13 August 2014

Rearranging prejudices

William James once said that a great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices.  That’s a quote sent by my quote-provider, the late Errol Alphonso.  I think James was being ungracious.  The thinking comes first, the rearranging later.  Once you’ve decided to rearrange prejudices, the only thinking required pertains to modality.  Such people might want you to believe they are in a thinking process; the truth though is that they’ve finished with thinking.  

The past few weeks I’ve been reflecting on the fact that people change.  They switch loyalties.  They fall in and out of love and in love again.  The truths they believe in are junked and replaced with other truths. Nothing wrong in any of these things.  It happens all the time. It is done all the time.  You can believe something to be correct based on what you know.  Tomorrow you might unearth some information that shatters your assumptions.  The conclusions, naturally, collapse.  You have to build a new edifice of ‘truth’.

In some instances such processes are marked by absolute honesty and integrity.  You can, for example, conclude something based on incomplete information and flawed analysis.  Additional facts can subsequently emerge.  The new information can be processed in less erroneous ways.  The result is a different set of conclusions.  One can be but is not required to be humble about error and explain the logic of the new stand one takes, except of course when the intervening ‘factor’ has nothing to do with truth, additional information and superior analysis but the factoring of unadulterated self-interest. 

When self-interest overrides all else, the first casualty is truth.  Self-justification requires a quick and seamless burial of truth, along with other casualties such as integrity, principles, values etc.  No one is perfect. I like to think that among those who err in favour of self-interest the best are those who are upfront about it.  ‘I did it for the money’ such a person might say, for example.  Now that’s ‘redeeming’ in my book. 

Next there are those who have rearranged their prejudices but out of embarrassment, don’t talk about it.  They too are sufferable.  One notes patterns of course; they move out of old circles and inhabit new ones, adopt behaviour patterns appropriate to the now preferred prejudices, even if they don’t exactly wave the flag of the club they have obtained membership from.  They’ve made a choice.  That’s ok.  We all do.  They can’t really defend this choice given statements they’ve made earlier. That’s ok too. In the very least they don’t embarrass themselves nor insult others by trying to paint self-interest as sudden revelations that require loyalty-shift in order to further some collective interest. 

There are no laws against having prejudices or changing them.  One can say there are ethics pertaining to these things but then again these are seldom powerful enough to impose limiting clauses.  We have to accept the reality that while it can be hard to forgive someone else, there’s nothing easier than forgiving ourselves.  Fooling others is difficult but self-delusion is the easiest thing on earth.  Especially in public.  Once you are at home, in bed for example, right and wrong come to interrogate, haunt and torture. Out there in ‘society’, one has to act virtuous.  And, as is always the case when it comes to acting, you’ve got to get inside the part, you have to rehearse ‘virtuous’ at least in appearance since in substance you cannot (just like on stage; you are no prince, but you have to look and act ‘prince’ in Hamlet). 

None of this should bother anyone except when such prejudice-shifts impact others, a whole lot of others.  It is not about someone falling in love, deciding that the object of love was not what he/she appeared to be at first, falling out of love consequently and falling in love (with someone else) thereafter.  Such prejudice-change is understandable, common and eminently defensible on all counts. Then again, there are situations, where people assert certain positions, realize that the costs of assertion outweigh benefit (to self that is, and not society) and rearrange parameters to effect location-change.  In other words, move to a more comfortable and comforting place. 

When the issue is public or refers to a larger collective than say ‘circle of friends’ or a love-situation, then others need to be wary. They need to keep watch. They need to note argument-shift, the dropping of names, the failure to mention certain things and the inexplicable negligence of pertinent fact. When prejudices promote certain policies over others, push for certain outcomes over others, the privileging of particular social class over other etc., their shifting/rearrangement need to be viewed soberly. It’s not like lover-changing. 

The interesting thing is that in appearance, the two sets of procedure (lover-change and policy-preference shift) are similar.  There’s the classic and time-tested method of avoiding eye contact, obtained best by absenting oneself from the object that is sought to be avoided.  If, on the other hand, you can’t be avoided, then one can discern a certain dodgy-element in eye and conduct.  If you manage to button-hole the person, a lot of babbling results, typically with a slew of big words no one understands, a lot of technicalities and verbal somersaults. 

Once it is established that prejudices have been rearranged, it is easy to operate. You have to know when and where you can get played out and identifying the player is the first step in minimizing negative fallout.  The more important thing is to identify the shifter early.  You have to read the signs.  You can tell, generally, when your lover is on his/her way out of your life or when he/she is pushing you out of heart and life.  Think about it. The signs are not too different.  Avoidance.  Blaming. Justification of that which is unthinkable.  Shift in hangout-choice.  Shift in vocabulary. Facial expressions.  Degree of comfort in different kinds of company.  Difference in preferred distance. 

When people rearrange their prejudices, contrary to what William James said, they don’t think they are thinking, they WANT us to believe that they are in ‘thinking mode’.   When others rearrange prejudices, we need to take note. We need to think.