Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In the fight against discrimination, we have to start with ourselves

Today, I did something I never thought I'd do.

I was on the tube coming back from a meeting, at around lunchtime. It was busy – I'd managed to nab the last seat in the carriage – but not packed. Having exhausted the reading potential of the adverts on the opposite wall, my eyes wandered and fell on a man sitting opposite me, of Arab appearance, wearing traditional religious dress and a large, bulky jacket. He was clutching some kind of satchel to his chest and had – or was it my imagination? - a look of concentration on his face.

I started to feel a sense of rising panic, half-expecting the carriage to explode around me at any second. I knew it was ridiculous and I hated myself for it, but there was a tiny part of me that insistently kept saying, 'Yes, but do you really want to bet your life on that?'

I got off at the next stop and waited for another train.

I am now suitably ashamed of myself and would dearly love to forget this ever happened. It's certainly against my better judgement to broadcast it to the internets. Better, surely, to dismiss it as the result of a brain addled by tiredness, poorliness and too much stress.

The main reason I'm not doing that is a conversation I had last week at the choir I sing in. We were discussing a new song that had been written for us to sing on Conscientious Objectors Day, a nice uplifting tune about fighting for peace and resisting hate and bigotry. Some people weren't happy with a line that referred to 'the lies and the distortions / that keep us in our blinkers'. They said they were fed up of self-flagellation: we weren't the blinkered ones, otherwise we wouldn't be singing the song in the first place. They asked if the wording could be changed.

While I wasn't completely convinced, I understood where they were coming from – white middle-class guilt doesn't help anybody – and I didn't give it much further thought. Until today.

This experience has forcefully reminded me of the lessons of social psychology, from the classic experiments of Stanley Milgram to this eye-opening test (which I'd really encourage anyone reading this to take). We are all blinkered. We all make unconscious judgements and hold unconscious prejudices. We all do things that are wildly inconsistent with our better-considered beliefs, things that, if we were surveyed in the abstract, we would confidently assert we'd never do. Judging by appearances, stereotyping, internalising what the media tell us, blindly following authority – these are all things that seem to be hard-wired into our brains.

This isn't a counsel of despair: I do believe that we can and should fight these tendencies. But we can only fight them if we're aware of them. We can only end discrimination if we accept that we're not immune from it. It's not good enough to complacently assume that we're somehow better, that bigotry and closed-mindedness are for other people, less well-informed or less caring than ourselves. Nobody thinks they're a bigot, just as nobody thinks they'd administer lethal electric shocks to a stranger just because a man in a white coat told them to. Maybe you wouldn't; maybe I wouldn't. I've always hoped I wouldn't, ever since I found out about Milgram's experiment. But after today, I'm that little bit less sure.

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