Preference and Prejudice

While this discussion will only make a passing reference to Jane Austin’s novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’, it might be argued that there are some parallels. With respect to the book, the charge of both pride and prejudice applies to both main characters and might well apply to us all to some degree. However, this book is set in a very specific era of the English 19th century class system, while this discussion wants to first consider some much older evolutionary roots.  If the theory of evolution by natural selection has any validity in terms of its central premise, i.e. survival of the fittest, then the most basic preference of humanity, like all species, is survival irrespective of whether this choice is consciously taken or not.

Note: In terms of a predator-prey model of life, all species compete, evolve and disperse simply for the purpose of seeking resources to sustain their struggle for existence. While some might debate whether this model is still applicable to humanity, few may question its applicability when homo sapiens first appeared. If so, this competitive streak may still exist in our DNA and therefore continue to manifest itself in different ways in the modern world.

In terms of survival, homo sapiens were not obviously well-equipped to defend themselves against most of the top-predators, such that the idea of safety in numbers might be considered. While this is not an unreasonable starting point, we might recognise that humanity differs from most herd animals, such that the social groupings, as seen in primates, might be a better initial model. In this respect, we might consider some initial preferences inherent in the size and structure of earlier human hunter-gatherer groups, which were often centred around a small number of family groups. Of course, over time, the more fundamental needs that bound these groups together, i.e. survival, became more sophisticated, although the need for some form of collective identity did not simply disappear, but rather ‘evolved’ towards the idea of a national identity, now centred on language and culture. While much has changed in the modern world, the idea that we do not, should not, have any in-built bias in our cultural preferences in respect to how we choose to live appears somewhat naïve in terms of human nature. 

So, how might we initially discuss the idea of a preference in contrast to a prejudice?

At a basic level, a preference is simply an act of preferring [A] over [B], while a prejudice might also be described as a preference for [A], while rejecting [B] without knowledge or consideration. However, the idea of prejudice can quickly be extended into bigotry and hatred, such that it comes to includes unreasonable beliefs and the disliking of other people who are perceived to be different. As such, we might see that the semantics of these words form a spectrum of views, where preferences are understandable, prejudices questionable and bigotry unacceptable. Even so, we might understand that as we progress through life, we cannot help acquire certain preferences that can then bias the choices we make. However, in most cases, it might be accepted that these choices simply reflect a personal preference for a certain type of lifestyle. For example, our lifestyle choices can often change with age and, in many cases, what was actively sought at the age of twenty is actively avoided at seventy. Again, in such cases, we do not normally consider the preferences of age as a prejudice or bigotry of one group towards another. In this context, we possibly need to accept that certain preferences are also reflective of a cultural bias into which we are born, i.e. time and place, which then influences our own personal experience of life along the way.

Note: In many cases, a cultural identity may only be a general sense of belonging to a group, which might be defined in terms of nationality, ethnicity, gender, religion, social class or a generation to which a person may feel some affinity. The assumption that some preferences have to now be considered as xenophobic prejudices, when judged against the idea of political correctness can then lead to wider implications under the expanding scope of social justice.

From the perspective of our own experience, we might identify with any of the groups listed in the note above, but this does not mean we necessarily identify with everybody within that group. For example, most of us may have a sense of national identity, but this does not preclude a preference for a certain type of person, who may appear to better reflect our own personal outlook on life, as was illustrated in Austin’s book ‘Pride and Prejudice’. As cited, preferences can also change with age, such that each generation may share a sense of identity that extends to common interests, e.g. sports, music and fashion, which might simply be recognised for what they are, i.e. preferences. However, preferences can be manipulated to become prejudices of the left and right variety, such that it can foster intolerance of anybody or anything that does not align to the norms of some worldview. However, while we should try to avoid unnecessary prejudices in modern-day society, we also need to recognise that this is not a new phenomenon of modernity. Again, from an evolutionary perspective, it might be assumed that earlier hunter-gatherer groups also understood the basic concept of ‘us and them’, such that it might be argued that they had a preference for ‘us’ and a prejudice against ‘them’, which was grounded in survival instincts. Of course, over time, these smaller groups merged into larger groups, where the idea of ‘us and them’ did not disappear, but was simply subject to redefinition. Without being too specific about the differences between ‘us and them’ at this stage, let us table a question.

