Normally, I avoid any divisive topic like the plague. But occasionally, I have something to say that I’m hoping will somehow make some sort of difference. I understand that as soon as someone chimes in on areas like this, instantly there is plenty of emotion filled responses to it. I also understand that I am hardly qualified to talk about such a topic. Regardless, my point here is a point of psychology so here I go.
I am a Catholic, white man who grew up in Ireland. My countrymen and women were victims of heavy discrimination over the years from foreign invaders. Two of my grandparents and indeed one of my parents experienced life in the north of Ireland when Catholics were heavily discriminated against. So my family and my country have experienced prejudice. I rarely have myself personally. Occasionally, people will instantly have a negative perception of me when they discover I am Irish but the vast majority of the time I get the opposite response. So I have not been victimised because of the colour of my skin, my religion or where I am from. The worst I have had was dealing with a hostile crowd who were not fans of people from Dublin while teaching somewhere down the country.
African Americans have experienced many centuries of being treated horrendously legally, socially, emotionally and politically. They have been treated like animals and sometimes less than animals. To this day, they suffer from everyday discrimination across the planet. There has been some progress of course but nowhere near where they have to get to.
Women have been discriminated against also for many centuries. In the majority of cultures across the planet they have been seen as far inferior to men. They have been victimised by laws, norms, religions, cultures not to mention the brutal sexual harassment they have had to experience and still experience to this day. Again, progress has been made but we are far away from where we need to be.
Jews were persecuted in a disgusting way during the second world war by the psychopath Hitler. Muslims face a huge amount of discrimination across the world. Catholics were victimised as I mentioned already in the north of Ireland for years. Poor people certainly are discriminated against in plenty of ways which is why the rich continue to get richer and the poor stay stuck in a life of poverty. Homosexuals and bisexuals have faced horrendous treatment too over the years.
Lastly, certain countries do not welcome people from other countries. Long before ‘building a wall’ was touted, there has been an ‘us versus them’ mentality. Not just in the States, but everywhere. With the pride of a particular nationality often a natural feeling of superiority over another country comes with it. There are plenty of racist people in Ireland. Perhaps most of us are discriminatory unconsciously due to the stereotypes we have learned over the years. It is not cool to be racist though so we deny it strenuously. Except when it comes to travellers. That’s different. ‘They deserve it’, I sometimes hear.
This is where the problem of logic comes in. There is this perception that we experience the world and from our experience, we create a well thought out and reasonable perspective on other people. So, you have a bunch of bad experiences with a certain ‘group’ of people. You develop a hypothesis. Then you talk to your friend who has similar experiences to you. From there, you become convinced that ‘these people’ are a certain way. That is how you know you are right. When people disagree, you explain it to yourself in a way that reasons their experiences are the exception that proves the rule and they are living in a dreamland. People are not the same and some groups are ‘not to be associated with’.
Here is the problem though with that logic. Our brains work based upon the principle of efficiency. We get an idea in our head and instantly we use what is known as the confirmation bias to prove that we are correct and we ignore evidence which contradicts our opinion. If you hate some presidential candidate for example, ask yourself how many articles you have read in support versus in opposition of the candidate. The reality is we read what supports our theory. When we get a new car, we notice cars like it on the road. We do not even know it but we build on our hypothesis with skewed data. Then when we get like-minded people, we use social proof to prove our point, to prove we are correct.
Take this article. Despite the fact that I am doing my best to avoid showing any bias, I am certain that some people will comment one way or another. They will justify their perspective and argue as to why their generalisation or belief is ‘true’. The interesting thing is, in a world of extreme beliefs, being middle of the road often creates two types of enemy. If I defend a minority group, I am an apologist for anyone who commits a violent act that possesses that categorisation. Then there is the politically correct side of things where I have to be careful of the words I use for fear of offending someone. Sadly, it is the situation we live in today. But I am hoping readers of this article can see past it to the point I am making.
We have never really been interested in finding out the truth. Instead, we just want to be right so we have spent our time trying to find supportive arguments. We might even get statistics which show that group are ‘bad’. It is because we have evidence that we do not have to feel like bad people. When people disagree, they are naive but you, on the other hand, are just looking at the facts. The problem is that they are just your facts. We do this on both sides. We are arguing against each other with our own evidence.
