Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The myth of prejudice, fear and ignorance.

Audio for this blog post is here:

I grew up with the idea that at the origin of all prejudice was ignorance and the fear of difference. Something like,

Those people look different, they act different, I don't understand them and so I am afraid!

It is natural to fear strangers, people would say, but as civilised educated people who know we have nothing to fear, we overcome it. People who fail at this and hate people who don't look, dress or behave like themselves are simply ignorant and more easily afraid.

I had some doubts about this even as a child because as a British white non-disabled child, I was not in the slightest bit afraid of people of colour, people with foreign accents or disabled people. I met people at school – a family of Bangladeshi sisters with albinism, a teacher with cerebral palsy - who looked, dressed, walked and/ or talked very differently from anyone I had ever seen before, even on television or in books. I didn't feel afraid of them in any way. Nobody did.

Meanwhile, the children I saw picking on their black, Asian, fat, skinny or bespectacled classmates did not seem to be afraid, they did not lack information about the children they bullied, nor had they missed out on any of the lessons about tolerance than I had received.

And yet the idea that prejudice was a natural impulse we must learn to overcome held a rather romantic message; for example, as a white person who felt no animosity towards non-white people, I must be a particularly good person. I watched movies where characters who looked a bit like me – although admittedly usually men – were able to rescue groups of black, Asian, Native American or Jewish people from their white or gentile oppressors, occasionally even from one another. In such stories, the villains usually looked a little like me, but the heroes looked and thought like me. These days, there are even versions of this movie, such as Avatar, John Carter and Game of Thrones, where a white hero saves an entirely fictional, fantastic non-white people because this is the way it works.

The idea of a world divided into the good guys, the bad guys, and the helplessly haplessly oppressed in need of my rescue appealed to my childish mind. It was an idea that gave me power.

Every now and again, a disabled friend will be shouted at in the street. Very often (although not always) the assailant is drunk in the middle of the day. Usually, the words shouted are about benefits, accusing the disabled person of being a scrounger, lazy, faking or some variation on this theme.

The victim will post about this experience on Twitter or Facebook. Folks are entirely sympathetic, but there are almost always comments along these lines:

“People just don't understand.”
“People believe everything they read in the papers.”
“People need to be educated about invisible disabilities.”
"People are afraid of what they don't understand."
“People need to spend a day in a wheelchair and see what it feels like.”
“People fear us because disability reminds them of their own mortality.” (Really.)

Street harassment of disabled people has risen steeply in the UK since the Welfare Reform Act of 2011. Political rhetoric sought to justify removing benefits from thousands of people with the idea that a whole load of people were either pretending to be disabled or at least exaggerating their conditions for cash. Hate crime and political rhetoric are undeniably connected.

But this is not because a bully on the street has come to the conclusion that the next person he sees in a wheelchair almost certainly doesn't need it. Nor does a bully look at a passing wheelchair user and feel a cool chill of existential angst as he realises that one day his own beleaguered body will fail and die.

A bully sees a disabled person and he sees a mark. He sees someone who appears physically vulnerable and socially isolated (folk rarely have these experiences in company). All that crap in the papers about scroungers doesn't give this guy a motive to abuse us; it gives him permission. People who shout at us in the street almost certainly have a lot of fear in their lives. But they don't need to be shown stats about benefit fraud. Their fear has nothing to do with us.

In the aftermath of the EU referendum, there was a massive increase in racist and homophobic hate crime in the UK. Nobody became more ignorant and these crimes were not being carried out by people - like EU migrants resident in the UK - who suddenly had something to fear. As a Brit, one of the most painful aspects of the unfortunate US election result was knowing that the same and worse was about to happen over there. Not that the election result made people more racist or homophobic (and the rest), but it made them believe that prejudiced sentiments were more socially acceptable to express in public. This perception literally shifted over night.

This is because prejudice is primarily about power.

We have a limited capacity to know and understand all those who are different from us but such knowledge and understanding are not necessary for respect and compassion. We know that all other people are as human as we are, that they have their strengths and weakness, loves and hates, fears and their desires and that members of any given group – even one brought together by a shared political belief – are not all the same. We know this but applying this at all times is a challenge.

