Emergent Prejudice and Culture
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 individuals.

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 suffers.

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 rule set.

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.

However, synchronization 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 morality.

  • 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 culture.

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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