Ok, I admit it, that title is a bit of a hyperbole. What a measured person should say is that we’re all susceptible to prejudice because our brains are wired that way. But doesn’t roll off the tongue the same way, does it?!
If you believe some compelling contemporary theories of brain function1, then the human brain is a pattern recognition machine with a bunch of memory. We essentially constantly classify all the sensory input we get and attach it to cognitive or emotional memory. For example: Aluminum sheet – bendable; Steel bar – not bendable, will crack my knuckles. These innocuous categorizations are based on both direct observation/experience or teaching. When the brain recognizes the physical properties that identify the object [Aluminum sheet; Steel bar], then the properties learnt are assumed to be true.
What this means when you’re tackling issues like racism, is that the human brain is predisposed to the classification of people of all types based on some identifiable physical attribute (skin color, hair color, face shape, eye color, sexual orientation, face structure, height, etc.). In short we’re already ‘pre-suggestive’ because we automatically classify things, including people and label them. So when external input gives us a cue with which to classify a set of people, it’s easy to absorb and adhere because this is already how our brain works, regardless of whether the cue is accurate or not. This is why prejudicial views and behaviors is common in any population. It’s not hard to get a kid to hate a certain kind of person they can visually identify consistently. We’re just more quickly filling in classification and labeling holes (with false data) that the brain would fill in anyway, usually over a longer period of time with more factual and accurate observation.
There is natural counter programming for false classification in the brain: personal experience or data that disproves this can put a crack in prior classifications. However because people’s access to contradictory personal experience is limited physically (for e.g. a bigoted kid may never meet a representative subject of his hate under pristine conditions), it’s usually a poor antidote to manufactured bits of classification spread as truthful ideas via parenting, pedagogy, media, etc. The tendency of people to socialize with people who represent their specific world view makes counterprogramming even more implausible for most people.
While prejudice is common and can be transmitted via culture, entrenched versions of it (like racism) are not. This is because entrenched prejudice needs to be paired with a political, economic or cultural system, to enforce those prejudicial views related to physical attributes. This takes effort and planning.
So where does this leave us? Well just with some facts that are uncomfortable, and some truths that may redeem:
- Fact: We’re all susceptible to prejudicial (some of which are racist and tribal) ideas by definition. It’s a shortcut we’re all pre-wired to be susceptible to.
- Fact: The extent of racist and tribal effect in society is directly related to how those ideas are conjured and disseminated in any given society. In other words, the architects of society and the culture they produce are responsible for prejudicial societies.
- Fact: A previously harmonious society can be ‘fractured’ or partitioned around racist and tribal lines if new racist ideas are introduced, combined with physical attributes that people can identify related to those ideas. In other words, even those with a harmonious society can be quickly made disharmonious if they do not remain vigilant.
Truth: The only way to combat ‘ideas that partition’ is to:
- Make everyone look physically the same (so distinguishing markers cannot be related to prejudicial ideas) and erase distinguishing familial history from social memory.
- Reduce the number of ‘partitioning’ ideas circulating in society.
- If a society has entrenched prejudice, its needs to dismantle that system used to prop up the prejudice in society.