Why do we feel threatened by ‘them’?

Let us start with the assumption that a society is initially representative of some indigenous group, which makes up the majority of its population. If the size of this majority is significant, then other multicultural groups within this society may not be perceived as threatening by the indigenous majority.

Note: Just because a majority is not threatened by a minority does not mean that it will not engage in prejudice acts against a minority. History, clearly shows us that powerful majorities have often suppressed minorities, where the current issues of Human rights in China suggests that this is not simply a historic problem.

When viewed from a historic perspective, we might realise that the make-up of any society may change, possibly due to invasions by more powerful groups, but also more slowly through the influx of new people simply looking for a better life. Of course, over time, even small minority groups can grow in number, such that the cultural balance of a society will change. While historically, such change often allowed people time to adjust, it did not guarantee a non-prejudicial outcome. However, in the modern world, we might recognise that global transport has exacerbated the speed and scale of immigration, such that the influx of people with different cultural backgrounds can occur very quickly and come to threatened an established balance in different sections of a society. So, while history might tell us that change is inevitable, this does not mean that everybody is willing to accept this change, especially when it happens to affect them personally. Therefore, we might now start to consider some of the broader problems associated with immigration in the US today, which is simply being characterised in the two cartoons below.

Note: While the cartoons might suggest that immigration is somehow especially problematic in America, it has to be remembered that the entire US population is historically one primarily made up of immigrants. Therefore, before using America as an example, some comparative statistics may be necessary. In 2016, China with a population of 1.4 billion only issued 1,576 permanent residency cards, which is roughly 750 times lower than the United States. Japan has an estimated population of 127 million, where the foreign population is about 1.75%. The white population of Africa is about 7.8% of the total population. As such, these statistics possibly suggest that these populations also have some form of preference that is reflected in its population overall.

In addition to the note above, it might be useful to outline the History of Immigration in the United States, which starts with the indigenous native population being increasingly ‘displaced’ by European settlers from about 1600. Initially, this displacement was limited to the east coast, but continued to expand and, by 1619, also included African slaves, while recognising that this form of immigration was not one of choice. Later, immigration rules did become more restrictive, although cheaper air travel and economic globalisation then led to further immigration from Asia and Latin America. As of 2016, White Americans are still a majority, where Hispanic and Latino Americans are the largest ethnic minority, estimated at 18%, while African Americans are estimated at 14% and Asian Americans about 6%, but where the original Native Americans now represent only about 0.6%. As such, White Americans still represent about 61% of the 330 million population. Again, before we try to address the issues implied by the cartoons, we might table a question.

Does this population make-up reflect a preference or prejudice?

If we are honest, all populations probably reflect a cultural preference, which is in some way prejudicial against other cultures, as possibly reflected in the statistics of most countries around the world today. Of course, the more serious dividing line between a preference and prejudice is the transition into bigotry and hatred, where from the perspective of history, both undoubtedly existed in American society, as in many other countries. Again, if we are seeking an honest assessment, we possibly need to accept that these preferences and prejudices might be a natural by-product of evolutionary survival, although this does not mean that we should not attempt to minimise the negative consequences.

Note: We possibly need to recognise that that a historic legacy of bigotry and hatred does not simply disappear when it becomes illegal. For those who have been victims of such injustice do not simply forget, such that hatred can linger, on both sides, which may take generations to subside and quickly be inflamed by those who may wish to take advantage of a situation for their own political or ideological reasons.

So, having tried to provide some historic background to the cartoons, which undoubtedly still reflect both the preferences and prejudices of modern American society, we might now consider the next question in terms of the previous percentage breakdown of the American population.

Who perceives the threat of immigration in America?

