THE BEANBAG PSYCHOLOGIST 15
“Us-Them”, “Insiders-Outsiders”. This human tendency to look in boundary-establishing binaries is a natural and untaught mechanism that has developed evolutionarily. As most of us know, humans have always lived in tribes for safety, security and to procure valuable resources for survival. Any given tribe was always wary of strangers from other tribes as they were threats who could possibly pass on terrible diseases, otherwise hurt and harm individuals and children or even compete for life-sustaining resources. In a sense, it paid off to think of outsiders as “bad” or “dangerous” for the protection of one’s own tribe. This ancient distrust of individuals who didn’t belong to our group manifests itself in many varied and complex ways today.
An inevitable outcome of ignorance is that we assume certain things about these “outsiders” and use these assumptions or stereotypes to understand their behaviour. For example, “Women are emotional”, “Men are insensitive”, “Math teachers are strict” are all stereotypes and not universal truths, yes even the last one! Stereotypes mostly tend to characterize the subjects as possessing undesirable qualities or lacking in virtue, talent or even morality, when compared to the in-group. This is the beginning of all sorts of trouble and it has a name too- prejudice.
Psychologists describe prejudice as a baseless (i.e. without backed by evidence), usually negative attitude towards members of a certain group. At a thought-level, either conscious or unconscious, all of us hold preconceived notions about people, groups or ideas foreign to our own but many of us, when we come in actual contact with different groups, act on our prejudices at which point it is called discrimination. Discriminating means denying respect, opportunities and resources to others on the basis of race, religion, language or even talent and ability. It is a misguided act and causes great damage to those on the receiving end as it damages their self-esteem and effectively alienates them from the larger society. To snatch away a sense of belonging and purpose from someone just based on inadequate understanding and intolerance to difference is a terribly irresponsible thing to do.
So what can be done about our prejudices if they are, as proved by countless research, an evolutionary trait and an automatic mechanism? Surely we can be excused for it! No. When we are equipped with a superior cognitive apparatus that is amazingly malleable, flexible and has a tremendous capability for self-awareness, the option available to us it to simply acknowledge our prejudices and self-correct them by developing empathy towards others. A simple assumption of ourselves as being in their shoes and living their lives can help the most dogmatic of individuals to expand their minds to newer possibilities and appreciate differences in others.
SANGEETHA MADHU & JYOTHI RAVICHANDRAN, THE HINDU IN SCHOOL