Sunday, November 23, 2008

Post No. 68: Prejudice as Survival Instinct

[As many of you are aware, we invite our readers to become Guest Authors and submit articles to us for posting on our blog. The guidelines for the submitted articles are contained in our Post No. 34. (http://theviewfromoutsidemytinywindow.blogspot.com/2008/08/post-no-34-opportunity-to-serve-as.html.) Leading up to the election of Sen. Obama, there was much discussion in our country about the effect of race, and where we as a nation have come in terms of dealing with that issue. The following article has been submitted by one of our regular readers on the subject. Enjoy.]

© 2008, D. W. Haire

Every so often, I am reminded of something my Mother said to me. It was odd because it was "out of the blue," and had nothing to do with anything going on around us, or the conversation we were having. These are her words as well as I can recall them:

"I don't think I'm prejudiced but, if I am walking down the street and a black man approaches, I get very nervous and afraid."

Years later, my Father (a couple of years before he passed away) was relating a story that seemed important to him. We had been talking about various things and he was remembering a period when he was frustrated at work. There was something about a meeting and it may have been when he was leaving the company to start his own business (a small bike shop). The details are unclear, but I remember his words, and the emotion behind them, when he told me what he said to his supervisor.

"I never liked your smiling Jewish face."

My father never uttered a word of prejudice regarding anyone or any group in my presence in all the years prior to that. It was another "out of the blue" remark that sticks in my mind.

The following is not scientific. It does not have extensive research to support it, nor does it provide any references. It is strictly opinion, and my own opinion at that. You can disagree or not, as you see fit.

It will likely remain my opinion regardless of your argument unless you can show me a scientific, well researched, paper that refutes it. Even then, I will be the judge of that proof. This is not something I have just popped up with. It is opinion which is based upon what logic, knowledge, and observations I have gathered over the years. In short, it works for me. Let's start with my hypothesis and work from there.

I believe that hate and fear of others began with early man as a matter of survival. That is, prejudice and bigotry were survival techniques that actually worked to ensure the survival of individuals and of tribes. I am not condoning bigotry or prejudice, but rather I am taking an objective view, and positing a reason for their existence and persistence throughout the history of our species.

Early humans were hunter-gatherers. They banded together initially in family units and quickly into tribes or clans. It was necessary to do this in order to insure survival. It was easier for men to hunt in groups. More berries, grains, and wood (for fuel) can be gathered by a group than an individual. A family might survive on its own, but its chances are increased when it becomes part of a group. So tribes and clans are natural extensions of family and increase the odds of survival.

The first clans, as the name implies, came from family. But inbreeding would quickly destroy the group within a few generations. It is necessary to expand a gene pool. Therein lays the first dilemma - who to bring into the clan and where to find them.

To answer the question of where to find new blood, we turn to the prevailing lifestyle - hunting and gathering. For all practical purposes, men hunted and women (and children, often) gathered. It made sense. It worked. Clans migrated, as would tribes, following the herd animals they hunted. They would have to run into other clans from time to time. These clans were rivals for the food resources; game and vegetation and water. It is likely they would skirmish from time to time. The result would be one clan would be run off or wiped out.

Only they wouldn't be wiped out, would they? The women were likely to be spared because women are a resource. They provide an expanded gene pool that is non-threatening, add to a work force, and provide comfort, pleasure, and children. And they are compliant. They can be tamed (contrary to movie and novels).

Men are not resources, generally speaking. They are competition. They resist domestication. In a primitive society, the basic ingredients of power are strength and boldness. It is, therefore, more likely that women would be saved than men when a clash between clans occurs. It was not uncommon, for thousands of years, for the winning side to murder all the males, including male children, and take the women and female children.

From close breeding and a shallow gene pool, the tribe takes on common characteristics. Also, people really don't follow the "opposites attract" maxim for the most part. They are attracted to those who most look like themselves. Put another way, they are their own standard of beauty. Since the tribe has similar physical characteristics, outsiders would seem to them as "unalike."

It continues to today. I am reminded of an exchange in the O.J. Simpson trial where Judge Ito becomes unhappy when he is likened to a forensic investigator who is Chinese. To Judge Ito, the difference in physical characteristics between Japanese and Chinese was obvious, not so to the prosecutor who made the mistake. Differences may be subtle between Hutu and Tutsi but each is readily capable of recognizing the other.

