The Role of Reasoning in Prejudice

In modern times, some consider prejudice irrational, a cognitive flaw that emerges from excessive emotion impinging upon reason, and though it is true that most experiencing has an emotional dimension, prejudice intersects with the very roots of thought.  Three main factors constitute recalcitrance in reasoning: constraints of working memory, reliance on presumption, and social standards for perspective-taking.

Human perception is a powerful apparatus, processing a vast range of phenomena instantaneously, but even in the most capable brains it is subject to limitations.  To the extent that perception is intentional, it divides into two main functions: long-term recall, which is the partially conscious access to memories spanning lifetimes, and a short-term memory that holds content to the fore of our minds for more deliberate access.  Active awareness, the recognition, organizing and generalizing of qualia, is a kind of synthetic manifold we can express with aural signs, our verbalizations, and visual signs, our gestures and writings.  Conceptualizing together with language use are largely exacted by an executive function of the psyche we call ‘self’, far exceeding the interpretive depth of perception alone.  Intentional conception amalgamates diverse percepts into informational schemas, iterating towards greater comprehension.

As memory, perception and conception formulate meaning, their activity is based on phenomenal experiences that effectively serve as premises.  Reasoned intuiting is so rapid that we do not even perceive our own assumptive commitments much of the time as we launch forward along sequences of association, often with the lightest of touches upon linguistic expression, though when it is deemed relevant we can contain the effluence of thought as logical structure for the purpose of explicit communicating.  

The most logical thoughts derive deductions from percepts, memories and conceptual associations, a type of reasoning which can readily be formed into the linear patterns of verbalization.  We perceive and modify this inferencing as successive meanings, racing around and through patterns, interpreting and reinterpreting, synthesizing, comparing, contrasting, a psychical act which in humans can require almost no connection to tangible environments.  The range of possible conclusions is often subliminally constricted until further experiences are incorporated, sometimes necessitating highly self-aware reflections.  Prejudices occur when reasoning terminates in generalization such that a check is placed on further fact-gathering, disconnecting us from consequences latent in our total collection of memories.  These implications would frequently be accessible by deeper thought and a more intensive convening with contrary perspectives, but we tend to restrain ourselves well below maximum cognizance in order to serve our own purposes and meet community expectations.  

Outward appearance is a common source of prejudicial judgement.  We associate clothing, hygiene, jewelry, posture and general presentation with behavior, social status, intention, chances of conflict and the attitudes of our cultural niche, deciding almost instantly how receptive we will be to someone we have never met.  It is often regarded as vital for one’s safety and reputation to act warily based on the slimmest of evidence, perhaps merely upon media-promoted stereotypes that have no personal basis.  This contributes to a milieu of unempathetic anonymity as millions of citizens pass each other daily without so much as a care or with distrustful avoidance despite the truism that we all want and need friendship and comradery in all walks of life.  Most think it better to slight strangers a hundred times than risk getting burned even once, though some are of course more trusting than this baseline approach.  If someone looks respectable and we are idle we may initiate a shallow conversation, but this is also mediated by prejudicial profiling and prompts cautious, probing tests and hesitations if either party delves any deeper.  Introductions in ambiguous contexts are usually scrupulous and ritualized, capable of being disrupted by the briefest of negative impressions.

Presumptions ossify into stereotypes as modes of thought by which we interpret the characteristics of social groups are reinforced by our own subculture.  Our beliefs about the human race become resistant to alteration, even dictating what it is possible for us to recognize.  Unless circumstances intervene or we live under conditions that allow for an unusually tolerant and considerate viewpoint, we see what we expect to see, and only an exposure to experiences uncommon for us, the unknown, can break the spell.  There is at least a grain of truth in every generalization, even if it is a misinterpreted truth, and this meager accuracy can be magnified by the mind into absolute principle, an outcome made more likely by sensationalism in culture.  

