The Sensible Notion of Prejudice


Every human behaviour has a reason for its existence, even if this reason may not be apparent. This doesn’t necessarily make every one of those behaviours desirable and moral at every point in a person’s life. It has been acknowledged that babies are selfish and greedy, but this makes sense when one considers that a baby’s sole purpose is to survive into maturity, and thus it behaves as all animals do. When maturation does occur, the grown person is no longer isolated in a relationship exclusive to them and their parents/providers, and instead enters into a moral relationship with his or her society. In this relationship, greediness and selfishness are generally considered to be negative traits that are discouraged.

Prejudice literally means judgment in advance and is, like selfishness, a non-learned human behaviour which we demonstrate from a young age. While highly extroverted children do exist, it is usually normal for children to fear strangers up to around two years old, with some retaining this anxiety much longer, into the stage at which children begin to fear more fantasy-based threats. Very young children experience distress when not around familiar adults, particularly their parents, as a survival mechanism. Other agents with whom they have no familiarity could have hostile intent, and being completely helpless at that age, it is beneficial to ensure that they remain as close to familiar sources of safety as possible. This is a form of prejudice. The child will, without coaxing, decline to gain familiarity with a new face because of the potential risks of that familiarity, despite knowing nothing of the person in question, who might be another relative or family friend.

As we get older, the number of people we are willing to familiarize ourselves with grows, eventually extending to those we meet in the workplace, or interact with in daily life. We no longer practice prejudice to those we do not know, and instead are usually willing to give people a chance to become either our friends or enemies, even if things like personal aesthetic or mannerism influence a kind of first impression. Not only is it practical to develop such an openness and trust with members of your society, but it is based on the sound reasoning that it is rare for members of your group to want to harm you without some reason of which you would be aware. For instance, you will typically know if someone might be out to enact revenge upon you for something you’ve done. It’s true you could be the victim of random crime, but we seem to be willing to tolerate this risk from members of our own group. Unless they give off bad signs, we will trust members of our own group with basic things such as not randomly beating us about the head with a claw hammer.

hammmerwe’re not saying it’s impossible

So we are born with prejudice and slowly let go of it as we get older and begin to interact with the world outside of our family. And yet, still today one of the greatest political concerns is the prejudice of European peoples who do not trust foreigners, with their alien cultural practices.  Automatic race preference means that to a greater or lesser extent, people attach ideas of negativity to different races, and a 1998 study found that this was common in upwards of 90% of individuals:

“An important example is automatic race preference. A person may not be aware of automatic negative reactions to a racial group and may even regard such negative feelings as objectionable when expressed by others. Many people who regard themselves as nonprejudiced nevertheless possess these automatic negative feelings”

Is this something to be overcome, just as the prejudices of children are overcome? Well, we can tell from the way in which this kind of prejudice persists that it is not subject to natural expiration in most cases. People don’t just “get over it” with age, but it persists into adulthood. A general fear of strangers when you are helpless is wise, but as you get older and more capable, the threat becomes more remote. You can judge situations with a more discerning mind, electing to avoid situations or environments in which you could be unsafe, even among your own people. However, for some reason, the threat of those with a strong degree of genetic difference, expressed in visible morphology as a marker, never really goes away. It is perhaps the case that we sense that these people do not have the same kind of inclinations to help us, or even be peaceable with us, as do members of our own group.

Even the most ardent libertarian opponents of prejudice, who will accuse it of being an exercise in irrational collectivism, will admit that individuals do typically treat others better who are from their own race, exhibiting a kind of in-group preference. However, they will make the case that this natural instinct is non-binding, and that individuals can transcend it. It would be ridiculous to think that every member of another race would wish you harm. In fact, it may even be the case that the majority would not. These proponents of a cast iron individualism would say that we should judge individuals on their merits, and in doing so will reap great benefits from the contact with the best members of other races, after filtering out the genuinely threatening ones. This often takes on the form of a kind of ‘ideological test’ for migrants.

Why have societies not thought of this before? Why have they exercised prejudice rather than actual judgment, taking into account the whole person. There are two reasons:

  • You can never take account of the whole person, both because people knowingly lie and because often people exhibit behaviours they are previously unaware of depending on new situations. An example of this would be the majority of African Americans who will say about themselves that they do not judge criminal guilt based on race, and that they do not vote based on race. They aren’t lying. A small percentage might be, and another small percentage may just admit these things, but most are not cognitively aware of their biases. White Americans will exhibit similar behaviour, though majority status obscures it. Everyone likes to think they would be an impartial juror on race-related cases, but most cannot help not being so, and often these inclinations to side with members of our own race go undetected below a veneer of impartiality. How do you screen for something like that? How can you make sure you are only allowing entry to your society for people who judge situations on a purely rational basis rather than racial ones, when everybody believes they fit this description?
  • It is completely impractical. You could solve problem 1 by setting up convincing mock scenarios, simulations to check for underlying motives of out-group solidarity. You could concoct an elaborate test to see if a Bangladeshi migrant would phone the police if his brother was part of a grooming gang, but the costs of doing so would be enormous. Could such costs really ever be outweighed by whatever small benefit one could garner from migrants who pose no threat to individuals or society as a whole, migrants who will fully integrate, who won’t see colour, who will behave exactly as the natives do?

cleanwe’re just following the Sargon of Akkad procedure, sir
checking you for any behaviours which might become a problem

seems clean

For infants, prejudice is an imperfect mechanism for dealing with incomplete information. They are incapable of certainty when getting to know strangers, and so experience anxiety caused by negative association. The stranger is potentially harmful. When we are older and fully part of our broader society, our group, we can have more certainty about those who look like us. Occasionally this will fail us. We will trust a salesman who enters our house to rob us, we will see a loving family man in our serial killer neighbour, but these are outliers, the extraordinary circumstances. People with the same background will have the same root for their racial behaviours as we do, and excluding general criminality or mental disorders, will behave within the range of what we expect. If there is a custom we have developed, such as holding doors open, these people we will expect to participate in such ritual politeness.

The outsider however, we cannot expect this from, and it doesn’t even matter if we are uninformed by statistics on crime or a deep knowledge of foreign cultures. They are still unfamiliar in the sense of the deepest consciousness. They are genetically foreign, and thus will be viewed as potential threats. We don’t have the time or resources to get to know everybody as an individual. It would be insane to expect such a thing of people, who often times don’t even really know their close friends! We bring needless anxiety into societies when we bring in diversity as some kind of moral good. We destroy societal trust, a key ingredient for community cohesion, and do so for such meager benefits on the back end. These benefits are indeed so meager that often “the number of restaurants and takeaways” is cited as the biggest boon from diversity!

kebabs coming to a Jordanian restaurant near you

In short, judgment is always better than prejudice, but judgment requires time and resources. There is a reason cops don’t just shoot every criminal they arrest, and instead the accused goes through a trial which can in some cases take years (the longest was supposedly 13 years). And we want to apply this kind of rigor to immigration numbers? Prejudice gets a bad name. Prejudice is a quick substitute for judgment in situations where judgment is simply impractical, and this is the state of play when it comes to immigration. The good news is, everyone has their place in the world, so no harm that isn’t voluntary can be inflicted by prejudice. It should instead be seen as a part of every functioning society which wishes to preserve its survival and cohesion, and a deterrent to those who might bring it harm, even if that means that a handful of wonderful people are turned away at the border. Seeing the downsides to immigration over the last few decades, the trade-off makes sense to me.


3 thoughts on “The Sensible Notion of Prejudice

  1. Pingback: The Very Best of Last Week in Reaction (2017/05/07) – The Reactivity Place

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