Society has been on a journey of global awareness into the systemic injustices affecting minorities, sparked by serious examples of police brutality in the US last year. Quite often, this has forced us to reflect on our own prejudices. For many it has proven to be a confronting truth that we are still struggling to come to grips with, even though for years prior we have been more than aware of the prejudice (gender, ethnic, racial, or otherwise) that have brought forth acts of discrimination, reductionist attitude, and inhumane conduct. The biases stemming from prejudice prescribe expectations as to who we should be, as opposed to who we really are.

One of the difficulties in conversations on equality and inclusion, is the ambiguity in the meaning of certain terms as they tend to be misused or interchangeable (when they should not be), meaning we are not starting from the same baseline in these conversations.

To find a shared baseline, I will borrow Elliot Aronson’s definition of prejudice:

As a hostile or negative attitude toward a distinguishable group on the basis of generalisations derived from faulty or incomplete information. It contains a cognitive component (a stereotype and set of beliefs about a group), an emotional component (dislike of or active hostility toward the group), and a behavioural component (a predisposition to discriminate against the group).

When we discuss these behavioural issues, we tend to attribute it to dispassionate reasoning, but I would like to explore the subjects of cognitive dissonance and selective moral disengagement. I will endeavour to take you through the moral plane to illustrate the relationship between personal standards and social influences that drive our prejudice.

Be Your Own Critic

We all like to believe ourselves to be decent humans – with integrity, honour and in some cases, kindness, and generosity. When this esteemed perception of ourselves is challenged in the context of arbitrary dimensions such as gender, ethnicity, or race, it can create conflict in our minds.

In that moment of rational conflict there is an opportunity to learn about our own biases. Instead, out of fear or even fragility, we often choose the comfort afforded to us by justifying our actions or inactions thereof. In order to learn and grow from these experiences, requires us to unlearn what we think we know, and that demands that we be vulnerable and admit our inadequacies. To be vulnerable means to have humility. Humility is to accept when we can all be wrong, misinformed, unaware, or narrow-minded. However, until we each build the resolve to admit that we can remain wilfully ignorant. To be so, suggests a more sinister agency of preserving one’s ego. This applied sense of apathy and indifference cannot only prevent us from examining ourselves, but also absolve each of us from the responsibility to act.

“An unexamined life is not worth living.” - Socrates

To examine ourselves is to admit our limitations and to mature from our own inadequacies. Our behaviour is inherited from past and existing dogma. In a society that praises individuality, it makes sense to interrogate ourselves to really understand the nature of what we choose to believe. Why would any of us choose to consider such an arbitrary thing as gender determining our intellect, or the colour of our skin giving us a more righteous standing in society.

To absolve ourselves of responsibility by inaction on unconscionable behaviour, is a privilege only ever afforded to those who believe they are unaffected, or those that choose to displace or diffuse their responsibility in society. This behaviour – the failure to act – reinforces complacency; however, it can be overcome by compassion and courage. So, the question is whether we are willing.

The Golden Rule

The nature of our self-importance, ironically, is the need to get validation of one’s value by demeaning that of another. The concept of prejudice innately suggests a form of superiority over another being, which then brings to question, what it means for every one of us to be human.

We define it within the limitations of how we choose to identify, so that creates a continuum on which each one of us belongs. But our existential need to want to belong to something greater than ourselves, can sometimes drives us to choose groups we identify with and in the same breath, alienate those that do not. In no attempt to place shame or blame (because the goal here is understanding) by having views that are sexist, ageist, racist, or homophobic just to name a few, it is important to note that the relevance and survival of your group should not be dependent on the existence of the other. For when your values threaten the life and safety of another, you must acknowledge the need for introspection and soul-searching.

This, I think to be the true nature of prejudice. Critical reasoning is not sufficient to matters of equality. We need to have compassion for something bigger than oneself, for there to be a gateway into acknowledging our differences, but also seeing past that. The answer although simple, is not easy. It takes collaborating or getting to know people who are different to ourselves – to be open to others. If you fail to do that, then next time maybe we just ask ourselves, “Would I want the same thing done to me?”. If the answer is No, then we have an obligation to act.