We need to talk about prejudice

Today, I would like to take you on a brief exploration of the nature and roots of human prejudice.

The evolutionary basis of prejudice

Humans have only eight primordial emotions, one of the most powerful of which is disgust.  We feel disgust instinctively when we come across anything unfamiliar.  This is a survival instinct: what is unfamiliar might be dangerous.  The larger our world and the more diverse things we are regularly exposed to, the more diversity we accept as being normal and allow to blend into the rich tapestry of life.

In contrast, if we recoil from what is different without cautiously exploring to see whether it might actually be safe, beneficial or enjoyable, our world of experience shrinks until we become fearful of more things until only those who we decide are most like us in every way can be tolerated.  This is the unhappy path to bigotry.  It is a retraction into the heart of a shrinking comfort zone which the most fearful people fearfully defend with great energy and anger, for they have come to fear the diversity of life.  Convinced of their own righteousness, they are as much victims as those they persecute, for they will forever be at war with those they deem invaders, perverts, and other assorted threats to their peace of mind.

Those who embrace rather than question the prejudices learned in childhood rely on justifications handed down for these beliefs.  Sadly for those who wish to embrace prejudice, these justifications all fail to stand up to scrutiny.  From unjustifiable appeals to authority made by religions on the basis that one or more gods are similarly prejudiced, assertions of in-group superiority, character assassination of target groups and various arguments using selective evidence or twisting the events of history to blame minorities for adverse economic circumstances, the arguments employed all use thinly disguised logical fallacies (faulty arguments).

Minimum group theory

People like feeling part of a group, and value feelings of solidarity with those who all hate the same things.  It is also a tendency for people to identify the smallest group of which they feel a member based on shared characteristics and then begin to fear and hate all other groups.  Psychologists call this ‘minimum group theory’ and it stems from the fact that it is easier to fear than to learn.  The sad thing is that those who are prejudiced have all learned to feel persecuted themselves, surrounded by those whom they fear and hate and are unable to rid themselves.  The good news is that overcoming prejudice and coming to appreciate others is as easy as stepping outside of your comfort zone and seeking to learn online about how different groups see themselves and building up to talking to them in person, which opens the door to discovering what you have in common with these other groups.

Self-awareness leads to acceptance

Another aspect of prejudice is that it is usually a reaction to a fear that originates within ourselves.  Psychologists have found that when we find something objectionable about others, it is almost always because it reminds us of something we are uncomfortable about in ourselves.  This is not to say that everyone who is homophobic is gay(!) but that they are likely to be reacting to a sense of disgust, guilt or insecurity within themselves that this association somehow triggers.  The path between feelings and beliefs are often convoluted and seldom rational but by questioning throughout life where your feelings root down inside – to what memories and ideas the feelings that drive your thoughts and actions connect – you can develop greater self-awareness.  Through knowing yourself, you will come to understand others better, being better able to spot when others are being driven by their inner conflicts and unquestioned received biases.

Why post this today?

Today is the National Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (and yes, someone really should come up with a catchier name). 
May 17th was chosen to celebrate gender and sexual diversity after the World Health Organisation declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder on 17 May 1990.  While acceptance of human diversity has made slow progress over the years and 43 countries now recognise homophobic crimes as hate crimes, 70 countries worldwide still criminalise consensual sexual acts between same sex couples held in private, 9 of which execute those they find to have had same sex activity, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen.  Life for many people who do not fit the arbitrary mould of what is considered acceptable in these places is made very difficult in order to flatter the prejudices of those who fear even slight differences between people.  Violence against trans people alone claims hundreds of lives every year.
This prejudice and persecution is well known to all those who are racially, religiously, cognitively or sexually different from the majority of those around them.  Many people are a victim of their own fears and believe the rest of the world is at fault for not conforming to their narrow view of what is ‘normal’.  Sadly, this seems all to be part of what it is to be human.

Exploring further

For more general awareness about LGBTQIA+ people, the Stonewall website offers great information.

If you want to chat to someone about any issues raised here or want to talk to an LGBT person in confidence regardless of your own gender or sexual orientation, you can call or chat online with the LGBT Switchboard.

If you are interested in learning more about this particular event or want to organise an event for next year, check out the ‘IDAHOBIT’ (May 17) website.

Assistant Librarian (Promotions) at the University Library. An enthusiastic advocate of libraries, diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice for all, inside and outside the workplace.

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