In reality, all ethnic and cultural communities can feel threatened by change, especially when linked to a large-scale influx of ‘them’, who are perceived to be ethnically or culturally different from ‘us’. It also needs to be highlighted that the ‘us and them’ divide works in both directions, such that it may be a relative and localised perspective within small communities of a wider national population. For while humans are a social animal that seek safety in numbers, we also have a general preference for the ‘familiar and similar’ , such that many immigrant minorities have a long history of clustering into cultural ghettos.

Note: Cultural ghettos can be perceived in two ways. From the perspective of a minority living within a wider majority population, the idea of a ghetto may simply reflect a preference to live in a community that feels ‘familiar and similar’ to their place of origin. Of course, there can be a negative side, when people are forced into restrictive ghettos by the prejudice of some larger majority. While history clearly has examples of the latter, this does not appear to be the situation in America today, at least as a legal requirement, although there may be a multitude of other factors.

Today, the idea of a ghetto community is invariably considered a negative thing in terms of any ideology that strives for multiculturalism in a globalised world, even though it may represent the preference of the local people involved. However, let us initially assume that multiculturalism only wants that people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds to live and work in peace and mutual respect. While this is an undoubtedly noble goal that most would support, it possibly ignores the problem implied in the first cartoon, where the size of any influx of people with different cultural backgrounds may still threaten the existing status quo within some local community, even though it may be statistically irrelevant in terms of the national population. Of course, for some, where multiculturism is a political or ideological goal, the concerns of the local community directly affected may not be a priority within their wider definition of progress, irrespective of the problems it may cause in these smaller communities. This then leads us to a globalist perspective, which might initially be introduced as more of a political or economic goal, but one that may be pursued by many different ideologies.

Note: It might be argued that globalism, like multiculturalism, cannot be achieved if it takes into consideration the multitude of cultural preferences. For while multiculturalism may seek to minimise cultural differences within local and national populations, globalism may seek to remove the very idea of a cultural or national identity, if it is perceived to be a barrier to top-down political control or economic trade.

Of course, for those who have an established cultural or national identity within a population, they may perceive the large-scale influx of people, often with little to no money and minimal skills, as an economic threat to their own livelihood. For these people may require access to limited jobs, homes, education and healthcare, which then has to be paid for in the form of public money, e.g. taxation, as suggested in the second cartoon.

Note: So, at this point, we have to consider the possibility that people who have concerns about the level of immigration are simply reflecting a preference to protect what they see as ‘their way of life’, rather than an irrational prejudice against others for no reason. While, in an ideal world, the concept of multiculturalism and globalism are ideas that we might support in concept, it is in the nature of the human condition to resist such ideas when it is perceived to adversely affects the quality of our own lives.

In respect to the note above, it might be speculated that many of those who seek to impose their ideological preferences on others are invariably not the ones directly affected by its negative consequences. For often, such ideologies seem to proceed on the assumption that any negative consequence will simply be transitional and as soon as people change their parochial worldview, they will come to see the benefits of the ideology being pursued. However, we might now attempt to widen the scope of the discussion to focus on the future, while recognising that the present is the sum total of the past, which cannot simply be erased. In this more debatable context, it might be argued that people are often a reflection of their cultural history and will therefore continue to have both preferences and prejudices, such that society will need to mitigate excessive prejudice through the rule of law. Again, while this appears to be both a laudable, as well as an achievable goal, it is not particularly visionary in scope, such that we might table a question.

What visionary utopia might be achieved if we all embrace any of the ideologies being suggested?

