Do you have friends that have recently admitted to holding views that are anti-semitic or anti-islamic or both? This has happened to me on several occasions since the 2016 referendum.
There have been heated debates in the media and in everyday life - sometimes sidestepping awkward conversations has seemed to be the most diplomatic option. Avoiding the issue of racism however, aggravates a pernicious problem. We are soon to cast our votes in an election in which the two main parties are overtly struggling to deal with racism.
Yesterday, a good friend said this to me: “We can always respect other people’s opinions, even if they are different to our own”. Do you agree with this seemingly reasonable statement?
Of course I agree that everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I challenge stereotyped points of view. So, I strongly disagreed with the idea that I would always respect another person’s opinion. If an opinion is in any way racist for example, it cannot win my respect.
Stereotypes are dangerous because they are sloppy thought patterns, which travel like wildfire, igniting and infecting many people at once. A stereotype is just like a rumour because it is not based on fact. In conversation, it should be treated like toxic gossip and challenged for its lack of substance.
My stereotype radar starts bleeping when people start to say: “The trouble is, they are all…” (fill in the blank)
Or to make ridiculous predictions: “You can’t trust them. All they want is….”
Or to make sweeping generalisations: “Most normal people don’t .…
Or to sound preachy: “People like us…”
A reasonable follow-up question to statements using ‘always’, ‘all’ or ‘never’ might be - “Oh really? How can you be certain?”
On the other hand, whenever there’s a healthy balanced range of opinions, of voices, of faces on mainstream media I inwardly cheer in celebration of our country’s rich diversity, knowing that deep down all is well. With so much at stake, we must work together to resist discrimination of all kinds and call out stereotypes as soon as they they arise in conversation. Even if this feels awkward and embarrassing, it’s better than walking away or brushing the stereotype under the rug.
‘Groupthink’ (a term coined by Irvin Janis) is the unremarkable ability that we all have to hang out with like-minded folk who echo and reinforce our thoughts. Group loyalty is dangerous when it inhibits healthy debate and ‘groupthink’ is an unhealthy inbreeding of ideas that arises in politics in particular (Janis, 1972).
Research done in 1970s showed that in roles where one group of people dominates another group, the behaviour of both groups needs to be carefully monitored. The notorious Stanford Prison Experiments explored human behaviour in role-play. Undergraduate psychology students volunteered as participants and were randomly assigned to roles either as prison guards, or as inmates in a specially constructed jail in the university campus. After only six days the treatment of the prisoners became so abusive that the project, which should have run for fourteen days had to be abandoned. In this experiment, Zimbado showed that undergraduate students with no previous history of cruelty (ie they were educated, reasonable people) had the capacity to treat prisoners sadistically, particularly when following orders.
Clearly, in our social groups, we humans have a dark side - a capacity to behave together in ways that would be unthinkable at an individual level.
This matters in everyday life, but particularly in political leadership. We must ensure that we are governed by politicians who engage in healthy debate, and who can truly represent the diversity of Britain. We need to call out stereotypes for everyone’s sake so that together we cultivate an atmosphere of happiness, balance and peace in our society.
Janis, I (1972) Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascos (2nd Edition) Boston, MA. Houghton Mifflin.
Zimbado, P.G. (1999) Stanford Prison Experiment: A Stimulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment Conducted at Stanford University http://www.prisonexp.org [accessed 1/12/19]