Thursday, August 09, 2007

Prejudice is the milk of a sacred cow

The irrelevance of personal experience

There is a popular myth, and that is all it is, that prejudices arise from a certain kind of ignorance that leads people to overgeneralise properties observed in a small number of unrepresentative individuals to all individuals belonging to their group. But even if some prejudices are acquired this way, it can hardly account for the majority of cases. The reason is because it implies that everyone who acquires a particular prejudice does so independently of everyone else, but if this were so, we’d have no way of explaining why particular prejudices attach themselves to particular sub-cultures during particular periods in history and not others. A more plausible explanation is that prejudices are mostly acquired as part of the set of unexamined beliefs and attitudes that constitute a person’s culture, and although reports of negative experiences are central to the justifications that people give for their views, personal experiences of this kind actually play very little part in establishing them.

The road to understanding prejudice starts with the recognition that people can come to be satisfied with a belief about a segment of society for reasons other than because it accords with reason and evidence. But to dismiss that as ignorance is to focus on the least interesting part of the story. There is nothing new about people forming beliefs without the aid of reason or evidence. That’s what made the dark ages so dark. Yet, despite the emphasis on rationality and empiricism that we inherit from Enlightenment thinkers, the most important predictors of an individual’s beliefs are still the beliefs of the family and broader culture they happen to be born into. When beliefs are so clearly correlated in this way, we have to suspect that the role reason and evidence play in adopting them is essentially nonexistent and that whatever justifications people find for them are rationalisations after the fact.

Satisfaction in the absence of reason and evidence

The drinking habits of people from the neighbouring cities of Cologne and Düsseldorf are suspicious in this sense. In the former city, the beer of choice is usually Kölsch, and in the latter, Altbier. Given that both brands are available in both cities, it would be perfectly possible for the inhabitants of each to sample both and come to their own independent conclusions about which they prefer, but they clearly don’t. Brand loyalty is one of many manifestations of the friendly rivalry between the two cities and serves to distinguish group identities. People from Cologne not only prefer Kölsch, but also people who prefer Kölsch, with Altbier serving the same function in Düsseldorf. Hence, it would be unsurprising if the pressure to go along with the crowd is what provides that extra incentive to drink the local brand over and above whatever intrinsic value the beers possess. This would all seem unremarkable if it were not for the observation that the people from these cities often seem completely earnest when they declare their preferences, suggesting that they are not merely overriding their personal judgements for the sake of conformity. There may be a few Machiavellian types who prefer the non-local brew secretly but pretend otherwise to reinforce their identity within the group, but this requires consciously distinguishing between the taste of the beer and the benefits of conformity. It seems just as plausible that people are actually being earnest about their preferences but simply conflating the sensation of taste with the positive feeling of belonging, the emotions being indistinguishable in the mix so that when they say they prefer their local brew, what they are actually evaluating is the whole range of emotions associated with the experience, not least those having to do with the camaraderie of it all. When they drink the rival beer, those positive associations are absent, and this would explain why they fail to hold it in the same regard. Irrespective of how this pattern of preferences arises, the positive feelings individuals attribute to their local brew can be so strong that it is incomprehensible to many of them that people from the rival city could genuinely hold exactly the opposite opinion. It seems so obvious which beer is better that those who disagree appear insincere or foolish, qualities that ordinarily make a person deserving of scorn. Negative feelings towards drinkers of the rival brand would not be readily explained if drinking preferences were merely self-conscious, Machiavellian displays.

Such preferences are at the trivial end of what we call ‘cultural values’, and these enjoy a kind of sacred status, being virtually immune from criticism. We are told that heritage and tradition are important, that we should be true to our roots, and so on. Strong taboos exist against abandoning cultural values despite them being the set of attitudes and beliefs that we unquestioningly inherit from our parents and peers rather than discover via reason and evidence. Viewed from this perspective, it is interesting to ask why we hold them in such regard, and to what extent prejudices and other unpleasantness are legitimised under this guise.

I don’t understand, therefore it’s stupid

When we are thoroughly convinced of something, it is virtually inevitable that we see those who disagree with us as foolish or dishonest, thereby attributing low status to them, but if our views are not founded on reason or evidence, the unavoidable conclusion is that our downward glances are examples of prejudice. If feelings of belonging are central to understanding how people unconsciously come to be satisfied with their beliefs, it is possible for prejudices to develop without a person being directly taught that its targets are of low status. The targets will seem unworthy simply because they fail to embrace what appear to us to be so obviously the right standards. Even racism, which is generally taken to be about superficial features rather than cultural differences can be understood in these terms, since a person who inherits a given set of racial characteristics will also very likely inherit a culture specific to it (culture being passed down in families too) and differences between the values of different cultures may account for why the other is taken to be foolish or dishonest, differences in outward physical characteristics simply being used to identify the groups involved. This is most evident when race is determined by ancestry in the complete absence of any physically identifying features. As for sexism, conformity to separate gender identities would explain why people are often dismissive about the concerns of the opposite sex, simply failing to understand why certain issues are important to them. The leap from failing to understand a person’s motives to concluding that they are a product of ignorance is seductive.

