We’re all prejudiced, so we might as well get good at it.
by Jeremy E Sherman Ph.D
We mostly think of prejudice as pathology. Healthy people are receptive to everyone. Unhealthy people prejudge, employing arbitrary rules for shutting people out.
That’s an inaccurate framing. No one can afford to be receptive to everyone. Our attention is limited. To be productive in a world of infinite distractions we have to focus our attention, attending to some people and ignoring others. Unreceptivity and therefore prejudice is inevitable and inescapable. There’s simply not enough attention to go around. We are all guessing who to shut out even as we’re all insisting that others not shut us out.
The goal therefore cannot be universal receptivity, openness to everyone since that’s unachievable. Rather the goal for each of us is shutting out the people best ignored, a goal we can’t achieve if we’re busy pretending that we can achieve universal receptivity.
Indeed, treating prejudice as a rare pathology is itself a prejudice. Call it prejudicism, a hypocritical prejudice against the prejudiced. If you’re proud of being prejudiced against the prejudiced, you’re prejudiced.
The word “prejudice” is ambiguous. Neutrally, it means shutting people out. Pejoratively, it means shutting people out wrongly. Given that we all ignore people, it’s best to go with the neutral definition. Thus, we need to distinguish between good and bad prejudice. Bad prejudice sounds redundant but only which you think that prejudice is always wrong which it can’t be since we all shut people out.
So how can we tell good from bad prejudice? One possibility is built right into the term, which, by the pejorative definition implies a rule: It is always wrong to pre-judge people. This rule is like a parent saying, “How can you tell Brussel sprouts tastes bad if you haven’t tasted them?” or “how do you know you don’t want to play with Timmy if you haven’t played with him?” In other words, never knock it if you haven’t tried it.
Never knock it? You haven’t tasted feces but you rightly guess that it tastes bad. You know how it smells and that’s enough to convince you. We can’t afford to go around testing and tasting everything to the fullest just to make sure it’s not right for us so we rely on fast and frugal cues to who is worth our attention.
Prejudging works fine most of the time. When you’re looking for a romantic partner, you prejudge based on simple cues. You’ll make two kinds of mistakes, dating prospects not worth dating and not dating prospects who would have been worth dating. Good prejudice minimizes both kinds of errors.
“Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it,” curbs the tendency to give people too little of a try. But that’s not the only kind of mistake. The other risk is giving people too much of a try, wasting your attention, staying receptive to someone not worthy of your attention.
Prejudice is horrible for those who are shut out, but hugely beneficial to the prejudiced, and the benefits increase as competition for our attention increases. For example, if the number of applicants for a job you offer goes from fifteen to a thousand, you’ll benefit from giving less attention to each applicant. You’ll naturally increase your pre-judging of them, deciding based on minimal cues that an applicant isn’t worth your attention. You might even toss out some of the applications at random, confident that you’ll still find a good enough hire.
This parallels what we’re all doing in the information glut these days. When we’re overwhelmed by information, we value any excuses for shutting any of it out. Indeed, it’s possible that people are not getting more narrow-minded. They’re absorbing as much information as ever but, in the current information flood they pre-judge more, and by more arbitrary rules.
People would be more honest about their prejudice if they could admit that they’re simply overwhelmed. It would be more honest to recast sexism this way: “I’m overwhelmed, so I’ve established some rules for myself. I limit access to my attention. My new rule is arbitrary. I shut out women, not that there aren’t women worth attending to. I might just as well have established a rule that I don’t listen to people over 5’7” tall. I just needed a way to shrink the overwhelming world down to a manageable size, a size that I can handle given my limited attention.”
Prejudices are often consistent over time. Racists shut out minorities today, tomorrow and the next day. There’s a different kind of prejudice that affords even more advantage to the prejudiced: Hypocrisy, prejudice applied inconsistently.
Let’s visit two examples. When people say, “That’s too abstract. Don’t generalize. Stick to specifics.” they are employing a prejudice. They’re saying, “I shut out any person who generalizes. They’re all ivory tower navel-gazers or idealists.”
People who say “never generalize,” don’t live by that rule. After all, the rule is a generalization, an anti-generalization generalization. In general, don’t generalize is a rule as hypocritical as “be prejudiced against the prejudiced.”
We hear the opposite rule too. “You’re too nitpicky. You’re missing the forest for the trees. I don’t listen to bean counters.” And like the generalization about generalization, it’s employed hypocritically by people who care about the details that matter to them.
If this kind of inconsistent prejudice was voiced honestly, it would be something like, “I’m trying to stay focused on the details and generalities that I already embrace. I’m overwhelmed by other people’s priority details and generalities, so when I hear a generality I don’t want to think about, I pretend that I’m opposed to all generalizations across the board and likewise, when I hear a detail I don’t want to think about, I pretend that I don’t ever attend to details.
No one likes being shut out. We’re all making choices about who to let in and shut out, and we’re doing so in an increasingly glutted environment.
None of this condones bad prejudice. Rather it points to strategic questions for our times. In our current glut of demands for our attention, we’re all bound to pre-judge more, employing arbitrary and often excuses for shutting people out.
Pretending that we don’t do that stunts our growth on dealing with the real question, how to find better prejudices and avoid worse ones. Everyone shut out will cry foul, and yet everyone is shutting someone out based on pre-judgments, fast and frugal cues.
May your prejudices be good ones and not bad ones. And not just good for freeing your mind but good for the whole of society that we must help maintain.