Thursday, October 1, 2009

Prejudice in Action: The Greeks were right, after all!

I've been reading a lot about diversity, inclusion, tolerance, and other such-what in the atheiskeptihumanist blogosphere recently, and it's given me pause for thought. Specifically, it's raised a rather sore point for me, the matter of my own prejudice. I'd like to share some thoughts on that today.

I hate ugly people. It's terrible, I know. It's awful, and arbitrary, and irrational, and harmful, and a disservice to valuable members of my society, and a betrayal of the values I hold most deeply. And I can't help it.

What's worse, I'm not even that great-looking. I mean, I think I look OK, and some people seem to find me fairly attractive and that makes me feel wonderful, but the point is that I'm not even "dump in your Cheerios and you wouldn't care" hot, and here I am pronouncing judgments on other people for their looks alone. I think I have a pretty low threshold for what I see as an attractive person, and I try to find beauty in all that I see in the spirit of "aesthetic optimism" or whatever. But for some things, and some people, I just can't see any beauty and that revolts me.

I confessed this to one of my friends, who responded, "Oh, I'm the same way. I go with the ancient Greeks on this one: ugly people were cursed by the gods." My friend was speaking facetiously (neither of us believes in any gods at all), but that's kind of the level this gets to: with nothing rational or intelligent to fall back on, no moral justification, we jumped right to divine arbitration for our Haterade.

I'm talking about this today because this is the sort of thing we're fighting against, the sort of unreasoning prejudice that we, as atheists, or secular humanists, or whoever, have to deal with. And it's the same sort of unreasoning prejudice that has plagued all sorts of people throughout history: "Lookit them folks! They's differ'nt from us! Let's hate on 'em!" It has been meted out in different degrees, at different times, from different sources, upon different targets, but at root it all comes down to, "They're different, let's get 'em." This one thing will tell us all we need to know about you. It's just false.

Here's the difference: I know this about myself, I recognize it as prejudice, and I fight against it actively because being prejudiced like this makes me feel like a bad person. Whenever I am interacting with someone who I think is ugly, I try my very hardest to shove the "Ah-ha-ha lookit the freak" thoughts to the back of my mind, and haul the "this person is a person and deserves to be treated as such" to the front. I try to take every opportunity that comes my way to beat my lizard brain with the cudgel of tolerance, so to speak, and so far it's working. The disgust and revulsion get a little less intense every time, and the unfamiliar thing that so weirded me out gets a little more familiar, a little less weird, a little safer every time. I see my prejudice as bad, whereas most bigots seem to see their prejudice as somehow correct. "We don't know 'em, and we don't wanna know 'em," and that's just fine and dandy to them, it seems.

This cuts both ways, however. On the one hand, this helps me separate myself from that crowd. On the other hand, now I'm more separated from that crowd, and that makes it harder for me to get into the heads of my fellow bigots and sort out what makes them tick. At the end of the day, that seems (to me) to create a moral difference between myself, a self-correcting bigot, and the greater group of self-reinforcing bigots. I try not to be insular, and when I find myself upset at another's appearance, I recognize it as my problem and do my damnedest to act like I don't think anything's wrong with that person. Or, at least, nothing I would be able to tell just by looking.

And so I see the prejudice of others as another sort of ugliness, an "ugliness on the inside." But is this the same kind of prejudice on my end, wearing a different hat? Perhaps. After all, can people really affect their attitudes? I mean, with practice, of course we can. But if determinism is true, then every uncorrected bigot in history "couldn't have helped it" in the sense that the necessary causes for their correction never came about. And so, trivial tautology that it may be, I can't "truly" help my prejudice for the simple reason that I can only do whatever work it is in my power to do, but no more. Not one jot or tittle. That's a real shame, to my mind. This is of no help in one respect, and of tremendous help in another.

It does no good to simply write off evils of any kind as causally necessary in the past, and therefore insurmountable obstacles. Sorry, that easy way out is simply cowardice in the face of evil. And because the consequences of prejudice impact the happiness of others, this is very much a moral issue, and so we should do whatever we can to make the situation better. So what can we do?

We can treat bigots like people, too. This is the "tremendous help" part, so pay attention! We can try to bring about the causes necessary for their correction. If we must wield peer pressure as a cudgel and metaphorically beat the tolerance into people, well, so be it. But this is a crude solution, and I think we should prefer more elegant ones wherever possible. This means engaging the opposition, keeping the dialogue going, loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, and just generally being the better, more patient people in the confrontation. Ugh, that sounds like work, I know... but it's the hardest and most productive work we can get in this culture war, and it needs doing.

Remember that most people think that they're good people, that they do the right thing most of the time, and that they're generally sane. This is totally false for pretty much everyone, unless you're Norman Borlaug. People need to think these things in order to maintain a healthy sense of self-esteem. Threatening the support of that self-esteem will be seen as a threat to the self-esteem itself (and thus a personal attack), and so we must be careful to be gentle. We must treat bigots, when we can afford to do so, with more care and empathy than they treat us. It's not fair. It sucks, and it's hard work. But it's the best way to make progress.

Each of those clauses in the last paragraph is important (except for the bit about Borlaug - well, OK, it's important but in a different way). For instance, "when we can afford to do so," allows for the fact that, if a fight is brought to us, we may need to respond by fighting. In that case, we are left with no choice, and must defend ourselves against an attack. But this will rarely score points against the other side, except in the general "social visibility" sense that we will make others see that we can't be bullied into submission. This is important, but it won't accomplish our goals all by itself.

We need to be aware of the psychological forces at play, and we need to be somewhat manipulative about how we go about this if we want to have the best effects possible. It's easy to get sucked into the trap of thinking that those who would oppress us deserve no quarter from us, but remember that desserts have nothing to do with it. Do you want to drive bigots away and reinforce their bigotry, or kill them with kindness, no matter how much it defies our own desire for retribution, to have a greater chance of bringing them around to a more civilized way? It's not always such a binary choice - for instance, here on my soapbox, I can pretty much be as loud and intolerant as I want, as my audience is pretty self-selecting - but in many situations, the two chief options will be some variation on, "Satisfy your own impulses and alienate the other person," vs. "Suck it up and make some progress on the other person, even though it hurts to let them 'get away with' being such a twit right now."

I am reminded of Plato's Republic, book one, where Socrates makes a case for the idea that we must do no harm. In discussing justice, Polemarchus volunteers as a definition of justice, "helping one's friends and harming one's enemies." Socrates responds that we humans are fallible and may be unable to judge with certainty who our friends and enemies are at any given moment. Because we may be mistaken, we should strive to err on the side of caution, treating all as friends and trying to harm no one. After all, in the long run, this may earn us some friends and thereby eliminate enemies (in what I think is the best way possible). This stacks up rather nicely with Sun Tzu's injunction to remove the enemy's desire to fight as the best way to achieve victory. Perhaps more appropriately to the situation, this also rings true with the words of Abraham Lincoln: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection."

And on that note, I'm done with this. For now.

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