Received wisdom

Some opinions may not be based on reason or evidence directly, but happen to be correct nonetheless, either by sheer luck or because they are based on the reasoning or experience of those who have passed their wisdom down to us. Moral lessons that were hard-won by previous generations are often simply passed down in the form of myths and rituals without subsequent generations critically evaluating how they help us get along in the world. It is likely that the cultural values that have survived the ages have done so precisely because they gave strength and stability to the societies that embraced them, while the values that didn’t survive were lost along with the societies they helped destabilise and destroy. This means we shouldn’t dismiss traditional values purely on the basis that they are passed on uncritically rather than discovered, but we shouldn’t trust them unquestioningly either and for a number of reasons. Firstly, a value might have been desirable under the conditions in which it first appeared in the remote past, but serve no function in modern societies. For instance, a taboo against sex outside of a permanent relationship was quite practical before the advent of contraception because the potential for negative consequences was far greater for single mothers. Another reason to question the values passed down to us from previous generations is that the stability and strength of a society is not necessarily an indication of fairness. History is filled with examples of enduring empires that achieved their strength and stability by brutally suppressing dissent. The value systems that survived in these societies were mostly geared to the interests of those in positions of power, with mechanisms in place to punish disloyalty.

Cognitive dissonance and the suspicious clustering of beliefs

The set of values that identify a group can be quite arbitrary. There is for instance, no obvious reason why environmentalism and opposition to the Vietnam War were correlated or why opposition to abortion ought to go with support for tax cuts. We have to suspect that when apparently independent values cluster together more often than chance would dictate, group loyalties have largely overridden rational judgements about the issues involved. The notion that a person’s political views can be summarised as leftwing or rightwing is a paradigm example of this and is indefensible, perversely conflating every issue of contention into a single dimension of disagreement [though click here for an intriguing attempt to partially explain why the views of liberals and conservatives cluster the way they do]. Rational debate cannot really be sustained under such conditions, and as a consequence, those with party loyalties will be forced to make tortuous justifications that belie the fact that their values have been acquired without the mediation of reason and evidence, justifications that look for all the world like insincerity, but which are plausibly just elaborate forms of self-deception. The ‘proper’ view within a given social sphere is just whatever it is rewarding to believe, with rewards provided in the currency of acceptance and respect from the group that cultivates the individual.

In practice, any given individual will simultaneously be a member of many overlapping groups that have influence over different spheres of life. The influence of these groups on values is illustrated most clearly by looking at the different standards we apply to essentially identical problems that arise in different spheres, but the contradictions have to be pointed out to us for us to even realise they exist. A person might for instance believe that it is humane to put an animal down if it is suffering, but that it is wrong to end the life of a human being under comparable circumstances. Another person might boycott products from multinational companies that engage in questionable trade practices while simultaneously buying recreational drugs from a black market that is blatantly corrupt and murderous. Others might complain that people on benefits are living off the sweat of hard-working people but fail to draw the same conclusion about those whose incomes consist solely of returns on capital investments. When such inconsistencies are pointed out, people often make tortuous justifications to preserve the faith they have in their own rationality, but if, as I and others have argued, value systems are largely acquired without the mediation of critical thought, and merely adopted in accordance with group norms, then this faith is quite unfounded. This is what hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance are – the compartmentalisation of contradictory values that are held simultaneously, but no one intends to be a hypocrite and no one comes to be one by following the dictates of evidence.

The inertia of the status quo and the social function of irrational behaviour

If we dismissed all of this as ignorance rather than cultural, we’d miss another of the interesting questions in connection with all this. We’d be forced to conclude that where irrational beliefs endure, it is simply because the truth is too complex for the ignorant masses to grasp. But even if the masses are ignorant, the constant buffeting of even mildly challenging evidence should, if given enough time, drive the evolution of a group’s beliefs towards those that are rational and consistent, unless there is something actively preventing this. To the extent that this rationality is lacking, we should consider the counter intuitive possibility that irrational beliefs actually serve a function.