Complaints about “people who...” do annoying, hypocritical or awkward things are common conversational currency – folk unite against a common outsider, however superficially they are defined. I enjoy the BBC TV show Room 101 where celebrity guests talk about their pet hates (rather reduced from Orwell's original), which are very often “people who...”. It's fun and funny because it is playing with this power; part of the joke is to ridicule a certain kind of person but the other part of the joke is the righteous indignation of the celebrity guest about a rather petty subject. It is a safe way for someone to say to a crowd, “Let's wipe people who eat noisily in the cinema from the face of the Earth!” and for that crowd to cheer their assent, united in their faux-loathing. And anyone present who knows that they eat noisily in the cinema can laugh along (or rustle their toffee-wrappers) and has absolutely nothing to fear.

Only usually, we're not joking. Sometimes we're half-joking, but other times we enjoy our righteous indignation with a totally straight face. Sometimes we complain about people who have done or do something wrong - rude, hurtful or harmful - but very often not.

When I first heard discussions about people wearing pyjamas at the supermarket, even I had a taste of smugness about the whole thing. Most days I struggle to get dressed, but only a medical emergency would draw me out of my home in my pyjamas. And thus I had a moment where I enjoyed a warm glow of superiority over people who shop in their sleepwear. Am I offended by this behaviour? Not one iota, but it made me feel good to think that I have risen above those uncouth wastrels by rarely ever leaving the house.

Now that's an ugly confession. We're not supposed to show our pleasure in feeling superior to other people – we're not supposed to admit to a world-view where some people are better than others. So instead we pretend to ourselves and others that we have other motives. It's a scandal! It's very disrespectful! And then we can build on this using our rich arsenal of cultural prejudices.

Okay, so many of the discussions about pyjamas in supermarkets had some humour mixed in, but not nearly enough. Very quickly you could see and hear folk reaching for sexism (this is about women shopping in their pyjamas, women breaking the rules!), fatphobia (these are probably fat and lazy women!), sexism against mothers in particular (these women set a dreadful example to their children!) and social class (these fat crap mothers are undoubtedly chav scum!).

When this January, one Tesco shopper published a picture of two women wearing sleepwear in a store on the Tesco Facebook page, the subjects of that photograph later said they felt they had been targeted as travellers. That's very likely the case; prejudice against travellers is rife and it would have provided yet another reason for some twerp to feel superior to them.

None of this is about the question of whether wearing sleepwear in a supermarket is disrespectful to the people who work there – a question worth asking, but hardly worthy of national debate. This is about taking pleasure in passing judgement on folk who are seen to have transgressed.

So let's imagine if Philip Hammond, our Chancellor of the Exchequer, was seen shopping in the supermarket in his pyjamas. We could criticise his arrogance, but we'd struggle to find much to say besides that. Being very powerful and a millionaire doesn't mean (I hope) that you or I could not consider ourselves Hammond's moral superior, we just don't have the language to back that up. We don't have the language to bring a rich straight cisgender gentile non-disabled white man down without casting aspersions on one of those identities. This is why even someone who is as morally repugnant and personally tragic as Donald Trump is mocked as having small hands or a small penis (not manly), drawn kissing Putin (not straight) or described as mentally ill (not non-disabled).

The pyjamas thing may seem like a trivial example, but when the aforementioned Tesco shopper posted that picture of two traveller women wearing sleepwear in a store on the Tesco Facebook page, he asked the supermarket to stop serving “such people”, adding that, “It's bloody disgusting!”

By which he meant, “I feel so superior to these people that I think I might single-handedly stop them being able to use a supermarket at all. It's bloody amazing!”

But that doesn't mean he wasn't genuinely angry about it. The anger that accompanies righteous indignation is absolutely real. I'm sure this chap felt that he was trying to correct some great wrong in the world and that his actions were public-spirited. He's probably a perfectly nice bloke the rest of the time and may well regret a deed which took just a few moments of excitement.

