Tuesday, April 26, 2016

How Bigotry Works - Presidential Edition

There are people who say, "I will not vote for a black person" or "Women are not fit to be President."

However, this is not the way bigotry works in most cases.

Bigotry also and often works by making a person feel uncomfortable about certain things. When they feel uncomfortable, they look for a reason for the discomfort. Of course, they want a socially acceptable reason - a reason that they can use in front of others without being embarrassed. So, they don't want to explain their attitude in terms of race or gender. Instead, they seek something nebulous like, "I don't think he's smart enough to handle the job," or "I think she is scheming and dishonest."

These are perfectly legitimate reasons if true, but they are not always true.

This is not at all done consciously, by the way. A person gets the uneasy feeling, and immediately jumps to "she strikes me as a scheming liar" or "he's just not ambitious enough to do a good job." They are not consciously rejecting a racist explanation; they never admit to themselves that their brain works that way.

I have admitted to having my own prejudices. Intellectually - in the realm of belief - I know that they are not only unfounded, but they are wrong. However, I did not learn my prejudices simply as a set of beliefs. I learned them at an emotional level. I can change my beliefs by a careful evaluation of the facts. However, even a perfect understanding of the facts often has a limited impact on emotions.

I would like to be able to turn these emotions off. However, it is no more possible to turn off a gut-level prejudice than it is to turn off a fear of spiders or an aversion to the taste of liver and onions. One simply cannot reason a person either into or out of these types of attitudes.

Since I am aware of these dispositions, I can take steps to make sure that they do not cause me to act in ways harmful to others. When examining a perspective candidate, I know to ask whether I have solid evidence for any derogatory beliefs, or if I am going merely on "gut feeling" which may be tainted by an underlying learned emotional response based on race or gender.

(NOTE: This is one reason why I favor affirmative action and even quotas. In issues such as hiring and promotion there is a subjective element - an element based on feeling. This is a perfect opportunity for prejudice to appear, even from a person who - on the level of belief - condemns bigotry.)

In this election, there are certainly people who will not vote for Clinton because she is a woman - who will knowingly and openly declare that to be their reason.

However, there will be a much larger set of people who will simply feel uncomfortable at the thought of a woman in that position. The idea of a female President - a female leader - a woman exhibiting the characteristics of ambition and planning that are essential to enter such a position. A man can show those tendencies and characteristics without generating more than a shrug in response - but a woman? It's not proper for a woman.

Many of these people will look around for reasons for this discomfort. In doing so, they are going to rule out reasons that go against social convention or might even go against their own beliefs. They will not accept the idea that they are the type of person that they believe ought to be condemned for their bigotry. They will settle on reasons like, "She's dishonest," or "She's too ambitious and only interested in herself," or they will assume her guilt in this or that "scandal" because it feels right to think of her as guilty..

However, the next question to ask is, "Can I find actual, solid evidence in favor of these judgments? Or am I just basing them on a gut feeling that, itself, could be being fed by an underlying prejudice?"

Here is the time for anybody who thinks it is actually important to cast a vote that is warranted and not a vote based on bigotry to do some research. Here is the time when it is important to go to the effort to look at the facts and determine whether one's attitude is based on evidence, or just a feeling itself tainted by prejudices learned, not on the level of belief, but on the level of emotion.

And be careful . . . emotion also has the power to cause one to see evidence where not exists - to give extra emphasis to testimony that supports the prejudice and find some excuse to dismiss the evidence that challenges the prejudice. For anybody who takes this challenge seriously, it will involve some hard work. But it could be useful.

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