When a subject is highly controversial…one can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.
Like shadows that darken and distort our vision, implicit prejudices infect our perception without leaving a trace. One way to think of prejudice is to imagine a series of societally manufactured and perpetuated illusions. We often think of illusions as inconsequential magic tricks, but the truth is, they sometimes have the uncanny power to fool us in detrimental ways—even when we are aware that we are being deceived. Not all illusions are as persuasive, furtive, and invidious as the shadows of prejudice, but even small, insignificant illusions—ones not mired in the emotional baggage of societal acceptance and rejection—can prove amazingly difficult to impugn.
Take Figure 2 below. At first glance, the people appear to be three different sizes. When I tell you that the rendered perspective in the drawing affects your perception, you may be able to see that the three men are actually all the same size. Yet, if you walk away and then look at this image later on, in all likelihood your initial perception of those figures will still be inaccurate. The illusion will fool you again, despite your newer and better understanding of the reality behind it. I am also guessing that if I yelled at you, enumerating the ways in which you failed to see the drawing accurately while criticizing you for your provincial stupidity, that yelling probably wouldn’t help you to see the figures differently, either.
We want to believe that uncovering an unfair bias and identifying its origins is enough to eradicate it and protect us against its future influence. As the illusion above demonstrates, though, it is precisely our flawed cognition that leaves us prey to these misperceptions. We are deluded into a spurious sense of reality because our prior knowledge and experiences not only affect the way we interpret information once we perceive it; they also determine how we perceive it in the first place.
So, despite our attempts to dispel pernicious biases, they still regularly impair our judgment and corrupt our actions. Moreover, as the example above also shows, even when we can explain the mechanisms behind an exposed illusion, that doesn’t necessarily help us to immediately change our impressions or circumvent our own partiality. I do not mean to suggest that discrimination is excusable or entirely unavoidable. What I am wondering, though, is why we are so averse to acknowledging our shared susceptibility to unfounded prejudices.
Over the last several months, I have been repeatedly frustrated by the way many people on social media respond to behavior, commentary, or even thoughts that might be the result of bigotry. Although I care deeply about several of the issues involved, I have become more and more reluctant to access and participate in these online debates, which ultimately seem to be about drawing impenetrable circles to define who’s “in” or who’s “out.” Without question, prejudice permeates our lives in all sorts of harmful ways, and the need to unmask and disarm instances of bigotry, whether flagrant or subtle, is undeniable. Yet, when I see people viciously rebuking others for their missteps, I end up feeling both hopeless about the sometimes intractable nature of prejudice and disappointed with our overall approach to affecting change.
Attacking specific people or groups may help us “win” the argument, prove our rightness, or provide us with an opportunity to assert our own special status within an in-group. Even so, I am not sure that those things do a whole lot to alter the misperceptions that desperately need addressing. If our goal is to break down unfair biases and deconstruct oppressive standards of identity, then don’t we have to find a way to acknowledge and counter the implicit prejudices that we all harbor, without dehumanizing people in the process?
Otherwise, as Marina Warner cautions, “When history falls away from a subject we are left with otherness, and all its power to compact enmity, recharge it and recirculate it.”
The fact is that people act on and are influenced by implicit prejudices all the time, even when they are genuinely trying to avoid discriminatory behavior. For example, the editor or writer working for Alain de Botton’s online journal The Philosopher’s Mail probably didn’t intend to relegate women to object-only status when s/he chose the imagery for an article on the universality of crushes. And yet, in that article, pointing out “how willing we are to allow details to suggest a whole,” all five of the included photographs—every “detail” chosen “to suggest a whole”—depicted male voyeurs gazing at female subjects.
Or, take a mostly thoughtful article in Flavorwire about sexism and the construction of gender, written after the UCSB shootings. In this piece, Tom Hawking mistakenly blames Seth Rogen, a male actor, for tweeting a chauvinistic comment. Hawking acknowledges that Rogen was responding to an article by Ann Hornaday, a female movie critic. Yet, despite the fact that it was Hornaday who first used the “striking phrasing,” she doesn’t get the credit (good or bad) for the words that she chose.
Even scientific research has shown that implicit prejudices are ubiquitous. In a recent study “to test scientist’s reactions to men and women with precisely equal qualifications,” researchers not only found that “female applicants were rated lower than men on the measured scales of competence, hireability, and mentoring;” they also discovered that “both male and female scientists rated the female applicants lower.” Arguably then, at least some of those scientists are unfairly discriminating against women in spite of their conscious belief that the competency and capacity of scientists do not depend on their gender.
I suppose screaming at the people in the examples above might have some sort of positive impact on their future behavior, but I doubt it. On the other hand, if those mistakes were pointed out and the people making them had a chance to reconsider, admit to, and improve upon their unintended prejudice, without fear of public humiliation or retribution, then perhaps the discussions around inequitable and unjust power structures would not always need to devolve into us-versus-them battles. As no one is immune to implicit prejudice, I don’t see how any of us can improve if we do not allow people to learn from their mistakes. I am in no way advocating that we ignore unintended discrimination, but how we attend to it matters.