This is a big problem. We would like people to be on one side of this or the other; good guys and bad guys. Not just because it's simple, but because you and I can be on the right side. As I say, it's a romantic idea, and I believe it is more romantic the more detached you are from the realities of prejudice (which, as a young non-disabled girl who imagined she could grow up to be Indiana Jones, I once was).

We are very social animals and we are constantly concerned with our place around other people. We all have access to a variety of strategies for interacting successfully with other human beings, including very nice things - like sharing our resources, making ourselves useful, making others feel good – then mutual self-interest and the exertion of power; deceiving folk, threatening folk, undermining folk etc.. There are also strategies we employ not as individuals, but as groups. Groups of people bond over common causes and goals, shared experiences, shared jokes, but also belittling, hating and fearing outsiders. Human beings are so very social that we far surpass all other animals in our capacity for destruction and cruelty - but only when our friends are looking on.

Like other primates and many other mammals, we have access to all these strategies, and – when successful, however fleetingly – all of these things feel good. Obviously not all of us use all of them. We make choices based not only on what we've got (if you're very small, physical intimidation may not be your thing), but also on what makes us feel comfortable and good about ourselves.

But just as almost everybody will have felt a violent impulse from time to time, almost all of us have it in us to wish to exert power over others. And when we do so – especially when we're angry or insecure (because fear does play a role in this), it is easy to slip into the patterns our culture has dictated. On the rare occasion I feel a real loathing for someone, I find myself thinking of really insulting and often amusing ways to describe their physical appearance. This despite the fact about half of everything I've ever written might be vaguely summarised as “Don't judge people by their appearance.”

Debbie Cameron wrote recently about the tendency for egalitarian folk to pull apart the grammar and spelling of bigots. I understand and share this impulse; it's funny and satisfying, but it reinforces some of the very cultural hierarchies we are attempting to dismantle. There's a lot of this sort of thing within egalitarian politics, where folks who wish to end prejudice of all kinds nevertheless employ prejudicial language (most often disablist slurs) to insult their political enemies.

This is a point we keep missing again and again. I think folk are afraid of this truth partly because it is unflattering to almost all of us. But mainly, I think, because it makes bigoted behaviour even scarier when you understand that folk take pleasure in placing others as inferior; people and groups enjoy feeling powerful. People and groups enjoy exerting power.

There are other things I want to write about power and prejudice, but I will conclude this post with a very positive example of how this stuff can get better.

Among straight people in my social circle, the short ten years between Civil Partnership and same sex marriage revolutionised attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people (even though trans* people cannot be said to have full marriage equality even now). A wedding is an occasion of collective joy, usually involving many more people that just the brides and grooms. It is a really big deal to refuse a wedding invitation, whether it is for your only son, an old college friend or your great-niece twice removed – people notice, people know about it, people wonder how anyone can be so pig-headed. It is a really big deal to put a dampener on a wedding – not just for the couple but for any member of a wedding party – by making foul jokes about it or insisting it shouldn't be allowed. Even if you are so far removed from things that it's just your colleague that's the mother-of-a-bride, you are socially obliged to smile and coo at her new hat, and afterwards look at the photos and agree that the couple look incredibly beautiful and happy. Anything else is a potential bridge-burner.

Marriage was not a priority for all LGBTQ+ people – some folk object to the whole institution - but it caused the ground to shift. Straight people got to truly celebrate same-sex relationships, to take them seriously (no more of this “Johnny's special friend” to mean Johnny's spouse), to associate these relationships with the formation of family and the consumption of cake, while homophobes increasingly looked like killjoys and bigots. This did not happen overnight and it was not magic – we've not nearly begun to see the end of homophobia, transphobia and the rest. But I've had conversations with folk since 2014 which would have been inconceivable in 2004 and vice versa, because queer people started getting married. 

This happened not merely because people's minds were changed by reasonable argument (although that's part of this), but because of both positive and negative social pressure; it's nice to be participate in other people's good news, fewer people were going to laugh at those jokes or nod sagely at those bigoted remarks and more people were prepared to object. All this can work, not just to silence increasingly unpopular views, but to change people's minds, to knock the wind out of the sails of their prejudice and bring them around.

People will hold onto prejudice when it gives them power. Remove that power, all of it, and folks do let go. 

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