When Innocent Bigotry Goes Rogue…

It is important to re-familiarise ourselves with old-school explicit prejudice and discrimination, because for many of us that was the definition of Racism. That is what we condemned and campaigned against when we were younger. 

Prejudicial attitudes used to be cringe-inducingly extreme: sweeping, ignorant generalisations based on no evidence or experience at all. (You should listen to my dad!) Yet the Liberal-Humanist principle of individual value could balance out all of this, as long as the strange foreign ladies and gentlemen were encountered singly or in small groups. American servicemen of colour in the UK, in the 2nd World War, were often treated very well. 

It is when larger groups start to appear that individuals stop being judged on their personal merits and are lumped into a faceless type. Hostility grows as these groups are seen to unbalance and alter the communities that longer-serving inhabitants have grown accustomed to, and to love. 

This change seems to fundamentally alter the mind-sets of some members of the earlier populations, who view themselves as “indigenous.” Prejudices can lie quietly dormant, I think, in most law-abiding citizens, amounting to little more than a tendency to associate a certain group of people with a certain behaviours or looks or beliefs or ways of living. These associations may not even be negative, and can be so momentary, so trivial and instantly forgettable, that the thinker may consider them passing fancies rather than harmful or biased assumptions.

They are undoubtedly the foundations of openly racist thought, a sort of gateway proto-notions, but there is an actual, qualitative difference between brief associations that we know to be wrong and instantly supress, and a conscious commitment to inequality and discriminations. Random, embarrassing thoughts and fancies, associations and assumptions float through everybody’s brains all the time. Many are probably intrusive thoughts: things we explicitly condemn and fear thinking. Most are instantly banished with a sheepish pang. 

Our natural, occasional tendency towards Wrong Thoughts – unhelpful or unfair associations and stereotypes – need other psycho-emotional factors to be transformed into naked bigotry: fear, aggression or grievance, anger, frustration, humiliation, suspicion of difference or change, a desire for the excitement of conflict, rejection of a world that has left us feeling neglected, powerless and belittled, the reassurance that having the power to hurt may bring… They need to be consciously accepted and fostered, returned to repeatedly, to build up a sense of brooding resentment.

It’s a dangerous alchemy, and we must all remain vigilant against allowing it to happen. Many, many of us will experience some form of unfairness or discrimination in our lives, although not all to an equal extent, or with equal impact, and will cast around for culprits to blame or victims to vent our feelings on. We must school ourselves against the brooding resentment, supress it when we find it, make an active effort to imagine things from other people’s points of view. 

This is a personal, individual struggle, the greater jihad, that all must attempt. You are not exempt if you are from a persecuted minority. In fact, you may be more likely to experience such feelings, because you are more likely to be treated badly. 

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