On Prejudice - Joe Abittan

On Prejudice

In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam writes, “A prejudice isn’t just an attitude towards something, someone, or some group, but an attitude formed and sustained without any proper inquiry into the merits or demerits of the object of prejudice.”
Prejudices are pernicious and in his book Cassam describes prejudices as epistemic vices. They color our perception and opinions about people, places, and things before we have any reasonable reason to hold such beliefs. They persist when we don’t make any efforts to investigate them and they actively deter our discovery of new knowledge that would dismantle a prejudice. They are in a sense, self sustaining.
Prejudices obstruct knowledge by creating fear and negative associations with the people, places, and things we are prejudiced against. When we are in such a state, we feel no need, desire, or obligation to improve our point of view and possibly obtain knowledge that would change our mind. We actively avoid such information and discourage others from adopting points of view that would run against our existing prejudices.
I think that Cassam’s way of explaining prejudices is extremely valuable. When there is something we dislike, distrust, and are biased against, we should ask ourselves if our opinions are based on any reality or simply on unmerited existing feelings. Have we formed our opinions without any real inquiry into the merits or demerits of the person, place, or thing that we scorn?
It is important that we ask these questions honestly and with a real willingness to explore topics openly. It would be very easy for us to set out to confirm our existing biases, to seek out only examples that support our prejudice. But doing so would only further entrench our unfair priors and give us excuses for being so prejudiced. It would not count as proper inquiry into the merits or demerits of the objects of our prejudice.
We must recognize when we hold such negative opinions without cause. Anecdotal thinking, closed-mindedness, and biases can drive us to prejudice. These epistemic vices obstruct our knowledge, may lead us to share and spread misinformation, and can have harmful impacts on our lives and the lives of others. There is no true basis for the beliefs other than our lack of reasonable information and potentially our intentional choices to avoid conflicting information to further entrench our prejudices.
First Impressions Matter

First Impressions Matter

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes a research study that shows the power of the halo effect. The halo effect is the phenomenon where positive traits in a person outshines the negative traits or characteristics of the individual, or cause us to project additional positive traits onto them. For example, think of your favorite celebrity. You know they are good looking, talented at whatever they do, and you most likely also ascribe a number of positive traits to them that you don’t really have evidence for. You probably believe they have the same political beliefs as you, that they probably pay their taxes and don’t litter. If you discovered they did one of these things, your brain would want to discredit that information, or you might face some cognitive dissonance as you square the negative characteristic with the fact that the person looks good and is talented.

 

The study Kahneman references shows the power of the halo effect by giving people 6 descriptions of a fictitious person. Some people were shown 3 positive characteristics followed by 3 negative traits. Another group of people were shown a different fictitious person, with the same 6 traits, but listed in reverse, with the negative traits first followed by the positive. Kahneman writes, “The sequence in which we observe characteristics of a person is often determined by chance. Sequence matters, however, because the halo effect increases the weight of first impressions, sometimes to the point that subsequent information is mostly wasted.”

 

The study shows that first impressions matter a lot, even when we are not actually meeting someone in person. When the first thing we learn about a person is something positive, it can be easy to overlook negative traits that we discover later, and this is true in reverse. This idea is part of what drove Malcolm Gladwell to write his new book Talking to Strangers. I have not read Gladwell’s book, but I have listened to him talk about it on several podcasts. He discusses the death of Sandra Bland, and the interaction she had with law enforcement that led to her arrest and subsequent suicide. First impressions matter, and the first impression she made on the police officer who pulled her over was negative, shaping the entire interaction between Sandra and the officer, and ultimately causing her arrest. Gladwell would also argue, I believe, that first impressions can be formed before you have even met someone, simply  by absorbing racial or other stereotypes.

 

Gladwell also discusses Bernie Madoff in his book. A savvy conman who relied on the halo effect to swindle millions. He charmed people and seemed successful, so people who trusted him with investments had trouble seeing through the lies. They wanted to believe the positive traits they first observed from him, and any hints of fraud were easily missed or ignored.

 

The best we can hope for is awareness of the halo effect, and remembering how much our very first impressions can matter. How we put ourselves forward can shape the interactions we have with others. But we can remember to give people a break, and give people second chances when our first impressions of them are not great. Remember to look beyond the first observed trait to see the whole picture of other people in your life, and try to set up situations so that you don’t judge people immediately on their appearance, and can look further to know and understand them a little better.

Think About Your Measuring Sticks

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie includes the short story Father Forgets by W. Livingston Larned. The story is told from the perspective of a father, in roughly the 1920s/1930s, reflecting back on his day while standing at his sleeping son’s bedside. The father thinks about the times he criticized his son during the day, and how his son nevertheless ran into the father’s study at night to give him a hug good night. The line from the story which really stood out to me reads, “I was measuring you by the yardstick of my own years.”