This discussion will try to avoid the details of any specific ideology, because all may ultimately represent a preference of some minority in society. For, as highlighted at the start of the Brave New Worlds discussion, one person’s ideological utopia may be another’s dystopian nightmare. However, we might consider a phrase taken from the US Declaration of Independence of 1776, as a general aspiration, described as an inalienable right, subdivided into natural and legal rights.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

While debatable in a theological context, this discussion will argue that evolution has no concept of an inalienable or natural right, therefore all rights are man-made concepts, which only have meaning if enforced in law. As such, the phrase above is assumed to only express an aspiration, which we might hope the system of governance in which we live would generally support in law, where practical. Of course, in reality, there are many caveats to the idea of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, where the idea of ‘liberty’ can be particularly problematic, not only to totalitarian governments, but also to many ideologies that seek to impose their ideas on society. For in many cases, individuals often start to lose the right to opt out of ‘the system’ into which they are born by the very system of law they hoped would protect them. In this respect, the rule of law is not necessarily a panacea for the injustices being discussed, but rather complicit within a system that seeks to maintain the power to rule. This said, the law can still help support a system where the most fundamental ideas of equality can be upheld.

Note: Unlike the conceptual phrase above, it is argued that there are only two forms of practical equality, which relate to equality in law and equality in opportunity. In this respect, it is argued that it is far from ‘self-evident that all men are created equal’ as the equality of ability has never existed in either the natural or man-made worlds.

The statement about ability in the note above can be problematic to some ideologies, if they assume all people must be equal without exception. However, while the equality of ability is self-evidently not true when we consider physical attributes like height or weight, it becomes increasingly ideologically contentious in the context of human intelligence – see The IQ Controversy for more details. However, another form of equality also wants to argue that gender is simply an optional label, such that recognising any differences, physical or psychological, between men and women is simply another form of prejudice.

Note: The idea that gender is simply an optional label is very different from gender equality, which is now being increasingly protected by many legal systems, such that men and women are required to have equality in law and opportunity, at least, in principle. However, the position rejecting gender simply as a label is not a rejection of genuine transgender issues, where it is suspected that those people who undergo a transition from one sex to another would hardly describe their own experience of the traumas associated with this process as a simple label change.

As suggested by the diagram, there are numerous rights now being argued out in many societies, often at different stages of social and cultural development, which this discussion cannot attempt to address. However, the idea that multiculturalism and globalism can simply impose its ideology, irrespective of the cultural preferences of others, might also be described as a form of cultural prejudice. This said, this does not mean that the debate surrounding equality for all, both in terms of the law and opportunity, cannot be pursued in open debate, which possibly raises another preference, the right to the freedom of speech – see Degrees of Freedom and The Nature of Consensus for wider discussion around this issue.

Note: While the idea of political correctness may legitimately seek to outlaw hate-speech, the increasing use of this idea to censor any debate that questions a particular ideological narrative is consider detrimental to an open society. Again, the suppression of ideas that do not align to your preference, providing they are not bigoted or hateful, would appear itself to be a form of prejudice

Within this general discussion, some attempt has been made to separate the idea of a preference, as oppose to a prejudice, where both might be rooted in cultural history. However, the law appears to have nothing to say about a preference, but possibly more so, if a prejudice is considered discriminatory, such that it seeks to restrict the opportunity of an individual or group. As such, a distinction needs to be made between prejudice and discrimination, where a prejudice may only reflect a mental attitude, while discrimination implies some action, which may be potentially positive or negative. Within the limited scope of this definition, a prejudice attitude is not necessarily illegal, although often not desirable in modern society, while specific acts of discrimination can lead to legal prosecution.

So, what acts of discrimination are illegal?

As a broad outline, discrimination against any of the groups, as shown in the diagram right, might be considered illegal by varying degrees. While the details are beyond the scope of this discussion, most acts of discrimination that the law seeks to actively address either take place in the workplace or public spaces. However, as indicated earlier, legal prosecution can also extend to hate-speech against any individual or group. While the idea of racial prejudice is often only considered in terms of white against black, negative hatred can clearly exist on both sides, which we might hope the law would also address equally, as in a 2018 case in South Africa under their ‘Equality Act’. In this specific case, a successful hate-speech prosecution was brought against Velaphi Khumalo in respect to the following paraphrased public statement.

