Predjudice, Bigotry and Racism.

I'm prejudiced.

And so are you- unless you're not yet born, in which case you will be, or you're dead, in which case you were, or you're self deluded- in which case you're prejudiced but just don't know you are.

It's useful, sensible and universal to use previous experience and received knowledge for rating some possibilities higher than others when faced with new situations.

When meeting new people, the first impressions available from all the immediately available information does and should inform us as to how best to react - not least for our own survival on some occasions.

If I cross paths in the evening with a little old lady out walking her spaniel, I'm not likely to expect a threat to my safety.

But if I meet a hulking patched gang member walking turf with a rottweiler, I would definitely get out of the way.

I've prejudged the likelihood of various possible outcomes from these encounters and responded accordingly.

Of course, I could be wrong- the elderly lady might be a serial killer or the spaniel rabid.- the patch might be everyone's favourite uncle and the rottweiler a lap dog- but, based on my first impressions, past experience and received knowledge, disregarding the lady and her spaniel while taking immediate steps (big ones) to avoid the other pair is sensible. I would rightly be regarded as behaving recklessly and at least partly to blame for any consequences, if I'd reversed my reactions and run in panic from the old lady while tickling the rottweiler under it's ear.

Children are impetuous, old people forget things, women are weaker than men, whites have a poor sense of rhythm, men don't help around the house, Africans are HIV ridden, Finns are binge drinkers, Samoans are fat, Jews like money, Chinese are too accepting of authority, Maori beat up their kids. These and thousands of other similar generalisations are true enough to be useful in decision making processes.

And they're not only useful as a starting point when meeting a representative of some group for the first time, they're also useful when working out how best to interact with groups as a whole- providing they're true to a significant extent.

Not to use such generalisations is dysfunctional, autistic even, and if we didn't we'd struggle to make much sense of the world.

Bigotry is a different matter. Bigotry is holding on to an initial prejudgement against evidence that it's not true. Bigots wilfully extend a belief that members of a group have certain characteristics, to a blind belief that all do.

There are thoughtful children, razor sharp oldies, strong women, white base guitarists, diligent house husbands, healthy Africans, Finnish teetotallers, thin Samoans, philanthropic Jews, independent minded Chinese and Maori who are great parents.

There is also group bigotry; views about one group by another that are dangerously wrong- like those that blind white supremacists for example and the classic view of Slavs as untermenschen (sub human) that underwrote Nazism's eventual defeat.

Bigotry is wrong for the simplest of reasons; it blocks effective decision making. A bigoted person will fail to engage with people who could be loving and supportive friends, a bigoted employer will hurt their own business by not employing those best able to do the work required, bigoted politicians will not enact good laws, a bigoted country may seriously miss-estimate the abilities of an enemy.

Bigots damage everyone- themselves included.

Unfortunately, western liberal thinking is increasingly confusing prejudice with bigotry, and this is a serious mistake.

Generalisations that, in the west, are now regarded as unacceptable (because they're 'culturist', 'racist', 'sexist',' ageist' and etc) are often useful and sensible prejudgements without which our society wouldn't function effectively.

It's become unacceptable and sometimes illegal to even express negative views of bad behaviours, especially with respect to minority groups, even if they're clearly true - like that most terrorists are Moslems.

The reasoning behind this prohibition is that it's come to be believed by some that the deleterious social consequences of using culture, race and etc as proxies for more specific information always outweighs the advantages from simplified decision making and the greater efficiency that would derive from public policy targeted by such generalisations.

In my view it's become counterproductive; the harm that we are now doing by this far outweighs the benefits. Sure, there are occasions when it's neither polite nor useful to draw attention to misbehaviours. But more often, keeping our heads in the sand makes things worse. We need for others to draw attention to our failures and ask for improvement, or bad behaviour becomes entrenched and greater harm results.

Airport "security" is a major recent casualty of such counterproductive thinking. Instead of using an algorism that would effectively target the few thousand angry young men from whom perhaps 95% of the small number of Islamic extremists who actually cross over to action will spring from (and leaving the rest of us, including the vast majority of Moslems, alone), security authorities attempt to treat all 7 billion of us as equally suspect. The attention that could be focussed on each likely suspect has instead to cover a million. Absurdities abound; the little old lady has her nail clippers impounded- but she's then issued with steel cutlery once on board. Even pilots may not pass through screening with, say, a penknife- but have a fire axe available for their personal use once in the cockpit. What huge cost to human life has this unwillingness to label the miscreant group and target responses accordingly caused- not just by suicide bombers not apprehended, but via the economic burden of such poorly aimed policy.

The west needs to stop being stupid about this sort of thing before the consequences overwhelm our ability to function effectively. It's all become rather Orwellian. We're no longer supposed to admit (in public anyway) to using sensible generalisations, but instead must construct elaborate pretend rationalisations and bog ourselves down in processes that are a complete waste of time and resources.

The deleterious consequences of this for an effective and functional society are not less detrimental than the bigotry and xenophobia that the west has largely put aside only recently.

Peter Lynn, Kuwait, 20th February 2010:

Prejudiced but not bigoted.

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