 

The father realizes that he was treating his small child as if he were a full grown man behaving poorly. He was punishing his son for simply being a boy with the interests, the wonders, and the carefree spirit of a kid. It is a great story for any parent who is frustrated that their children don’t behave and act as perfectly as they want, and it is a great story for any of us who find ourselves criticizing the people in our lives.

 

I don’t have kids, so I won’t analyze the story and the quote that stood out to me from the perspective of a parent, but I am married and I do interact with plenty of other people who I know don’t share the same goals, the same genes, and the same history that I do. I find it easy to look at the world and find fault, especially when I see someone I can criticize for not having some virtue that I think that I possess. It is easy to take the yardstick that I measure myself with, and use it to judge others. However, when I do this, I am just like the father, using his measuring stick for evaluating his personal life, and applying that same standard to his small son.

 

Before we begin to measure others with our own yardstick, we should think about the yardsticks we use to measure our own lives. We often default to monetary yardsticks to judge the success of others, a habit that doesn’t accurately capture the value of a human being. People who are in great shape may apply a different yardstick to people, judging others for not being physically fit, without really considering the factors which may limit another person’s ability to get to the gym or buy lots of fruits and veggies. Similarly, parents might look down on people who don’t have kids, people who read a lot might look down on non-readers, and people who drive a Tesla might look down on people who drive trucks. In each instance, someone is taking a value of theirs, assigning it a certain weight, and then judging others using the measuring stick that they have built for their personal life.

 

The story about the father and his son shows us how useless this practice is, and hints at how harmful it can be. The father’s criticism is pushing his son down a path toward resentment, and the father recognizes there is still time for him to reverse the trend and recognizes that he can develop a real relationship with his child. Similarly, applying your own measurement to others is unfair because you do not know what history has shaped the person you are criticizing for not measuring up to your standards. You are not considering the environmental factors that create barriers in their lives to being the perfect person you criticize them for failing to be. People at different stages of their lives with different experiences and backgrounds may hold different values than you do, and that undoubtedly leads them to have different measuring sticks for their own lives. Additionally, it is not the responsibility of anyone else to live up to the measuring stick of your personal life. It is instead your responsibility to live in community with others, and to develop relationships to help others become the best version of themselves, meeting them where they are, understanding who they are, and helping them achieve a meaningful version of success that fits who they are and what society needs. The measuring sticks we need are not the ones we develop on our own, but are those which help us cooperate in society to encourage flourishing for all.

Connecting with Others

James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, is a collection of letters written to him by other writers, artists, and creative people whom Harmon Admired.  William T. Vollmann is one of the writers who submitted a letter for Harmon’s book, and in his letter he lists 21 pieces of advice. Number three on his list reads, “Try to love as many people as you can (i.e., be proud of who they are—don’t transgress their boundaries.” Advice like this is helpful for me to hear every day because it reminds me to be open minded to those around me, and to think of others first.
When we are meeting someone for the first time it is easy to connect with them and be friendly and inviting.  However, as we get to know the other person we start to see things we do or do not like about them, and the judgemental thoughts begin.  It may start out small, but over time our judgments and opinions shift, and in our mind we develop shortcuts for thinking about the other person.  This can be positive or negative, but either way our shortcuts do not encourage us to truly understand and think about the other.  Rather than caring about them and taking the time to have meaningful interactions we skip past them assuming they have not changed since we got to know them and assuming that we understand them.
This can often times be harmless for us and others, but  it can also be hurtful for both of us.  Once we have fixated on how our relationship with another can benefit us or if we only focus on what we dislike about the other, then we are not willing to truly assist them and listen to what they have to say.  In this sense we miss a chance to bring the other person up, and we also miss out on times when the other person could help us.  Nuggets of advice that encourage meaningful relationships and friendships can help us avoid these pitfalls.  I am drawn to Vollmann’s advice because he encourages us to seek true connections with others, and to see the world through their eyes.  In order to adopt the perspective of others we must understand their background and their relationship with us. This takes a lot of self reflection and self awareness for us to be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and truly reflect on how our relationship impacts both of us.
The ultimate goal of this type of exercise and self reflection is not to find a secret way to benefit ourselves by being nice to others. Vollmann would argue that the importance is in building relationships that will strengthen both parties.  By connecting with and understanding others we will help them feel more valued and build a stronger sense of community.  Looking only for our own gains in relationships will ultimately leave us lonely, and will damage the overall sense of community and family within our lives. The ideas of Vollmann in this section return to Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s quote from a previous post of mine, “The meaning of life is inherent in the connections we make to others through honor and obligation.”

Spend Time Listening

At  the end of his letter of advice written for James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, Larry Niven writes, “Everybody talks first draft. Don’t react till you know what he meant.”  In this quote he is talking about the importance of taking time to understand other people and to have enough self control to not react instantly to everything you hear.  Niven would argue that it is important to give people a chance to explain what they mean or repeat what they said in a second way before we judge them. When people are speaking about something for the first time, as apposed to speaking about a routine topic, it is likely that they will not immediately have the words and language dialed in to explain themselves succinctly.