In capitalism, divisiveness is rebarred by incentive to create and satiate demand at the expense of informational accuracy in order to maximize consumption for the sake of growth in profits, assessed as optimal by ethics-neutral business models.  This economic paradigm that accompanied modernization operates best, though probably below what is ideally achievable, by striving to bend and even fashion rules in service of increasing the worth of one’s monetary holdings from millions of strategic centers, which can give incalculable levels of diversity a venue for expression and adaptation, but extensively fails to motivate mutuality.  A society lacking direct cooperation is tugged in sundry directions, and our instinct to become biased tends to oblige.  

At first this variety was decentralized enough to permit much individuality, as in the beginnings of capitalism.  Culture and its economy could change course at an extremely local scale, making millions of minute adjustments with rapidity, and this transitional efficiency functioned as a corrective to rampant error.  Increasingly, capital was consolidated, followed by an atrophying of strategic diversity and spontaneity.  The various demographics of society were forced to remain sundered because of constraints on beliefs and values imposed by marketing, incapable of conceiving beyond the boundaries of convention nor exercising self-direction apart from interventions by corporate authority and its amoral profit motives.  Innovation became restricted to a narrow collection of creative paradigms enacted by big business.  In this environment, citizens grow distrustful of cultural values as capitalist authority consolidates and the system’s ethical artificiality grows easier to notice, with no compensatory stimulus to set new precedents via collaboration.  If these trends continue, a society can reach the point of failure, barely sustained by consent to a lifestyle of consumer fads that give the hollow illusion of progress in the form of profit to leaders who have no sense of joint responsibility that would temper narrow-minded cupidity, nor a mutual respect and tolerance for financial agendas of their peers as a path to diversity in economic strategizing.  

A complex atomization of popular interest, which maximizes the intermittent reinforcement of random variety as a means to make spending optimally attractive and profitable, combined with an unanalyzed tight coupling of similar business models enacted by a small collection of corporate regimes, makes for a dangerous mix and systemic collapse, only avertable by the influx of wealth from governments in times of economic crisis, capital that will someday not be concentrated enough in one source, such as the U.S. government, to effect planned resuscitation of global finance.  Authority tries to control populaces from out of nearly delusional thinking, doctoring and regulating information so as to better fit human behavior into its models, but paradoxically produces still tighter coupling with the application of stopgap theories alongside untested selection pressures on human nature that make it even more unpredictable, while every demographic’s aptitude for systematic observation as well as innovation, in social organization and elsewhere, prodromally declines.  Prejudices that limit our perspective-making can destroy us.

Looking at prejudice more optimistically, the mental makeup that underlies it is nothing to feel guilty about or condemn in itself, for this is simply a cost/benefit analysis enabling us to assess our environment.  A simple example is the interaction between a doctor and patient in medical settings.  The doctor says an abnormal growth is a tumor – a factual premise – from which the patient infers that my life may be in jeopardy or an operation of some risk might be required, perhaps even chemotherapy.  But it is further revealed that the tumor is benign, so it will not spread, and though an operation will be necessary, it is in an accessible, risk-free region of the body, information modifying the cost/benefit analysis to assuage the patient’s anxiety by simple elaboration of cause and effect: low danger and pain compared with indispensable and reliable payoff.  

As an aside, we can assume the doctor’s presentation would be polished to minimize a patient’s fears, having some subtlety, but more to the point, the reasoning, accessible to almost any human being, is no more than a succession of prejudicial presumptions about reality reconstituted by each piece of additional information, entirely practical and even necessary.  We are inherently prejudiced – it is an intrinsic feature of thought processes – but we can easily revise our prejudices, making them less myopic or pernicious by reflecting upon our surroundings, accepting fact that is inconsistent with current beliefs.  We do this naturally all day long, but many socialized contexts exert opposing pressure, and it is one of the challenges of life to make our prejudiced, bounded perspectives as accurate and capable of growth as we can manage.

A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below.  Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.

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