In order to survive, primitive man needed to quickly determine friend or foe. And the biological answer was the precursor to prejudice. If you look like me and mine, you are my "Friend", if you do not, you are the "Enemy." Bigotry and racism also play a role in that they offer support for the belief of success in battling the enemy. If you perceive those that do not look like you as inferior, weaker, and/or less intelligent, then you feel you have an advantage and are more willing to fight.

I have heard many people express the idea that children are born without prejudice, that they learn this from their parents. I disagree. I think we are all born with it in our genetic makeup. Our parents and our peers simply teach us to articulate it, express it, and, all too often, to embrace it.

The question is, can we overcome this and rid humanity of the effects of prejudice and bigotry? Can we get people to expand their instinctual perception of their "tribe" to include all people of the planet? I think we must. Otherwise, that part of our survival instinct will eventually lead to our extinction. I know that I have learned to suppress my own prejudice, which is all I think is needed. I believe that when we understand why we think a certain way, we can control it.

© 2008, by D.W. Haire

9 comments:

  1. "I believe that when we understand why we think a certain way, we can control it." You hit the nail on its head with that line. Knowing and understanding the reasons behind our thoughts and actions, allows us to rectify our mistakes and act/think in ways that make us comfortable with ourselves the outside world.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks much Kevin, for responding to our Guest Author's post.

    Earlier today, I accompanied my 88 year old Father to his doctor's office to address some pain that he has had for roughly 12-14 days. When he saw the Physician's Assistant last week, instead of addressing the underlying reasons for the rather sudden onset of acute pain, he was, like many patients in our country, provided with medication to temporarily address or mask the symptoms.

    Dealing with the symptoms of any problem never really addresses them long term. As with many things in life, we must "dig deeper," and find the underlying causes, and not be distracted by the symptoms alone, which frequently have a strong emotional or subjective component.

    Thanks again. We appreciate your visits.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Kevin, I think you have also stated an important point about ways to overcome our innate prejudices. One of the things psychology teaches is that in order to change our behavior we need to understand what causes it in the first place. Now, psychologists and psychiatrists say it is much more complex and understanding root causes is only the first step, of course, but I suspect that is a matter of maintaining income security than true. To illustrate; I quit smoking some 38 years ago. In order to successfully accomplish this, I first had to establish a reason that had great importance. Then I had to determine what the habit of smoking entailed, how it was manifested, what triggered urges, and so forth. I also needed to determine why I started but that, I found, was less important than why I continued (the triggers of the urge). I took the birth of my son as the starting date; easy to remember and he became the reason for wanting to quit. I then observed what triggered my urges. It wasn't difficult to do, surprisingly, once I placed myself in "objective observer" mode. I watched others as they smoked, observed events surrounding their reaching for cigarettes. It gets more complex, and ironically simple, but lengthy and I don't need to go into it. But it is a method of behavior modification that I developed to aid me in achieving my goal. I think similar methods could be explored for teaching people how to overcome the discomfort that exposure to people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds cause. That discomfort is what, in my opinion, triggers the reaction we call "prejudice."

    The problem lies in making that behavior change desirable. I think, in general, people would welcome it if presented well.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Prejudice comes in many different forms. Prejudice, according to Webster's means, "An adverse judgment or opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge or examination of the facts; irrational suspicion or hatred of a particular group, race, religion, etc."

