences. If we only value what men bring to the table, we will keep the women in a perpetual “catching up” mode. More importantly, we will deprive ourselves of the tremendous unique gifts which they bring. Simply put, we need to enjoy women’s cricket for itself  and recognise that it is a different game and not  60% or 95% of men’s game.

 

Frustrated Masculinity gone astray

Blondey-1

Several years back, in my book ” Child- Man”, I had written ” Religion in the modern world is no longer an opiate which lulls people into resigned acceptance of their fate, but more of an aphrodisiac which provides a release from the rage, resentment and the feelings of impotence with which the modern man lives. Not surprisingly, religion in danger, has become a strong motif for the mobilisation of collective outrage the world over. It would seem that the projections of purity and vulnerability which, in earlier times were made on the female gender are now being made on religion. Hence by seeing himself as the saviour of his religion, modern man can reclaim his masculinity which otherwise seems to be under attack from all other sources”

The reality of this process became very stark the other day when I saw that the news item of a Haryana government minister extolling the virtues of ghunghat (veil) was followed by scenes of lynching in the name of “cow- protection”. Transference of the need to protect the honour of one’s womenfolk ( symbolised by ghunghat)  to protection of cows (quasi- religious symbol of sacredness)  could not have been more vivid. Continue reading “Frustrated Masculinity gone astray”

Gender Diversity Paradox

Most organisations have come around to the view that Gender Diversity is no longer just “good to have” but that it has to be treated as a “business imperative”. However, in my experience, very few people (let alone organisations) are able to muster any real conviction about it. While the case for Gender Diversity from the point of view of equality, fairness, social justice and even access to a potentially larger talent pool, is indisputable, its linkage with organisational effectiveness remains suspect. Thus in the minds of many people, Gender Diversity is linked more to “lowering of standards” than “enhancement of organisational effectiveness”.

I believe the main difficulty arises from a paradox which is inherent in the Gender Diversity issue- its promotion has required underplaying the differences between the two genders, whereas, its link with organisational effectiveness requires appreciation and celebrating the differences between the two genders. let me elaborate.

One of the most significant  blocks in the road to Gender Diversity is the frozen stereotypes around gender and gender roles. Beliefs around relative attributes/ competencies/ roles of the two genders (e.g. men have greater flair for technology, women are soft-spoken or at least should be, men are more rational and assertive, women are more emotional and caring, men are bread winners, women are home makers, etc.) are quite rampant even if they are not consciously acknowledged.

Thus, promotion of Gender Diversity has necessarily entailed confronting these stereotypes and underplaying the differences between the two genders. Not surprisingly, most advocates of Gender Diversity take a Gender Neutral stance and focus upon the inherent commonality of the two genders and draw attention to the social handicap faced by women. Their essential argument is that women have been deprived of their due, and if given the opportunity they can be as good as men.  There is also an underlying belief (with considerable justification, I think) that highlighting differences between the two genders will necessarily be detrimental to the interest of women.

Ironically, this stance of Gender Neutrality and emphasis on commonality between the two genders becomes a major deterrent to appreciation of benefits of Gender Diversity. If people are seen as Gender Neutral Robots of skills and competencies, then by implication, having people of different genders does not foster any real diversity. All that it can ensure is that the organisation is drawing its talent from a wider and larger pool, but the basic nature of the “talent” remains the same. In such a scenario, any claims of linkage between Diversity and Effectiveness, sound hollow and do not carry any real conviction.

Any meaningful claim of benefits of Gender Diversity for organisational effectiveness can only be made provided it is first recognised that the two genders bring Different sets of orientations/competencies/predispositions etc. to the table and both sets are equally valuable and the resultant tension has immense creative potential.While there is considerable research evidence about both commonalities and differences between the two genders, its applicability and implications has all kinds of problems.

