Friday, September 7, 2007

Prejudice is Cultural

I was just reflecting on my last post, about how automatically I use disability-related slurs. And an interesting thought hit me.

Prejudice and discrimination are often not personal matters. They're cultural.

If you confront your average person on the street (APOTS), they'll say, "I'm not prejudiced." (It's a well known fact, by the way, that we normies are often kings and queens of denial. We always think we're better than average, so don't believe a word we say when we assess ourselves. Make your own assessment of us.) Yet, chances are, they use words like "gay," "lame," or "retarded" as insults all the time, even if they have never actually done anything to directly harm a homosexual, mobility impaired, or intellectually disabled person.

"I have nothing against mentally retarded, gay, or handicapped people," the APOTS might protest. "I don't mean it to insult anyone or any group; I just say these words because they're what people say. They're just words."

And their protest might very well be valid: the APOTS may, in fact, harbor no personal resentment against disabled people or homosexual people. They may even treat a gay or disabled person kindly if they met one.

The problem is that the popular words reflect a cultural attitude that needs to be changed.

And since the problem is not personal, it might be harder to get people to look at it from a personal perspective and try to make changes on the personal level.

But there may be an advantage to the fact that it's not personal: rather than accuse individuals of being bigots and triggering their need to defend themselves, we might be able to present them with an opportunity to make a difference, to use their good intentions to make change on the cultural level. After all, almost everyone in this culture is raised to want to help the disabled, and to not want to be a bigot (well, at least when it comes to race and sometimes sex). Now, if more of us normies could be exposed to the ways in which traditional forms of help are NOT helpful, and how our colloquialisms and stereotypes simply reinforce an excessively pessimistic view of disability, and how it might be helpful to disabled people to see them and treat them as equals, maybe things could get somewhere.

Disablism is an ancient prejudice, though. It won't be an easy one to overturn. And as with all prejudices that have been accepted by society in the age of science, some folks claim that disablism is scientifically justified, in a way: it is an evolutionary strategy to keep the tribe strong by weeding out the members who cannot adequately contribute. answer to any scientific argument in favor of prejudice or discrimination is that human beings also have evolved to be able to find creative ways around problems - including the problem of making it so that the disabled can use the abilities they do have to contribute to the tribe. And if they cannot hold jobs or communicate much...well...we can still think of them as contributing via our relationship with them (which may not be reciprocated in the ways we want, but that doesn't make it have to be any less of a relationship), or hope to find untapped abilities they have and a way to bring them out.


Chuck said...

Disabilities and definitions are also cultural. Many who currently have developmental disabilities would not be labeled with such in a different location or a different time.

abfh said...

Even the concept of disability is cultural, and relatively recent. The ancient world wasn't divided into normal people and disabled people. Those who had some sort of impairment weren't seen as part of a disabled population; they were simply seen as blind, deaf, lame, or whatever their condition might be. Usually, they were put to work doing whatever work they could do. Our ancestors, unlike us, couldn't afford to indulge their prejudices by sending people off to group homes or institutions. Life was hard in their villages, and every pair of hands was needed to get through the winter.

Granted, you probably wouldn't have been treated very kindly in the ancient world if you were blind or deaf or lame; but you wouldn't have been treated as if you were incapable of working, either.

Bakka said...

Prejudice and discrimination are deeply rooted in animal psychology, they are GENETIC.

The reason prejudice BECAME cultural in the first place is because biologically prejudiced people had a monopoly on getting others to accept their own values.

Anne said...

You can take demo tests from Harvard's Project Implicit. These implicit association tests are designed to spot bias or prejudice that people don't know they have. Some of the test categories are gender, race and disability.