"Prejudice", we are told, isn't "reasonable". "Race" is an "illogical" or "unscientific" concept. Christians tell us we must "love all others as our brothers" - and sisters in a more ecumenical world. Yet Chief Executives can label entire nations as elements of an "Axis of Evil" and make or threaten war with impunity. And masses of the population support them. Why should this be so? David Berreby sought out philosophers, psychologists and other scholars in an extensive quest for some answers. He found a good many and recounts them in this nearly exhaustive study. In a well organised and captivating account, he weaves together many threads in building a picture of how we view ourselves and others.
Biology tells us that our DNA makes us one with our fellows. Yet, somewhere between conception and our ability to distinguish ourselves from others, we begin to categorise those "others". We may find them acceptable, and join their company. In other cases, we deem the differences unacceptable. "Us" and "Them" become the basis for value judgements. Berreby recognises that the distinctions are in our minds. He asks how they come to be there in the first place. He examines the various forms of prejudice, both positive and negative, in tracing both their histories and manifestations. Heart disease, for example, was once considered more prevalent among the rich and powerful. Now, studies show that those carrying burdens of pressures from "above" feel more stressed. Hence, their bodies react and heart problems follow. Classes of people, often the poor and ill-considered such as the "cagot" peasants in France, were despised and relegated to menial roles in society. Over time, the classification fell into disuse. In Berreby's words, they were "recategorised".
The author traces the mental patterns of how we "type" people. The process involves focussing on particular aspects while ignoring the rest. His favourite example is the motorist stopped by a police officer. The officer turns out to be a dark-skinned female. Does the motorist view the officer as a cop, as an Arab, as a light-skinned African or as a woman? For some of us, by the time we work it out, the ticket has been dispensed! The delay is due to our propensity to carry the "type" in our minds, then select characteristics that seem to fit. We generally select an essential characteristic and focus on that. Skin colour is an obvious "essential", but left-handedness or dress can be just as suitable.
These essentials, he argues, can be reinforced within ourselves, as well. In a famous study, Asian women were set into groups, some reminded that Asians are considered to excel in math, others that women are deficient in those skills. When tested, the ones who believed Asians are superior in math had higher test scores. "Type" reinforcement has many ways of developing and expressing beliefs. The best example of this is the military person. Recruits are trained to shed previously held categories, which are replaced with new values. Society at large dims as new loyalties to the squad are instilled. Sacrifice is raised in merit, and hierarchically, running from one's immediate mates, through the levels of the force and finally the nation as an entity. This training is not easily shed, as one marine demonstrated when he left his drinking chums to chat with a uniformed individual. Their shared experiences were more powerful than the friendship bonds.
How we acquire these in the first place is difficult to assess. It seems that it is essential for our dealing with the world at large. That condition dictates that the process is both universal and in the mind. Berreby offers a fine chapter on the areas of the brain involved in various body processes and emotional states. He briefly discusses the devices that indicate where in the brain various activities are recorded. PET and fMRI scanners are given their due, with some history of how the brain's "modules" were identified. He stresses, however, that seeking a "centre" for categorising others is fruitless. The mind's actions are too widely scattered and diverse. This situation may explain both why we may hold prejudices deeply, but can also shift them to lesser importance or even replace them with a new circumstance. With so many ways to "type" our fellows, emphasis can vary quickly and easily. While we like to think we can "top-down" direct our feelings about somebody, there may be equal signals from "bottom-up" to deflect or override our "reasoned" approach to others. Following this vein, Berreby examines the role of emotion as a driving force for categorising.
Is Berreby aiming to dislodge prejudice from our brains? Nothing so simplistic. Does he think training will deter a child from associating with an errant group? Not likely, since one of his primary examples is that of a group of boys who might have been social and ethnic clones dividing them into hostile groups. The separation grew intense until adults stepped in. Berreby is a realist, and provides a plausible structure for how we view others. Unfortunately, the thrust is sociological rather than cognitive, which is where he might have gained further insights. Although he spoke with many researchers, he ignored Daniel C. Dennett's "Consciousness Explained" which might have provided him with an expanded framework for how the process evolved and now works. While that shortcoming is serious, it doesn't detract from the value of this work's theme. Prejudices are not rigid dogma, and with a little effort we can examine and assess them in ourselves as well as in others. We can rebel against their dictates if we wish. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]