#09 Prejudice
Erica Gies

Prejudice: Fundamentally Human?

Prejudice is one of the scourges of humanity that leads to discrimination, inequality, murder, and war. But it may also be an inextricable facet of human nature, a legacy of our evolution, according to a wide body of research and books written by such notable scientists as Charles Darwin and entomologist E. O. Wilson.

The Other

Throughout the world, many tribes refer to themselves as "people" and call their neighbors something derogatory. The Arab-Jewish conflict is one modern example of this mindset writ large. Both the Arabs and the Jews are descended from Bedouin tribes. They have similar customs (kosher, halal), similar languages, and similar monotheistic religions. But conflicts between the two groups are epic and seemingly never-ending.

In modern parlance, this phenomenon is called "othering," popularized by Edward Said in his 1978 book Orientalism but derived from an earlier literary conversation begun by Lithuanian-French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas and joined by French philosopher Michel Foucault, French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and others.

In his book, Said defined Orientalism as a set of false assumptions underlying Western attitudes toward the Middle East, a "subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture." He argued that by defining Arabs as "the Other," Westerners created an implicit justification for European and American colonial and imperial ambitions.

Telling ourselves that "they" are not like us, they are less human – that gives us the psychological distance needed to exploit other people without remorse.

That analysis has come to dominate the modern dialogue about prejudice. It is this division of ourselves from "the Other" -- telling ourselves that "they" are not like us, they are less human – that gives us the psychological distance needed to exploit other people or their natural resources without remorse.

Humans have long held this attitude toward animals and ecosystems as well. Going back to one version of the Christian Bible's creation story in Genesis, man is given "dominion over" the animals. They exist for his use.

Scholars furthered this premise during the "Enlightenment" by creating the Great Chain of Being: God at the pinnacle of estimation, then angels, then humans, then other mammals, then reptiles, amphibians, birds, and so on down to the simplest forms of life they could identify. Because people were of a higher status than the rest of nature, other animals' rights could be subjugated to human desires.

This worldview served as a subconscious justification for the negative environmental consequences of the Industrial Revolution.

In the 20th century, scientists were eager to avoid an anthropomorphic bias in their work, so they took pains to point out how different animals are from humans, for example claiming that humans were the only animals who used tools or had self consciousness. But in the last 30 years, the study of animal intelligence, comparative cognition, has gathered evidence.

In August, prominent cognitive scientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists, and computational neuroscientists signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which states that animals – including mammals, birds, and cephalopods such as the octopus -- are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are. (These animals also use tools.) Over centuries we've used other creatures' supposed lack of feelings or inability to feel pain to justify a wide range of offenses. Whether these scientific advances will change the way we treat animals remains to be seen.

Some humans view animals, plants, and all of nature as a dispossessed class, just as minorities and women were until recently and still are in many places. Bolivia recently passed a law conferring the same rights to nature as to humans, including the right to life and to exist. Interesting, some towns in Pennsylvania have been attempting to pass similar laws as a strategy to block new Wal-marts and the spreading of sewage on farmland.

Othering is perhaps most strongly expressed through imperialism, when empires use the tactic to subordinate people in order to take natural resources.

Othering is perhaps most strongly expressed through imperialism, when empires use the tactic to subordinate people in order to take natural resources.

Imperialism is predicated upon an unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationship. But in our modern world, its corporations more often than states that practice imperialism in their global pursuit of resources and cheap labor.

Corporations have worked the Other angle through the courts in a naked (and successful) attempt to gain the right to exploit nature and the rest humanity without the consequences society would expect. Those legal successes bear a marked shift from the historical role of corporations in early United States history. From Kalle Lasn's book Culture Jam:

"Early American charters were created literally by the people, for the people as a legal convenience.... They were automatically dissolved if they engaged in activities that violated their charter. Limits were placed on how big and powerful companies could become."

However, in legal victories over the last 60 years, corporations have won human rights for corporate entities (thought not the responsibilities that typically accompany them) and the right to protect contributions to politicians as "free speech." Ultimately a corporation's ultimate responsibility is to its shareholders, not to humanity, effectively creating an us-them dynamic in which we, fellow humans not involved with the corporation, are excluded from consideration. This division allows corporations to, for example, externalize costs such as the pollution they create onto nearby poor communities.

Meanwhile, savvy PR campaigns routinely assassinate the character of people who dare to call these Goliaths to account.

Human nature

We may have come honestly by this characteristic of separating us from them to justify grabbing resources. From the earliest days of human evolution, there was an advantage to teaming up, working together to build shelter, gather and hunt food, and protect the community from predators. In his book Descent of Man, Darwin wrote:

"A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.

E. O. Wilson concurs, in his new book, The Social Conquest of Earth:

"This is ... a new way of understanding evolution, which blends traditionally popular individual selection (based on individuals competing against each other) with group selection (based on competition among groups). Individual selection tends to favor selfish behavior. Group selection favors altruistic behavior and is responsible for the origin of the most advanced level of social behavior, that attained by ants, bees, termites — and humans."