    We frequently think of it in terms of ethnicity, but it is far broader than that. I am currently listening to a Brookings Institution panel on Poverty and Economic Investment on C-Span2 Book TV (http://www.booktv.org) led by a New York Times Senior Writer. It is a fascinating discussion. What is most interesting is the pre-conceived notions that the public has about the poor, which are not validated by research and studies. Many exploit myths about the poor to advance their selfish agendas. Getting the facts and being open to new approaches will go a long way toward eliminating poverty in this country.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Interesting concept on the development of prejudice. I think the theory is good and has some validity. Though, looking at Webster's definition and The Logistician's comments we can also see that prejudice comes from ignorance. Perhaps back in the caveman era, they didn't ask as many questions, assuming that anyone different than their own tribe was a lesser being. Unfortunately this is a belief that still exists today and seems that no amount of evolution will extinguish that coal burning in some brains.
    I have encountered prejudice to ideas, to my status and have dealt with abrasive people. Prejudice can be experienced and exhibited in so many ways making it blend into society in ways that we don't always recognize it. Sure there are things people can say that are deliberate and hurtful and send up the red flags of racism. Other comments are so common that they are frequently overlooked. Comments regarding proposals at work, like "No, we've tried that before" or "that couldn't possibly work" are examples of prejudice. Another one that ruffles my feathers is when people proclaim christian prayers at events that are in mixed religious company. I think it is rude disregard and lack of respect to assume that everyone in a group wants to pray in that way. Raised as a christian in the bible belt, I know for my own safety and salvation, I dare not protest - but then again, who will? If AA can allow everyone to pay homage to their "higher power" why can't others follow suit? I feel a rant coming on and perhaps the simmering of a future blog! Good food for thought in your article!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks Iris. You made me further realize situations where prejudice exists in our daily lives, which have nothing to do with ethnicity. Just being open to change and new ideas, and taking the time to think and fully consider the ideas presented by others is a start. I personally love brainstorming sessions, involving lots of people, which generate all sorts of ideas which I never considered previously.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Wow! What a thoughtful commentary on prejudice, its possible causes and even practical roots from an anthropological perspective. Thank you, Logisiticion! I agree with you on just about every point. It's funny how compromising most people will be in their logic and even in their perception in order to avoid being "politically incorrect". I know from my experience of working with people, that especially small children, are naturally initially afraid of any person who is different than themselves. IN fact, children can be quite cruel when they first experience even some "new kid". I'm sure most of us are familiar with this scenario, so let's not kid ourselves about how accepting and "open-minded" children are - hah! It's a sweet thought, but it just isn't true.

    I love what you conclude with about our being able to overcome our brute instincts to learn to overcome our prejudices! In fact, I believe that it is this unique ability to evolve beyond our primitive impulses that defines us as civilized people.

    And of course your observation about finding and the correcting the causes of an issue, as opposed to simply treating the symptoms, can be applied to prejudice as well as almost any problem personal as well as societal. But this is another long and interesting topic...keep up the great work!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Wow! What a thoughtful commentary on prejudice, its possible causes and even practical roots from an anthropological perspective. Thank you, Logisiticion! I agree with you on just about every point. It's funny how compromising most people will be in their logic and even in their perception in order to avoid being "politically incorrect". I know from my experience of working with people, that especially small children, are naturally initially afraid of any person who is different than themselves. IN fact, children can be quite cruel when they first experience even some "new kid". I'm sure most of us are familiar with this scenario, so let's not kid ourselves about how accepting and "open-minded" children are - hah! It's a sweet thought, but it just isn't true.

    I love what you conclude with about our being able to overcome our brute instincts to learn to overcome our prejudices! In fact, I believe that it is this unique ability to evolve beyond our primitive impulses that defines us as civilized people.

    And of course your observation about finding and the correcting the causes of an issue, as opposed to simply treating the symptoms, can be applied to prejudice as well as almost any problem personal as well as societal. But this is another long and interesting topic...keep up the great work!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Interesting concept on the development of prejudice. I think the theory is good and has some validity. Though, looking at Webster's definition and The Logistician's comments we can also see that prejudice comes from ignorance. Perhaps back in the caveman era, they didn't ask as many questions, assuming that anyone different than their own tribe was a lesser being. Unfortunately this is a belief that still exists today and seems that no amount of evolution will extinguish that coal burning in some brains.
    I have encountered prejudice to ideas, to my status and have dealt with abrasive people. Prejudice can be experienced and exhibited in so many ways making it blend into society in ways that we don't always recognize it. Sure there are things people can say that are deliberate and hurtful and send up the red flags of racism. Other comments are so common that they are frequently overlooked. Comments regarding proposals at work, like "No, we've tried that before" or "that couldn't possibly work" are examples of prejudice. Another one that ruffles my feathers is when people proclaim christian prayers at events that are in mixed religious company. I think it is rude disregard and lack of respect to assume that everyone in a group wants to pray in that way. Raised as a christian in the bible belt, I know for my own safety and salvation, I dare not protest - but then again, who will? If AA can allow everyone to pay homage to their "higher power" why can't others follow suit? I feel a rant coming on and perhaps the simmering of a future blog! Good food for thought in your article!

    ReplyDelete

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