I really enjoy the self control aspect of Niven’s quote.  His idea is all about being less reactionary in general, and being patient enough to try and understand other people.  We often are in a rush, and it is easy to judge other people for their actions, appearances, and speech without trying to take a moment to understand them.  Listening to others and giving them an opportunity to repeat wheat they said in a new way encourages us to think about how the other person has reached the point they are at, and why they think and speak the way they do.  Our backgrounds all differ and we have many different experiences in our life that shape the way we view the world.  Listening to someone and not judging their views on face value requires that we understand their background.  To reach this level we must understand that what another says is never a complete summary of what they think and believe. Asking that person to explain and expand on what they are saying will help us dive deeper into their thoughts and ideas. Giving them more time to explain themselves helps us connect with others in a new way, and it helps us have a more well rounded approach to the world.

In addition, to fully engage in this quote we must see that we approach any conversation with our own background and expectations.  The way we interpret the other person or the topic will influence the way we think about what the other person is saying.  To allow ourselves to understand another person’s ideas, we must first make sure out understandings of that topic are out of the way. If we cannot reach that point we will be forced into a box where we only think about the things that do or do not align with what we already think.  Instead, we should listen for the overall meaning of what the other person is saying, so that we can expand our vision and thoughts.

Working Together

Carolyn Chute wrote a letter for James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, which is a collection of letters from creative artists, independent film actors, and writers and poets. In her letter Chute writes about coming together and finding true value in everyone.  Chute writes, “Another nice thing to try is forgetting everything you learned in public school.  Especially the competition part — the “there are winners and losers” part.  try to think in terms of working together.  EVERYBODY has an A+.”  What she is explaining with this quote is that public schools get us in a mindset of constantly comparing ourselves to others and competing in certain situations to see who can have the best grades and prove themselves to be special.  The problem with this style of competition and proving our self worth through school work is that it excludes some students based on their personality or skills. Chute continues, “Everyone’s A+ isn’t visible or marketable or reflected in their possessions, appearance, or social graces.” What she is speaking of is true from grade school through college, into the business world, and all the way to parenting.
The school situation that Chute referenced is a reflection of how we judge people in our society, and how we chose to evaluate the successes and failures of others.  In society we tend to judge people based on their financial success, how big their home is, and what type of car they drive.  We assume that the greater they are in these areas, the happier they must be, and the more successful their relationships and health must also be.  The school system builds this in by putting us in situations where everyone hides their failures, and hangs their A+s above their desk for all to see.  And what is worse according to Chute, “School recognizes only those things you can WIN at. or at the things you can do quietly at a desk.”  In much the same way, society only judges people based on an individual’s financial “wins”.
Judging a student as successful based solely on their ability to complete their multiplication tables or score well on a vocabulary test misses out on what makes that student unique, and does not reveal the student’s personality, character, or interpersonal skills.  Judging them on a few categories that are easily visible and simple to compare against others does not give us a full understanding of the value of the student.  What Chute does in her brief paragraph is help us realize that we fall into the same pitfall in society when we judge others based on their financial status and material gains.  Comparing outward financial projections is an easy way to compare our value against others, but it certainly is not the right way, accurate way, or meaningful way to determine who has been successful or lived a valuable life.  What Chute explains is that we can not approach the world from such an individualistic perspective because we must all be connected in order to build a better planet and establish society together.  Each one of us has special skills and abilities, and we should all be working to highlight the strengths of others as opposed to working to make our own skills stand out.

Fitting In

Joe Dallesandro wrote a letter to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People who Know a Think or Two, and in his letter he reflected on the way that many people act and how we worry about what other people think of us. He writes, “In a way, it’s how most of us live our lives.  We wonder if other people find us worthy, find us smart, find us attractive, find us valuable.”
In this quote Dallesandro is speaking of the way that we judge other people, and how we constantly are judging ourselves.  We look at other people and make determinations about them based on their appearance. I am not sure where I heard this but on a podcast I remember listening to someone talk about our biases, and their main point was that we form biases and opinions within the first 15 seconds of looking at someone.  What Dallesandro is saying is that these biases change our behavior, even if we are not consciously aware of them, and that we try to mold our behavior according to these biases. In this way, our perspective of the world shapes us to act in a certain way.
Dallesandro is critical of our fears of what other people will think. He argues that we need to loose our judgment of other people, drop our fear of what others think, and focus on what makes us stronger and better people.  By becoming more self aware, we can begin to stop making judgements about other people and allow them to be happy with the person they are.  At the same time, increasing self awareness and not worrying about what others think of us will allow us to act in a more free manner, and to build deeper connections with a more diverse group of people.