The first problem stems from the fact that these differences are not absolute in nature. Like any comparison between two groups, the intra-group differences are larger than inter-group differences. Thus, on the whole, men may be taller than women, but there are several women who are taller than most men. When a inter-group difference is applied indiscriminately to every individual case, appreciation of difference degenerates into stereotyping.

The second difficulty arises from the multiple meanings and interpretations which can be assigned to these differences. For example, there is research evidence to suggest that in general women are more “empathetic” than men. However, it is difficult to say as to whether this difference is on account of the bio-existential imperatives of their gender or on account of socio-cultural factors. Thus assigning any stability/finality to these differences can become highly problematic.

The third, and I believe, the most important difficulty arises from the power imbalance in gender relations. Whenever two groups are locked in a lop sided power relationship, the attributes of the higher placed group tend to be regarded as “superior” to the attributes of the group which is lower in the power equation. This can be as superficial  as skin colour or as deep as values and beliefs. Given the patriarchal structure, there is a natural over-valuing of masculine attributes as compared to feminine attributes. in such a scenario any hint of differentiating between the attributes and predispositions of men and women, effectively degenerates into discrimination against women.

This differential valuing is even more stark in the organisational context. Since most of our thinking around management and leadership is based upon masculine principle, the picture of an effective leader in the minds of many people is heavily tilted towards masculine attributes such as assertion, ambition, analytical ability, courage etc. While the grip of the “alpha male” over our notions of leadership is reducing, we are still far away from valuing and gracing feminine attributes such as sensitivity, intuition, receptivity, resilience etc.in our notions of leadership. Thus the message which gets communicated to women is that in order to succeed they must shed their inhibitions- become more assertive and demanding and net-work better- in other words become more “men like’.

This approach does not foster diversity, but creates more hegemony. Consequently, the very argument of Diversity for Effectiveness becomes meaningless, because no diversity is being fostered in the first place. All that is being done is that people from different gender (or other backgrounds) are being put into one huge melting pot and then placed into the same mould. Simply put, the argument of Diversity for Effectiveness is sustainable, only if the Differences  are first recognised and then celebrated. For this to happen, it is necessary that the Feminine part of us (irrespective of whether in a Man or in a Woman) finds its legitimate space in our notions of management and leadership. Without that Women may find space in the corporate world, but the doors will remain closed for Femininity. The link between Gender Diversity and Organisational Effectiveness resides not so much in having more women but in integrating the feminine principle in our notions of management and leadership.

The theory of Paradox, tell us that no paradox can be resolved at the level at which it arises. In case of Gender Diversity, the paradox gets created by the conflicting needs of Gender Neutrality and Gender Sensitivity. For promoting Gender Diversity it becomes necessary to emphasise the shared humanity between Men and Women. However, for harnessing the potential of Gender Diversity, it is necessary to be sensitive to the differences between the two genders and celebrate them. If this paradox is to be resolved, then we need to look at issue of Gender Diversity not just as a Man- Woman issue, but also in terms of the Masculine  and Feminine principles- how they are configured within us and in the systems to which we belong. Only then we will be able to appreciate how these principles complement each other and how the tension inherent between them is the source of all human creativity and how they can contribute to organisational effectiveness.

Religion Vs. Religiosity

Some time back, a friend had asked me whether I considered myself a religious person. In my younger days I would have responded with a clear and emphatic No. Today, I am not so sure.  In a conventional sense, I still don’t regard myself as religious. However, it is equally true that places of worship (gurudwaras, temples, dargahs, churches mosques etc.) fill me with a sense of serenity and some of my most favourite songs have a distinct devotional flavour. This apparent contradiction in myself, forced me to think about what it means to be religious?

As a theological construct, religion deals with issues of cosmology /metaphysics such as existence of God, life after death, relationship between body and soul etc. I have no definite opinion on any of these and nor do these questions hold much interest for me. In this sense, I can regard myself as non-religious.

