Monday 21 November 2011

7 Deadly Virtues – Part the First

Previously, on This is How She Fight Start...


Prejudice has got an unfair reputation. It’s not always a bad thing. In fact it’s often useful, and even necessary. We all make initial assumptions about people based on any number of things, including sex, age, dress, accent and race. No matter how fair-minded you think you might be, this stuff all gets accounted for at the unconscious level. I’m male, young(ish. Stop sniggering at the back there), wear a suit to work, speak with a fairly regionless middle-class English accent, and I’m white.

Got a good mental picture there? You realize that it’s almost certainly wrong, of course, but you just can’t help it. There I am, sitting in your head (clean up in here, will you? It’s filthy), half-formed and you’re already coming to opinions about what kind of person I am. Judging me, even though your mother told you not to.

‘You can’t judge a book by its cover,’ she said. And you really can’t, not fully. It’ll generally give you a vague idea of the kind of stuff that's inside though, and the only truly fair alternative is to read all the books. While that’s certainly something I intend to try, it’s just not going to happen unless one of them contains the secret to eternal life. You need a preliminary filter, it’s just important to realize it’s no more than that. That’s the crucial difference between prejudice and discrimination; recognizing that you do have these biases, conscious or not, and accounting and adjusting for them with, well, with better information.

We bought a house over the summer (I’m still young, goddamit), and there are lots of other young (see!) families in the area. There’s a park on the way from the station, and on the odd occasion I get home early there are often a few housewives playing with their younger kids. I’ll nod, smile, and because they’re my new neighbours, make a bit of stilted conversation about where I’m from. Occasionally one of them will open with one of the few English words they’re comfortable with, usually ‘Hello!’

And again, this is fine. I guess I could get into a huff about their assumption that I speak English, but I do (speak English, not get in a huff). It’s that ‘correct outcomes from faulty reasons’ thing again. They’re just trying to break the ice and are normally delighted to switch back to Japanese when they realize I can just about carry the conversation.

But to be honest, it does set a preliminary alarm bell ringing. Because however benign their intentions, these people aren’t just making an assumption about me, they’re acting on it as well. The one’s who switch to Japanese when they realize that’s easier are fine, but the ones who chug on regardless in English get filed in a less complimentary folder.

It happened again a few weeks ago. Walking home I met a mother playing with her young son.

“Hello,” she says.

“Oh, hello!” I answer (less confrontational than sticking to Japanese, I find, plus then the ball’s back in their court).

“Have you just moved in round here?”

Fluent. Suddenly the conversation’s taken a whole new direction. She get’s yanked out of the ‘Annoying Sheltered Housewife’ file and slotted under ‘Must Find Out More’.

Because everyone uses files, labels, pigeonholes. The number of people most of us actually know well enough to not need these for is surprisingly small. Getting past that stage requires time and effort most people don't have or can't give. It's not like I've got all day, either. There are now 7 billion people in the world and unfortunately you aren't going to be able to get warm and fuzzy with all of them.

The important things are basing (pre)judgments on the choices people have made, and being able to move them out of their original box once you know more. If a man chooses to wear a studded dog collar and writes ‘KILL’ on his forehead you’d be perfectly sensible to give him a wide berth. But if he starts reciting 17th century poetry you might want to revise that opinion.

"Have you ever read Marvell?"

This of course directly ties into how people treat you, and how you want to be treated. Short of violence it’s hard to think of a more explicitly anti-social act than writing death threats on your face. It’s one of the things that's always made me slightly unsure about this Trigger Happy TV clip. The old guy (and he is old, goddamit) on the bench is completely right to feel nervous, and I’m not sure what exactly the joke is meant to be. Surely if you go that far out of your way to transgress normal societal boundaries you’re pretty much asking for special treatment?

And that’s where it becomes messy again. If you are new to a culture or social group it’s almost impossible not to step over some lines, even if you don’t mean to. How much leeway should you expect, should you be given? Once you're more established, it can even be tempting to abuse that leeway on occasion. If indeed it is leeway, and not another form of discrimination. Is absolute uniformity of treatment the ultimate goal, regardless of real individual differences? Should I have been angry with the guys who delivered our new washing machine the other week (goddamit) because they didn't use keigo with me? Admittedly they did at first, and only changed once they realised is was beyond me. But still, that's treating me differently, isn't it?

Where do you draw the line between treating someone as an individual and treating them the same as everyone else? Is equitable treatment inevitably inequitable?

Try saying that last one ten times fast. And while you’re wrapping your tongue around that, I’ll try to wrap my head around exactly what the hell I meant by it…


  1. I am at times prejudice,bias,racist,selfish,thoughtless,violent....sometimes a they all occur around the same time. I'm a product of every single event that has ever happened to me up until the very second that I type shoot me ;)

  2. This is very much a work in progress, so I'm not really sure what the overall point is, or even if it will eventually have one.

    I suspect that it will be something like that though. That we're the culmination of many, many factors and focusing on one thing (race, sex, whatever) at the expense of others is not the way to go.

  3. You have to take short cuts, or you're going to be taken as a sap; the humans suck. That said, I give people a chance to surprise me, positively, but I keep my 'fight or flight' options open.

    And the people talking to me in broken-English in Japan used to bother me, and it's a good thing it doesn't much anymore, because now they do to my hybrid-infant ("Harro beibei!"), even when he's in his J-mother's arms.! They haven't heard of 'mother-tongue'? Yes they have: 母国語!

    Damn good blog for only a few months in.

  4. Ah yes, the super-cute haafu. I suspect mine'll feature pretty heavily in future instalments.

    Thanks for the compliment. Of course the real test will be keeping it going a few months on from now and avoiding the Difficult Second Album syndrome, or whatever the blogging equivalent is. Banner ads or something.

  5. My biggest challenge is having one theme! I tried, with the themes-links on my page's top-right to see to this, but it's not elegant.

  6. One theme? Nah, eclectic is the way to go. Just write yourself an unnecessarily belligerent disclaimer or mission statement and have done with it.

    Plus then you get to post all the soft-core porn you like without having to pretend it's about bikes ;)

  7. 'Heuristics': "experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery. Heuristic methods are used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution, where an exhaustive search is impractical. Examples of this method include using a "rule of thumb", an educated guess, an intuitive judgment, or common sense.

    In more precise terms, heuristics are strategies using readily accessible, though loosely applicable, information to control problem solving in human beings and machines."