Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bigotry and the Human Struggle

Julian Sanchez describes the limits to which scientific understanding can assuage our strongly held beliefs.  He describes how homosexuality's removal from the DSM, psychiatric manual on mental disease, owed as much to more general social progress than to the scientific evidence.
I’m glad, of course, that we’ve dispensed with a lot of bogus science that served to rationalize homophobia—that’s a pure scientific victory.  And I’m glad that we no longer classify homosexuality as a disorder—but that’s a choice and, above all, a moral victory. It ultimately stems from the more general recognition that we shouldn’t stigmatize dispositions and behaviors that are neither intrinsically distressing to the subject nor harmful, in the Millian sense, to the rest of us.
I think this is true. It also explains the persistence of irrational bigotry, as we are seeing coloring (no pun intended) the debate around immigration, social programs, not to mention our black president. People no longer have any scientific, rational justification for their biases, yet they persist. This is best evinced by the person who has no religious or moral problem with gays – but just thinks they’re “gross”.

I think the discussion on racism, sexism, etc. would benefit greatly from a transition from the dogmatic – you “are” or “are not” a bigot – to the nuanced – are your feelings/opinions being informed by social patterns of bias? I think in the past, when bigotry was largely acceptable, the unconscious biases were still there, and just because we decided as a society to make them taboo – the underlying drivers of bias didn’t simply vanish into thin air. The problem now is in identifying ways in which we are still being driven by them.

This is always incredibly dicey. People worked up over illegal immigration always hate any suggestion that racism/ethnocentrism/nativism/etc. might be playing a role in the anger they feel over the issue. This is justified in the sense that no one’s political beliefs should be declared illegitimate from the start, especially if they aren’t explicitly bigoted. But at the same time, there is a historical pattern of bias, built on cultural structures, against poor immigrants. So it is an important conversation to have.

Wikipedia has an excellent list of cognitive biases that provide a nice framework for understanding how this pattern might have historically developed. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_biases. It’s actually a pretty frightening as a look into the frailty of the human psyche. But it’s also disarming in that by explaining why we err, we offer our ego forgiveness.

Of course, the next step is to remain vigilant. And that is a lifelong process that will never achieve perfection. As humans, we are all prone to be led by our fears, angers and prejudices. I think larger social diseases such as bigotry can be thought of as on the same spectrum of behavior as, say, being rude to a store clerk, or acting selfishly towards a roommate or spouse. We are flawed and we are all (hopefully) engaged in an endless struggle to “be better”. The way we do this is always the same: we reflect, we untangle the root of the problem, and then we try to develop the cognitive tools so that should the behavior arise in the future, we have the ability to keep it in check.

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