Religion is also a moral/social construct. It lays down ethical values, social obligations, codes of conducts, rituals and ceremonies etc. While I recognise the need for all these, I am extremely uncomfortable when they are made “absolute” through references to “sacred texts” and “religious diktats”. The sociological/ethical sides of human existence have to be governed by prevalent life conditions and hence must be dynamic. The less they are linked to theology (which tends to be absolutistic) the better. In this sense also I have to regard myself as non- religious.

Finally, there is an emotive and psychological side to religion which corresponds to certain imperatives of being human. In order to distinguish it from the theological/sociological side, I will call it Religiosity. Religiosity is a medium (and by no means, the only medium) through which certain imperatives of being human (for example, the need to find meaning  for one’s life, the need to merge and become a part of a larger entity etc.) find expression. The most significant of these imperatives is the need to have faith.

Faith is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misused concepts. It is often confused with dogma, irrational belief and even confidence. In fact, in many ways it is the exact opposite . Notions such as dogma and confidence rest on the plank of “certainty” whereas, faith rests on the plank of “uncertainty”. A dogmatic person “knows for sure” that his/her beliefs are absolutely true. A person with faith accepts the limitations of his/her knowledge and does not feel destabilised by this lack of knowledge. Similarly, a confident person believes that through competence and effort one can gain mastery over one’s destiny. In contrast the person with faith does not feel a compelling need to control his/her destiny. The person is quite content to give his/her best shot and simultaneously accept that the ultimate outcome will be determined by a host of factors, most of which are beyond his/her control. Competence and effort are necessary prerequisites for success but by no means sufficient. What matters is one’s willingness to embrace the outcome with humility and grace.

For me, Faith is essentially an antidote to Anxiety which is an inevitable consequence of  human limitations. There is no way that human beings can have complete knowledge/control over their own lives. Thus living with the anxiety of having to deal with the unknown and uncontrollable is an integral part of human existence. However, there is a marked difference between Religion and Religiosity in how this anxiety is dealt with.  Religions  deal with this anxiety through providing certainty, either through positing an omniscient and omnipotent God figure or through a definite and absolute theology/unquestionable sacred text. Religiosity on the other hand accepts and graces the uncertainty and limitations of knowledge/control inherent in human existence.Each  religion has its own brand of   theology, morality, social norms etc. but as mediums for expression of emotive/ existential imperatives ,their essence remains the same. Consequently, religions tend to be divisive whereas Religiosity can be inclusive and has the potential of being a unifying force. The beauty of religiosity is that it is so inclusive that it does not even require you to believe in any god or divine order.

It is for this reason that I regard inclusive religiosity as a much more meaningful and potent concept than secularism. In secularism, there is very little space for the emotive imperatives which find expression through religion. The end result is a huge vacuum which is often exploited by the fundamentalist forces to propagate their own theological and sociological certainties. This is particularly applicable in the Indian context.

For various reasons, the Indian psyche is more religiosity centric than religion centric. Further, it has a huge appetite for religiosity. It is not uncommon to find people  in this country flock around a god man irrespective of religious affiliations. It does not matter whether it is a christian saint or  a muslim pir or a budhist monk or a hindu gurumata or a jain muni or a sikh guru, they all act as magnets for virtually all people. In fact so insatiable is our appetite for religiosity that we can make gods out of anything-trees, animals, rivers, planets or anything else that one can think of. There are very few objects/creatures that one can think of, which are not worshipped in some form or another in some part of India.

This almost insatiable appetite for religiosity accompanied by its “open-ended” nature is a huge potential resource which unfortunately is becoming more of a liability. While it is important to be watchful against the divisive forces which are unleashed by religion, it is equally important to ensure that in the process we don’t end up saying good bye to religiosity. In fact, the more we turn away from religiosity, the more divisive religions will become. I suspect, no one understood this better than Gandhi and hence he always emphasised inclusive religiosity rather than secularism. I believe this was also a significant factor which enabled him to mobilise people across the length and breadth of this huge country.

 

 

 

 

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.