I want to cleans this country of all white people. We must act as Hitler did to the Jews. I don’t believe any more that there is a large number of non-racist white people. I’m starting to be sceptical even of those within our ANC movement. I will from today unfriend all white people I have as friends. From today you must be put under the same blanket as any other racist white because secretly you all are a bunch of racist.

The reason for citing this example, rather than any number of discriminatory acts of white supremacy is that it highlights that it is not always easy for those who have been victims of racism to simply forget. As such, hatred can linger, on both sides, and may take generations to subside, but then quickly inflamed by those who may wish to take advantage of a situation for their own political or ideological reasons. While recognising that the world is far from perfect, the argument being forwarded is that there are only two equalities that really matter, i.e. equality in law and in opportunity, which have been increasingly effective, although it is accepted that historical cultural preferences, and prejudices, still exist around the world.

So, what more can be done?

In part, the arguments outlined rejects the idea that world only needs more social justice warriors to simply right all wrongs according to their ideological preferences. However, this does not mean that nothing more can be done, such that we might consider the potential benefits of affirmative action, while highlighting that this idea should not necessarily be equated to the idea of ‘positive discrimination’ based on quotas. First, we possibly need to introduce the more general idea of affirmative action, which originally referred to policies and practices to prevent negative discrimination, as outlined above, such that all should have equality in law and opportunity. In this respect, affirmative action seeks to address inequalities of the past in many areas of society, e.g. employment and pay, especially if based on gender, race or ethnicity.

Note: In contrast, positive discrimination considers the use of quota targets to address what are considered the historical injustices apparent in the statistical representation of minorities in all facets of public life, especially government institutions. The problem perceived with this approach is that it assumes that under representation by any minority, e.g. ethnic or gender, is a direct result of some earlier prejudice rather than possibly being caused by some other factors, e.g. ability or difference in psychology underpinning the desire to pursue a specific career path.

Clearly, this argument can appear contentious to those who only wish to see the problem through the one-dimensional lens of prejudice, but it is argued that personal preferences and ability have to be taken into account in the statistical distribution of people in certain roles. As this issue is another that extends beyond the scope of this discussion to address in any detail, reference might be made to somebody who has proved himself well qualified to talk on such matters. Thomas Sowell is an American economist and social theorist and a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, who has written more than 30 books. In 2019, Sowell published a book entitled ‘Discrimination and Disparities’ from which the following quote is taken.

The crucial question is not whether evils exist but whether the evils of the past or present are automatically the cause of major economic, educational and other social disparities today. The bedrock assumption underlying many political or ideological crusades is that socioeconomic disparities are automatically somebody's fault, so that our choices are either to blame society or to 'blame the victim.' Yet whose fault are demographic differences, geographic differences, birth order differences or cultural differences that evolved over the centuries before any of us were born?

While the arguments that Sowell discusses cannot really be summarised in a soundbite, it might be said that if you look for disparities in society, you will undoubtedly find them, but if you are looking for the causal reasons you have to look beyond ideology. However, for those interested in learning more about this book, a 40-minute video entitled ‘Discrimination and Disparities’ might be a good starting point before reading the book. However, it has to be recognised that Thomas Sowell, nor this discussion, is denying that historic prejudice is not still a problem in some sections of societies, simply it questions how such problems might best be addressed going forward.

Note: As touched on, if equality is protected in law then many of the overt problems of discrimination can be addressed. However, we have to recognised that just because the law may make certain crimes illegal does not mean that such crimes simply disappear from society.

So, with reference to the note above, it has to be recognised that preferences, and even prejudices, are not illegal unless manifested in discriminatory action. If so, preferences and prejudices that may underpin discrimination will not simply disappear overnight just because equality is protected in law. In this context, preferences and prejudices that are detrimental to the future of society will take time and education to be eradicated. In this context, this discussion argues that real progress is unlikely to be expedited by divisive protests, especially when the motives of many of those involved may be questionable and possibly being manipulated for any number of ideological reasons – see Antifa in the United States for more details.

Nothing in the world is more dangerous than
sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
Martin Luther King Jr.