a philosophical essay
We are a country obsessed
with race, minorities, religion and a variety of other hate inducing
past times. Ironically, the divergent nature of these topics can
be explained as a set of fundamental human behaviors shared by everyone.
Much of what we
call prejudice is not the result of some oppressive abstract force,
but instead stems entirely from simple, every day interactions between
First a bit of theoretical
background. Imagine a group of individuals. Each individual interacts
with a neighborhood of other individuals, according to a set of
social rules. For example, if Bob walks up to Susan, he knows he
can start a conversation by saying 'hello.' There exists a huge
and rich set of such rules, and with these rules come expectations.
Bob and Susan realize that for their interactions to go as smoothly
and efficiently as possible, they both need to agreed upon a common
set of rules. If Bob says "Uggawooga" in order to start a conversation,
Susan is confused because she was expecting 'hello' and their interaction
Fig 1: Inefficient
communication due to lack of similar social rules
The result is a synchronization
of social rules. This occurs in a viral manner within a group of
individuals. Bob communicates with Susan and they negotiate a common
set of social rules. Now, suppose Susan communicates with Fred and
they also agree to set of rules. However, Susan needs to interact
with both Fred and Bob. Humans, for all their grand intelligence
are still creatures of habit and repetition. In order to create
the simplest, most efficient rules set, Susan, over a series of
interactions with Bob and Fred, negotiates a common, compromise
Fig 1: Efficient
communication due to similar social rules
Multiply this small pattern
over hundreds of individuals. With time, and continual social interaction,
large groups begin to share a common set of social rules. The
result is a complex emergent behavior called culture. These
common social rules encompass morality, spoken language, body language,
rituals, celebrations and wide variety of other learned social activities.
is a constantly ongoing activity. Every individual constantly gains
new knowledge and finds themselves in new situations for which the
current social rules do not work perfectly. Also, many social rules
are merely implicit, and may mean slightly different things to different
people. In a strong sense, culture evolves. Each individual contains
a mutated set of rules. Through continually interaction and synchronization
with others, these rules propagate and mutate further. Through a
constant renegotiation process between individuals, the culture
gradually changes to fit the new circumstances of it's members.
What if there is a destructive
mutation? The individual elements of the system need to be able
to deal with such mutations in a corrective fashion. Suppose Susan
enjoys hitting people. If Susan hits Bob, he will attempt to negotiate
with her in order to agree upon a more reasonable type of interaction.
If Susan agrees to synchronize her rules with Bob, then they can
interact in a more mutually beneficial fashion. If she doesn't,
there is a problem. Perhaps Bob organizes a group that imprisons
Susan so that she doesn't hurt people. Or he ensures that she is
no longer welcomed in key social rituals, thus limiting her interactions
and potential destructiveness. These behavioral strategies helps
save the group and encourage harmful mutations of the social rule
set to die off.
The key point is that
all cultures on this earth have rules to protect themselves from
the actions of individuals that refuse to synchronize their social
rule set in at least some general fashion.
What happens when two
distinct self contained cultures meet for the first time? Nearly
inevitably, they see one another as childish, stupid, morally corrupt,
and quite often criminal. Many times, they don't even consider one
another human. Why? Because a person's claim on humanity is tied
intimately to his or her ability to operate by expected social rules.
In Bob's culture, a human is someone who says 'hello' in order to
begin a conversation. Someone who says 'bonjour' fails to interact
in an expected, efficient fashion. In extreme cases, individuals
from other cultures who fail to interact in a mutual beneficial
fashion are considered functionally equivalent to psychotic criminals,
children, or dumb animals.
The same process that
makes a culture strong, exasperates the problem.
- First, one culture's interactions with members of another culture
are inefficient due to lack of a common rule set.
- Second, the interactions
are difficult due to the mutual suspicion of potentially aberrant
- Third, the members
of one culture are busy interacting and maintaining their cultural
rule set. This ensures the most beneficial and efficient interactions,
the path of least resistance, is between members of their current
Thus the standard negotiation
and synchronization process slows to a crawl.
Prejudice of all forms
has this common root; we are dealing with cultural misunderstanding
and the natural repercussions of the protective social strategies
of the culture. In a sense, the same social forces that cause stuttering
children to be ostracized are the same ones that result in millennia
long slavery and subjugation.
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