Thursday, 14 November 2013

Hats and Prejudice

So, here I am once again in an aeroplane seat high above the clouds. It is another one of the seemingly crazy thirty hour trips necessary for the personal touch derived from meeting customers face-to-face: five hours flying, ten hours driving, several hours of meetings followed by a good-natured and rather enjoyable dinner with the lively conversation of intelligent and amiable people. And somewhere in there snatching a few hours' sleep.  It's probably very bad for me but I have been doing it for over twenty years so the toll would most likely be visible by now (or perhaps this might be the reason I am prematurely starting to resemble a tortoise in less favourable light conditions)

So, I board the plane, take my aisle seat and close my eyes for a bit of peace.  This is not achieved: bags bang me on the head.  Coats brush my face and buttocks graze my right shoulder or bicep. Intrusive, though some buttocks are obviously more welcome visitors than others.

British Airways provides free newspapers: the rather skinny "I" which is a reduced version of the Independent, and the Dailt Mail.
I do not sully my hands or mind with this latter spiteful, judgemental sop to the bigoted and Hard-of-thinking. It disgusts me for reasons I hope I do not have to articulate to anyone who has ever read it. It is divisive and nasty and panders to the seeds of hatred that already lie dormant in some peoples' minds.

However, in the enforced boredom that waiting for our take-off slot entails, I found   my eyes being drawn to some of its rabid, spittle-flecked headlines as others thumbed through it, thankfully quickly. Almost without exception the articles express outrage at some minority group who have the misfortune to fall into the "them" category instead of the "us" group.
Indefensible prejudices spew angrily and self-righteously from the pages to reinforce the biases of those unimaginative souls uncritical enough to believe without examination. And I wonder at how they get away with it really, such is the vehemence of the nastiness I can see.
As you have probably gathered: I am not a fan. But many are and this terrifies me.

It made me suddenly contemplate my own inbuilt biases and whether I even know what they are. We all have them and we are all, regardless of how clever and self-aware we think ourselves,  at their mercy. This is because they are usually unconscious and so by definition invible to our conscious thought processes. I am sure were we aware of some of the less charitable ones, we would do our best to eradicate their influences. I like to think so, anyway.

I had an insight into this recently as I cycled to work one blustery morning.
A chap was walking towards me down a long and open path. He was, I suppose, in his mid seventies, tall, well dressed in a suit and long raincoat. He had a full but neatly trimmed beard and glasses. All in all he was the very epitome of dapper.
He also had a hat.
Now from a distance,  I assumed it to be a flat cap. As a result, my instaneous appraisal of what "type" of fellow he was had a conservative well-to-do and erudite quality to it. The unconscious summing-up of his character that spontaneously took place in my mind concluded he might be well-read, though somewhat conventional in his attitudes but a decent, if rather quiet chap.

However (and this is what startled me) as I got closer I could see it was not a flat cap but a beret upon his head. Suddenly his character took on a different aspect!  Now, he seemed much less conventional.  His demeanour now seemed  somehow more gauche, more bohemian and I now imagined his bookshelf to contain works by Sartre rather than Frederick Forsythe, his walls to be adorned with portraits of artful nudes or Picasso prints rather than pastoral landscapes or paintings of spitfires.
In this momentary set of snap judgements,  assumptions almost certainly all incorrect, one imagined impression of this fellow had appeared unbidden in my mind to be rapidly supplanted by another by dint of one small feature. He became a different man, all because of a hat.
But where do these notions come from? How can two barely different hats cause me to infer, completely unjustifiably,  two divergent versions of this man's personality?
I suppose clues in his dress and demeanour may have some basis in reality. Being well-turned-out implies a certain self-discipline. That is one small cue. But it is small and says really very little about him.
But the rest of it, the characteristics my imagination imbued this man with, where did they spring from? And had I engaged him in conversation I would probably have done so based on my updated idea of him, my opening comment directed by my idea of how he might view the world and relate to it.

Strange. And a warning perhaps.

What other assumptions and biases affect how I approach and treat people every day? And how can I be more aware of them? Accent? Dress? Tidiness? Body type?
If the appearance of a hat can turn a man from benignly conservative in my unconscious view to an elderly and sparky free-spirit,  how much more can outraged diatribes about the behaviour of immigrants or the disabled influence public attitudes?

For someone less questioning: How much more fearfully and less charitably might they treat people if they allow the likes of the Daily Mail to feed their pre-existing prejudices? Is it not somehow immoral to feed bigotry in order to stir up a political mood? Doesn't that make for a worse world for all of us?

Perhaps we should all try to be a bit kinder perhaps, if we aren't already.