Evolving understanding of prejudice

All right, so here we are with women’s suffrage in many countries though far from universal and slavery ostensibly outlawed everywhere but I think the crust is fragile and pus bubbles up through the cracks. There’s hope in that we’ve come this far and despair in the way people are reacting to COVID19.

If you’re an avid reflector on gender and other forms of prejudice you may be familiar with the evolution of understanding many people undergo. Firstly we are blissfully ignorant. We speak and act without thought or afterthought. People in this stage act according to their developmental default settings. If their developmental defaults were laid down in the right (or wrong far right) sort of environment these are the ones you hear coming out with sexism, racism, ‘x’ism casually. So off-hand and thoughtless is the dropping of these bombshell ‘isms’ that it can be tragically funny. When it earns a disbelieving titter at the seasonal family dinner table, the deliverer is pleasantly surprised at their unexpected comedy coup. The receivers, if they are close enough to the ‘ist’ person not to want to upset the apple cart only feel able to disarm the situation with laughter. I think this is one of the most common but toxic kind of collusion. Here is an example of how it can look.

In the next phase, brought on by some trigger for reflection on the issues in the context (maybe in an educational setting or maybe through a personal sense of exclusion), we are passionate about our lack of prejudice. You hear people in this phase saying things like, ‘I don’t see colour’ or  ‘I treat everyone the same’. I think this is a well intended but still highly destructive phase. The denial of prejudice usually signposts the exact opposite and cancels out its victims’ identities, personal journeys and suffering in one clumsy hay-maker.

People with the luxury of time, the right resources, the right influences, the right ‘a lot of things unavailable to millions throughout the world’ and an aptitude or predisposition for being open to having their minds changed often then move to the next phase. In this third phase of reflection on prejudice, we discover (often with horror) unconscious prejudices we carry hitherto unawares about race, gender, age and all manner of human things. My own experience of this is a never-ending repeated stab of shame as my past is repeatedly rewritten (re-framed) with each new realisation of prejudices I have carried and acted on my whole life without realising. As unpleasant as it is, I think to be a good world citizen, it’s important to perpetually remain in this battered and tender state, at least to some extent. How does this look? Often like someone hiding behind silence and this in my view is a shame because I think it inoculates society against the potential benefits of positive change through such people’s self discovery.

I think there is arguably a fourth phase, one in which we are able to forgive ourselves past transgressions owing to (for all intents and purposes) faultless ignorance. Inner peace and personal safety are problematic in this phase because no person is an island. Past transgressions can always be used to club us over the head with and nowadays, it seems to me, trial by public opinion rivals state law in its power to issue and execute catastrophic life sentences for untried past crimes; it doesn’t matter if you’re innocent, you’ll lose your platform if people decide you aren’t. You might even be physically attacked or turned on by the exact group(s) whose rights you’re standing up for. And that’s if the force of public scorn (or fear of it) isn’t enough to shame you into giving up and going home in the first place after all, you can’t change your past so it’s hard to argue with the people who don’t want to let you become your future.

My ideas here are nothing new. I don’t remember who coined this cycle years ago to do with corporate change, some business ‘guru’, I think but the cycle of unconscious incompetence -> conscious incompetence -> conscious competence -> unconscious competence (or thereabouts) is really a description of the same process. Where prejudice is concerned we have to learn what we don’t know we don’t know so we know it. Then we have to rewire it to something better then forget what we know and just act on it automatically the same way we used to do it the wrong way.

If anyone has any idea what we do after that please let me know.

Recent Comments

  • LC
    April 28, 2020 - 18:04 · Reply

    Good piece Dan. It is interesting in these social platform driven times that to apologise for your past, or make amends, or defend, or explain how you have changed as a person then more outrage and condemnation is to follow. Kevin Hart, the actor/comedian, may not be the best example of this, when his unsavoury tweets of a number of years ago were dug up when he was a candidate for hosting the Oscars. Hart chose to not engage publicly with a defence or explanation or detailed apology as he expected to do so then the ensuing backlash on social media would destroy his career and reputation further or completely. Outrage & perception winning out over contrition and truth. It is a tragedy that a virtual world of social platforms is so perception driven and omits the depth and complexity of our personal humanity.

    • Dan Williams
      May 2, 2020 - 11:26 · Reply

      I think I remember the case actually. I think he later wrote something along the lines of, ‘I’m not asking for forgiveness or sympathy, just the question: when is someone allowed to become their future?’

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