The status quo of a group has a kind of inertia even when its values are irrational precisely because embodying the group’s values is something that has currency for one’s status within it. To question these values would be to bite the hand that feeds you. Only those with high status within a group have the power to influence attitudes, but it is precisely the irrationality of certain traditions that makes them useful for demonstrating loyalty to a group. Rites of sacrifice and initiation embody this quite clearly. Only the truly dedicated are willing to do things that come at a personal cost in order to be accepted. Loyalty can for instance, be demonstrated by doing things that members of the broader society consider wrong. From this point of view, the dynamics behind peer pressure and adolescent rebellion make perfect sense. Peer pressure wouldn’t be a problem if our peers always had our best interests at heart. We are warned against bowing to it precisely because many of our peers are not looking out for us, but are instead merely seeking expressions of loyalty. Being a ‘cool’ kid is essentially code for being willing to take risks to be accepted. The existence of fashionable vices like harmful drug-use is also explainable in these terms. Likewise in religion, the ability to believe things that are strongly at odds with one’s observations is taken to be a mark of strong faith and the harder something is to believe, the stronger the faith required to believe it and the more virtuous its believer is deemed to be [click here for a discussion of this phenomenon as it applies to Catholicism and Judaism]. The discomfort of wearing a necktie to work also indicates commitment precisely because of the associated discomfort, and so on. In each case, it’s the inherent conflicts associated with doing these things that makes them useful for expressing loyalty to the groups that place importance on them, and it is this function that plausibly explains why the relevant values persist. A similar phenomenon is observed throughout the animal kingdom in the process of “costly signalling”, which many animals use to demonstrate commitment to potential mates and other conspecifics.

The unfinished business of The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment raised consciousness about a new set of methods for acquiring knowledge in a reliable way. It was only as recently as the sixteenth century that a word was even coined to label the concept of a fact, appearing first in the context of the law and later being extended to other domains. And it was only four hundred years ago that Galileo was arguing that we need to make observations of the world in order to understand it, rather than simply contemplating it. Prior to this period, the dogma of the church followed Plato’s view that worldly objects were degenerate copies of those to be found in the ‘realm of perfect forms’, only the latter being regarded as the proper objects of inquiry. Beginning with pioneers like Galileo, the seventeenth century saw the birth of the scientific method, which meant testing predictions via observations and experiments. With it, nature began to reveal herself apace, leading directly to the industrial revolution and the associated growth in technology. We take these ideas for granted today, forgetting that there was ever a time in which a case had to be made for embracing them, but there is another question lurking here, one which hasn’t received as much attention, but which is arguably necessary to finally break free from lingering vestiges of the Dark Ages. The question concerns how people were forming beliefs before the Enlightenment, and to what extent these habits have endured alongside our newfound appreciation for the scientific method.

Many of the conclusions we reach without reason or evidence are harmless. We don't come to believe we are hungry via an appreciation of how long it’s been since we’ve eaten. Our bodies just tell us, and with the exception of pathological cases, there’s nothing remotely dubious about believing what our bodies say about such things. Likewise, a mother doesn’t come to love her children because they’re smart or talented or have other qualities that we can appreciate rationally. Nature takes care of this via imprinting processes that are as relevant for humans as they are for hens. We cannot be wrong about how we feel, but we can be wrong about matters of fact and this is where non evidence-based methods of acquiring beliefs are potentially a problem.

I have attempted to argue here that a key factor in establishing unreliable beliefs is the confounding influence of membership within various social groups. This is backed up by studies of social conformity that suggest that what other members of a group say even about matters of direct experience can strongly bias not only what individuals report seeing, but also what they think they actually see [source]. Prior to the enlightenment too, disagreements about matters of opinion must have been settled in an almost entirely ‘tribal’ way, being accepted or rejected principally on the basis of whether those who expressed them were assumed to be on one’s own side or not, ignoring matters of actual substance.

None of this would matter much if it weren’t for the fact that political discourse in places like the United States is virtually devoid of policy debates, elections being fought almost entirely on the basis of the perceived trustworthiness of candidates. Attention is placed on a candidate’s stance on issues like abortion and gay rights, which pale in significance to matters like health and education, but are nevertheless central to marking tribal allegiances. The clever politicians choose language that could be taken as friendly by all sides. So long as they nod in the direction of the ‘correct’ values, they will win votes. All this occurs without discussing matters of actual substance.

When beliefs and values are among the badges people wear to identify themselves as members of a group, it also sets up a dynamic in which people compete for status by adopting extremist positions. Extremism is not just confined to religion, but arises in social groups generally. We can see it in teenagers who drink to excess to demonstrate their party credentials to one another, in musicians who compete amongst themselves by pursuing technical prowess rather than melodic qualities, and so on. These kinds of things are often harmless, frequently pointless, but obviously dangerous when the extremist positions involve advocating murder, terrorism and genocide.

To avoid these problems, people need to become more aware of how group membership impairs our reasoning, and approach with greater scepticism, values and beliefs that are used to mark group identity. In short, we should be suspicious of views that have currency in terms of group kudos. People are generally more credulous about things that are rewarding to believe, but especially when that reward involves status within social groups. This kudos credulity is worth labelling as a concept so that we can point to it and confront it openly. In time, we can only hope that this observation is taken for granted in the way that the conclusions of Enlightenment philosophy are.

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