The Birth of Bigotry

This is the problem with binaries; they are inherent in concept formation but almost never pan out in fact-finding missions. Even seemingly clear cut binaries such as “Day and Night” and “Land and Sea” on closer examination have degrees of variance and instances of overlap. Tentative boundaries always exist but they are confusing and often blurry. This is why the variances and shades seldom survive when summarised for the benefit of an audience. Narratives of prejudice are built on summaries and oversimplifications: good / bad, wrong / right, more / less, big / small, powerful / weak, moral / immoral and the constant underpinning lens is always us / them.

There is also a “natural” juncture where such prejudice into broad classifications often pushes people to assimilate. This is an intriguing and crucial consequence of categories: distortion and assimilation. Most individuals will try to minimise the difference within the categories they have been ascribed and this leads to “assimilation”, a rare few will try and exaggerate them leading to “contrasts” or distortions.  Assimilation and contrast effects have been observed in a wide variety of domains from race and language to gender and art. Most research shows that differences within a group will tend to be minimised while differences between groups will be exaggerated. By this premise, any divergence within an “us” group will be painted over or consoled away, while points of difference with “them” groups will be highlighted and often expounded. Ray Davis once said that “People who insist on dividing the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ never contemplate that they may be someone else’s ‘them’.” This phenomenon is being illustrated widely in Hollywood’s recent obsession with dystopias. A spate of films such as The Hunger Games series and the Divergent series marketed at young adults highlight the demerits of group think and assimilation. The rebel is now being fetishised, even if only for profit rather than any kind of ethical grounding.

We are all conditioned and trained to see through only one side of the telescope, looking out, never in.

This leads us along another segue, how many of us ever stop to think who considers us to be a “them”? We are all conditioned and trained to see through only one side of the telescope, looking out, never in. Much of why this is natural for us rests in questions of power. Human beings, like other animals, have hierarchies and as Orwell would have it, “Some animals are more equal than others.” [5Power is the pivot to why we seem to have been unable to genuinely sustain a world without overt prejudice. After all, even if it is impossible to eliminate all categories, it should certainly be conceivable to eliminate the ostensibly cruel ones like racism, sexism and war. And yet what is so hard to conceive of today is that most narratives that centre on global peace and prosperity are often universally regarded as naïve. Today’s rational narrative is economic and inevitably grounds itself beyond the purview of Maslow’s meagre hierarchy of “needs” to a far more fundamentalist hierarchy of “wants”.

There are many who say that human beings, on aggregate, are becoming more moral. Much of this is down to industrialisation, globalisation and to a broader extent survival. And yet, we have not managed to transverse our collective prejudice. We have made efforts, however, but seem to be struggling with the follow through. This may well boil down to a case of practice versus principle. The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights underpins our modern human “principles” with the following words:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people. Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.”

Again, sounds so fundamentally simple, doesn’t it? Simple to understand and anything but easy to do given that the parameters of prejudice — whether subtle or sadistic — always qualify these words into hierarchies when it comes to practice. In practice, we universally acknowledge that it is harder to un-teach prejudice than to teach it. Yet, while most of us accept this truth, many still ground their morality and on the premise of excluding people rather than including them. Our “Us” is nearly always an exclusive club rather than a free membership global gift.

In his novel ‘The Stand’ [6], Stephen King describes the birth of bigotry in these words:

Show me a man or a woman alone and I’ll show you a saint. Give me two and they’ll fall in love. Give me three and they’ll invent the charming thing we call ‘society’. Give me four and they’ll build a pyramid. Give me five and they’ll make one an outcast. Give me six and they’ll reinvent prejudice. Give me seven and in seven years they’ll reinvent warfare. Man may have been made in the image of God, but human society was made in the image of His opposite number, and is always trying to get back home.”

We generally try to paint our own compartments as moral, ennobling our bigotry against the larger, more pervasive “others” trying to attack our life choices. King, who knows a thing or two about the macabre, suggests that the process by which most of us construct our goodness and our gods may be taking the wrong way home.

[1] Garth, T. R. (1925). ‘A review of racial psychology’. Psychological Bulletin, 22,343-364.

[2] Sagan, Carl, ‘Wonder and Skepticism’. Skeptical Enquirer, 1995.

[3] G.C. (Georg Christoph) Lichtenberg, “Notebook A,” aph. 17, ‘Aphorisms (written 1765-1799)’, trans. by R.J. Hollingdale, 1990.

[4] Allport, G. W, ‘The Nature of Prejudice’, Basic Books, 1979.

[5] Orwell, George, ‘Animal Farm’, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co, 1946.

[6] King, Stephen, ‘The Stand’, New York: Doubleday, 1978.