Lazy Luddite Log

13.4.10

Misanthropy

I have been pondering the topic of prejudice recently and have decided to discuss it here. The risk (other than writing on a controversial topic) for me is that there are many aspects of this topic and I will just bang on for too long.

As well as considering prejudice I have also been contemplating the ways in which prejudice is discussed by those of us who try to oppose it. I will comment on some kinds of thinking that I feel are counter-productive. However I will then move onto the much more important matter of prejudice itself - ways in which it develops and ways in which it can be challenged in our own lives.

Qualms

Something in me always looks critically at what my 'side' says on matters. Sometimes that desire is itself problematic and what I forget is that discussion is just that - discussion - rather than some kind of campaign message that must be honed to persuade the average punter. Still I will list some of my reservations here:

* We sometimes cast prejudice as the product of one monolithic group of oppressors that we cannot hope to combat. The assumed power of such a 'hegemony' is undermined by the fact that so many things have improved in modern times. To enact change one has to start by recognizing the past record of having done just that.

* We can fall into the habit of thinking of all those experiencing prejudice as one homogeneous oppressed mass rather than considering the vast diversity of contexts in which one can experience prejudice. This is more likely if one is relatively free of the experience of prejudice oneself.

* Some think that all forms of prejudice are simply the product of the one kind of prejudice that matters most to them - "end classism and suddenly racism and sexism will also be ended". There may be some hidden cause of all kinds of prejudice but the notion that one brand of prejudice is simply masquerading as all the others is one I am suspicious of.

* Sometimes we conflate a problem with the prejudice that problem provokes. As an asthmatic I suffered some nastiness from other children as a result of my asthma. Children can be barbarians. Those kids were mistakenly thinking "asthma bad therefore asthmatics bad". Despite my condition I deserve the same respect as a non-asthmatic. But it is a mistake to then think "asthmatics good therefore asthma good". In adulthood I have never suffered nastiness as a result of my condition but I still have a problem. Mind you removing prejudice makes coping with a problem so much better.

Prejudice

I think that there is something underlying all forms of prejudice but my explanation is psychological rather than political. I am moving from familiar into unfamiliar territory by taking this focus. Those well-versed in psychology may find all sorts of flaws in my thinking. Besides which anyone who proposes a 'grand unifying theory' of something is walking on shaky ground. But I will press on nonetheless and propose Misanthropy as a lack of maturity.

Infants - I am told - are the ultimate egotists. To start with they can only experience and comprehend their own needs and wants. It takes time for them to develop a concept of others as independent persons with a personal perspective.

Maturing is partly a process of identifying with others. Patterns of similarity help us to do that. I can understand you because you are like me in some way. Infants seem to have an innate attraction to other infants and it may be finding of commonality that is at work there.

However those same patterns also expose differences which can produce an "us and them" mentality. I can identify with my own group but then lack understanding of another group - my family group are fine but the rest are strangers and scary. Over time my sense of fellow-feeling may extend to my local community then to all of humanity. Or on the other hand the process of identifying with others may stall. It is the stalling of this process that produces misanthropy.

We are each a cluster of different demographic tags produced by notions of generation, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, class, just to name a few. These concepts are the product of a long cultural history but they also spring from the innate tendency of humans to seek patterns. With some effort I can identify common ground with anyone I meet but I can also do the opposite. If these tags inhibit my ability to identify with others then they serve only to stall my own maturing process. Take this lack of maturity and multiply it by all the generations of humans that have ever lived and you get all the prejudices we inflict on one another.

Solutions

Here are some ways of thinking I try to employ in addressing misanthropy. I have described misanthropy as arising from natural human characteristics so the 'solutions' I suggest are the kind that only work if they are practiced over and over. I am sure many other suggestions could be added to this list.

* Some ancient philosopher suggested that we are only human if we live among humans. The bigger your community the more diverse it will be. Familiarity breeds respect while isolation cultivates misanthropy.

* I try to consider the ways in which my contacts are diverse and include differing ways of thinking into that mix. If I "embrace diversity" but everyone I know thinks the same way then it becomes a pretty hollow concept. I try to resist the temptation to quash debate.

* Extrapolating from personal experience is a problem. If I only ever met one albino and they were grumpy should I then think all albinos are grumpy? Even if I have formed an impression over time it is at best still only profiling. And - heck - maybe something has made them grumpy and I should be mindful of that.

* I have to resist thinking that it is okay to be misanthropic if my target has chosen to be different. Why allow others to be different because they cannot help it but deny that right to someone who has made a concsious decision to do so?

* I often have to check if I am confusing what is merely a personal preference for something that is the right thing. I prefer rock-and-roll to techno but does that make me more tasteful or merely of differing tastes from a raver? The existance of these things hardly harms me.

* Harm is the key limitation to the diversity I talk of embracing. If a particular behaviour harms others then I feel entitled to object. I am tempted to include self-harm because it (a) harms loved-ones and (b) is itself frequently a product of past harm suffered. But I have to be careful in defining harm. If someone possesses something I lack does it follow that they are to blame for my lack? Or like the child arguing over a toy can the issue be addressed simply by making me aware that I can play with another toy? Does having ones cherished assumptions challenged by someone who does things differently constitute harm? Or do I just need to get a bit of perspective and develop more confidence in my own decisions?

* I sometimes try to remember who I have been as well as who I am now. As a worker I will try and remember what it was like to be a student dependent on family. If I cannot do that I can still find some other way of understanding. I may never have been a parent but I am the child of parents which gives me an awesome insight into that role with just a bit of memory and imagination.

* Even if I cannot understand someone I can still offer acceptance. And even if they do things to undermine that respect I can remember that they are only human...

Humans are flawed and make mistakes. That egotistical infant is still there hidden away in every one of us which is just as well because we all need to consider our own interests. But to be mature we need to consider them in the context of who we coexist with. The misanthropic tendency is there but can be challenged by examination of its flaws whether it be in ourselves or entrenched in our culture and institutions.

Cross-posted here.

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3 Comments:

  • excellent post =)

    By Blogger WaffleGirl, At 13 April, 2010  

  • Thanks. I forget if I know who you are...

    By Blogger Daniel, At 15 April, 2010  

  • Despite the derth of comments it seems my entry was noticed by some. At a luncheon some friends started critiquing it for me. Here is my summary of what was discussed...

    The problem with anything like what I am proposing is that one can never be sure it is the right cause and can never test it in experiment conditions. The effects of nature or nurture cannot be removed from the development of any person or group. Any old explanation will do.

    One alternative suggested was "Fear" which does fit very well many kinds of prejudice and has a basis in evolved behaviour. Member of the same group seem the same and so one can feel safe with them. Any indicator of difference may also be an indicator of danger from beyond the group. One objection to this theory was that all groups (necessarily) have both genders so sexism cannot be explained.

    It was suggested that the explanations are less important than the solutions. However it happened, the fact is prejudice exists, and we can test ways of combating it. My solutions, whatever the explanation, were approved of, in particular the ones involving exposing oneself to difference and in questioning whether others are truly harmful.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 23 April, 2010  

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