Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The misunderstanding of "prejudice" itself

There's a thing about "homophobia", and a general dislike for the use of the term, that's been in the back of my mind for a while. The brouhaha over race that's been simmering in the US sort of expanded that in my mind to the whole concept of prejudice generally. It comes down to two things.

First, I believe that the vast majority of people who engage in poor treatment of another on the basis of race, sexuality, gender, any difference like that at all, do it completely unconsciously. In fact, such people would get insulted at the very idea that they might want to behave in such a way, stating quite accurately that they never intended to do so. Even when they did. This applies even to people who go out of their way not to be prejudiced: there is an unconscious aspect to such poor treatment which is hard to overcome unless it can be consciously perceived.

Second, and problematically, the way we talk about prejudice utterly fails to recognise this. My perception is that using the phrase "racist" or "homophobic", or even "prejudiced", to describe a person's attitude or behaviour always implies a deliberate intent: people accused of these things supposedly want to treat a group as inferior, and think it wrong to treat them as equals. Worse, there is a significant moral sting to the words: "racism", "homophobia", "bigotry" and the like imply not just misguided ideas, not just a lack of familiarity which breeds misunderstanding, but an actual evil act.

An argument can be made that the plain definition of these words don't include these implications of a deliberate choice to commit an evil act on the part of the accused. But I'm talking about how these words are used, not some idealised definition. In actual practice, the words we use to describe prejudice, racism, homophobia and so forth all carry this moral sting: they are an accusation that a person is intentionally evil.

So how should the majority of unequal treatment that is not motivated by evil, and not deliberately chosen, be described? A phrase like "unconscious racism" is inadequate I think, as the intentional aspect of the idea of "racism" is too entrenched in the use of the word. After some thought, I think the best way to describe such attitudes and behaviour would be "thoughtless". So, to take an example from my own life, a person who might say something like "bisexuals are just homosexuals who still have one foot in the closet" isn't "biphobic", but is exhibiting a thoughtlessness about the experience and life of bisexual people.

Thoughtlessness about a group of people is not intentional, but it is difficult to overcome: the opposite of thoughtlessness if thoughtfulness, which is a conscious process. It takes effort, all the time. This fact also helps explain how a person who themselves is in a group that gets treated poorly, homosexuals for instance, can still potentially treat a different group poorly, like, say, bisexuals. In this case, a gay person is thoughtful about their own poor treatment (well they'd have to be, wouldn't they), but may remain thoughtless about the way they treat bisexuals.

None of this is to say that there are no genuinely prejudiced people out there: some people can and do deliberately and intentionally view some groups as inherently inferior to others. The task then becomes one of separating the two: of knowing who is prejudiced, and who is simply thoughtless. There is no ready-made, easy way to do that, but it needs to be done.

Otherwise, much poor treatment towards minority groups will remain impossible to solve because the description of the people engaging in it as "racist", "homophobic" or "prejudiced" will, quite legitimately, prompt an outraged defense that they see all people as equal. Many people who engage in such poor treatment genuinely do see all people as equal, and want to treat all people as equal, but won't realise that they're not treating all people equal unless it's pointed out, without rancour and without being accusative, that they are engaging in such unequal treatment unconsciously.

No comments: