Sunday, 28 March 2010

Is Prejudice in the Eye of the Beholder?

I am OBSESSED with people watching. People having cosy one to ones, people in groups, people having arguments, people enduring small talk - you name it, I’ll have peered at it, spy-like, over the top of a newspaper at some point in my life. Human behaviour, and more specifically social interaction is thick in the air wherever you go so I’m constantly entertained. Breaking it down further, social interaction drips with social convention at which point - ooooh mama - things really start hotting up. 

One of the most curious aspects of social convention is the complexity of how general prejudices - and consequently, hierarchies - are conveyed. All around us are stealth prejudices and society is their cover, essentially providing diplomatic immunity to what, in more blatant form, would cause acute embarrassment. One to watch closely, pun intended, is eye contact or who people choose to look at. This is a group tactic which reveals just how much people seem to know ‘their place‘ and how much we abide by the rules of convention. How? Because eye contact is a highly efficient controller of who gets to speak. Being looked at tells us if we've been noticed, whether we're welcome or conversely whether we are invisible or being ignored. 

At its simplest, when someone of status is in the room all eyes will be upon them. If we want to punish or ostracise someone, we look away. The royals of times gone by would fix their eyes on the middle distance to signify their superiority. And one of the best ways to freak someone out is to stare unblinkingly at them (and one of the most fun). All examples of the power of the gaze and how big a signal it is to us. 

Before you stop reading, I’m not trying to patronise you. Merely trying to ease you gently into the seedy underworld of eye-ball bigotry because it doesn’t stop there my friend. It just gets somewhat insidious. A group of people standing around talking to one another will be subconsciously ranked, rated and judged by each and every member of the group. But where they get placed and what happens next is not entirely under their control. 

Looking at a widely recognised prejudice, such as racism, it is not uncommon for this mindset to display itself in this way, so for example black people may be given less time to talk and fewer opportunities to do so. Using the tactic of switching the focus of the eyes, it tells the speaker that their time is up, the group have moved on. Bit like Britain’s Got Talent really and about as fairly judged. 

It’s such a subtle and apparently meaningless action that it is unlikely to be challenged and in fact manners dictate that it would be petty to do so. More likely it will go totally unnoticed by all. However, it’s the repetition of such actions that concerns me. Victims of prejudice will see this same pattern repeated time and time again in their lives. It reinforces the sense of privilege in the ‘dominants’ and diminishes the self esteem of the ‘victim’. So it’s not so much the enormity of the action itself, but the repeated nature of it that speaks volumes and shapes how people view themselves. 

This shows up in examples of racism, sexism and homophobia but also (and you don’t need to look too carefully for this) illustrates the class system is still alive and well. I’ve witnessed this based on physical appearance, attractiveness (not as straight-forward as you think, depending on the group, you could be on the bottom rung for being pretty), education, money, height. 

The dynamics of the group matter certainly and some people will always be attention grabbing, controlling little despots whoever is unfortunate to be around them. Others are oblivious to any signs put out by others anyway and will steam into any conversation regardless. And so, as the age old idiom tells us, does personality matter - it goes a long way apparently. But while being a gloriously loud-mouthed strumpet may get you noticed and win you a slice of the conversation, it doesn’t protect you from being judged more harshly and so isn’t always the answer it seems to be. 

Conventional attitudes work in mysterious ways and I would add that the perpetrators may be adhering to stereotypes but may themselves not be the stereotypical perpetrators. I find women to be pretty harsh towards other women in this context. 

So, effectively (or ineffectively, you decide), what I’m saying is that there are still ways in which we discriminate and belittle people, completely without our knowledge. If you feel yourself taking umbrage at what I’m saying then please don’t. It has nothing to do with blame. While those who come right out with wincingly prejudiced comments can be held accountable due to the amount of information around in society today, the rest of us are merely acting in a manner we witness in others, unchallenged, every day and have done since we were children. This is why I hold convention responsible rather than interaction. It just doesn’t hurt to rethink it once in a while. 

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