For example, I know a couple of travellers. One of them I would happily say is a friend of mine. Both of them have been good to me and helped me out in a variety of ways when I needed help with little in it for them. My entire direct experience with travellers has been very positive. When I talk to someone who has a different opinion, the other person will explain to me story after story as to why I am wrong and my experiences are the ‘exceptions’. Obviously, I have a different experience therefore a different set of beliefs. But I believe the argument itself is fundamentally the wrong kind of argument.
I believe a big problem in how we handle things is our categorisation of things. For example, some nut job comes along and murders people with a suicide bomb claiming he is Muslim and he is called a terrorist. Some other nut job shoots up a school and we call him mentally ill. Sorry but both of these people are mentally ill. You think mentally healthy people go around blowing themselves up? There is no witch hunt for the mentally ill when someone commits something as horrible as this. Why should there be a witch hunt for Muslims?
Even the term ‘mentally ill’ is a big categorisation where someone who struggles with depression or anxiety could be described with the same term as someone who chops people up and eats them. Is it fair to use that as such a big categorisation? We are being too general with these categories.
Getting back to racism and discrimination, the truth is that we have forever discriminated against people because of the colour of their skin, their sex, religious beliefs, ethnicity or where they are from. We do this so we can understand what ‘group’ we are in and make sure that our group is doing the best. There was a terrific experiment done in the 1970s by a lady called Jane Elliott with a group of kids where she got them to discriminate against the rest of the class because of eye colour. It was an example of an arbitrary difference. I believe most of the differences that we have faced should be arbitrary but are not seen as so.
When I look up my star sign as a Cancerian, I usually focus on the positive qualities my sign is known to have and claim them as my own. But that does not mean that the other star signs are less than me. People from all countries, religions, cultures, ethnicity, sexes, sexual preferences and all races in the world deserve the same rights, opportunities and treatment.
The vast majority of school shooters in America have been white American males. Typically, we can explain them as being mentally ill loners so they are categorised in the mentally ill loner’s category not the white American male category which is correct. Where are these adjectives in other cases? Where are they when some deluded wanna be nut job commits a terrorist act or some racist violent cop brutalises a black teenager or some traveller robs a shop. Maybe it is not that they are Muslim, a cop or a traveller. Maybe we need different adjectives. If it is good enough for white males, then it is good enough for us all.
We need people to see these behaviours are 100% unacceptable and not right. We need to categorise the perpetrator as different to the larger category. It is more likely to work than confirming that most people in the larger category are like that. Why can’t we use a person’s differences as something to celebrate and whatever they do to be a result of the specific person themselves? There is a term in psychology called the self-fulfilling prophecy. It suggests that we soon start to make happen what we believe. For example, when we label groups over and over again.
Nowadays, it seems everything is more polarised. We have social media to connect us with others who agree with us and help us feel right. The divide seems more apparent than ever between the conservative right and liberal left. Conservatives are positioned by the other side as backward and racist. Liberals are positioned by the other side as bleeding heart communists. Both sides fight through the media. Both feel right. If you are on the right, you are tired with the super sensitive politically correct backlash against ‘everything’ these days. If you are on the left, you are tired of the hatred that seems to be emanating from them against less well-off groups.
Some will defend themselves by arguing that the ‘others’ have ‘proven’ they cannot be trusted so we have to keep ourselves safe. Some will argue that our problem starts with how we talk about such things. They suggest that we need to stop using certain words and stop telling jokes that mock a certain race, religion, country or culture. They suggest that we need to attack viciously everyone who doesn’t agree with us 100%. I believe something different. It is in the very belief we buy into that we have to categorise people on their skin colour, religion, country, culture, belief system, sex or sexual preference that is the problem.
We will always form groups. We will always be different to others. We will always need to fit in somewhere and see ourselves as different to others. That’s great. But if we can start to let go of the need to be better than every other group and start seeing ourselves in more specific groups then we have some chance to make society better. I know things aren’t as straightforward as that but I do believe that reminding ourselves that we have control over how we categorise people can help us change ourselves and maybe we can be a little less racist.