But this cooperative social evolution has a darker corollary. Altruism unfettered would be an evolutionary disadvantage. In order to take care of the group, the tribe must consider those outside to be Others. The evolutionary adaptation for groups is at the root of the seemingly confusing juxtaposition between human altruism and greed. Wilson writes:

"Humans had to feel empathy for others, to measure the emotions of friend and enemy alike, to judge the intentions of all of them, and to plan a strategy for personal social interactions.... Thus was born the human condition, selfish at one time, selfless at another, and the two impulses often conflicted."

In The Tribal Instinct Hypothesis, a 2010 book by Stefan Stürmer, Mark Snyder, Mark van Vugt, and Justin H. Park, the authors review the science of social psychology, which shows broad documentation that humans behave tribally and quickly distinguish "ingroup from outgroup" – that is, us from them – and have a strong preference for ingroup members:

"People sometimes perform quite costly helping acts on behalf of ethnic groups, religious groups, businesses, or states (Van Vugt, Snyder, Tyler, & Biel, 2000). In life-and-death situations, people are more likely to help kin than nonkin (Burnstein, Crandall, & Kitayama, 1994). Many experiments have shown that people preferentially give money or points to ingroup rather than outgroup members even when people are divided into groups based on a trivial criterion, such as the preference for a particular painter (Brewer, 1979; Tajfel & Turner, 1979)."

People discriminate against or even harm outgroup members and compete with them for resources, according to studies. The Tribal Instinct authors wrote:

"People tend to think that outgroup members are less moral and trustworthy than members of the ingroup (Judd & Park, 1988). People denigrate members of outgroups when they get an opportunity and feel Schadenfreude when a rival group loses status (Leach, Spears, Branscombe, & Doosje, 2003); they even deny typical human emotions to outgroups (i.e., infrahumanization; Leyens et al., 2001). Finally, people find it easy to morally justify aggressive actions against members of outgroups (Brewer & Brown, 1998)."

The authors posit that our tribal psychology is the result of a long history of intense intergroup rivalry and competition. "Fossil evidence of war dates back at least 200,000 years, and it is estimated that 20–30 percent of ancestral men died as a result of intergroup violence, constituting a strong selection pressure (Keeley, 1996)." They argue that this history shaped the way we think and behave in intergroup contexts, an idea they call the tribal instinct hypothesis.

Wilson agrees that human are evolutionarily primed for war:

"It should not be thought that war, often accompanied by genocide, is a cultural artifact of a few societies. Nor has it been an aberration of history, a result of the growing pains of our species' maturation. Wars and genocide have been universal and eternal, respecting no particular time or culture."

So how does this human nature exhibit itself in our modern world, a place in which there are now more than 7 billion of us, pushing up against each other at every turn, with resources growing increasingly scarce?

Around the world

We can see many examples of how Othering is used around the world to exploit natural resources.

The drive for energy is one facet. As the United States has begun to decommission dams deemed environmentally harmful or no longer functional, people from developed countries might think the dam-building era is over. But that is far from true. Developing countries are having a dam-building boom.

Dams are a modern form of imperialism, in which the energy needs of burgeoning urban areas are placed above the needs of endangered animals and of indigenous peoples.

Dams are a modern form of imperialism, in which the energy needs of burgeoning urban areas are placed above the needs of endangered animals and of indigenous peoples. Dams on the Mekong River would hurt poor Laotian and Cambodian fishermen but serve power to China. Dams in the rainforests of Guyana where Amerindian villagers hunt and fish would serve Brazil.

In Papua New Guinea, the government makes deals with multinational corporations to cut forests and mine minerals on the ancestral lands of people who still lead land-dependent lifestyles. On the Indonesia side of the island, in West Papua, government soldiers support industry, turning their modern warfare equipment against tribes armed with arrows. The scene poignantly evokes our common history and the evolutionary rationale of group cooperation in the face of an outside threat.

In many cases, countries are in open conflict with their indigenous peoples over natural resources, wrote John Vidal in London's Guardian newspaper in 2009, pointing to this growing trend.

An infamous example from recent history is the Nigerian government's violent actions against its people on behalf of Big Oil. In the Niger Delta, for two decades, people have been protesting the oil industry's pollution and degradation of the natural environment upon which they used to depend. Delta oil provides 90 percent of Nigeria's foreign earnings, wealth that stays primarily in the ruling class and does not benefit delta residents.

What's heart-breaking about the so-called "resource curse" is that government and military elite become so seduced by access to money that they fail to remain loyal to their traditional tribe; that is, the citizens of their country.

These conflicts are on the rise because technology is improving, making it possible to work in difficult terrain. Indigenous people have held on to traditional lifestyles in regions that governments and corporations "deemed unproductive or wild,' wrote Vidal. Because they've been long ignored, these are the lands where much of the world's natural capital -- oil, gas, timber, minerals – remain.

Climate change is perhaps the most dramatic recent example of Othering. Caused primarily by relatively rich people in developed countries driving cars and using and tossing away resource-intensive products, it is being felt first and most severely by poor people who were already living in marginal areas: low-lying, near-desert, ultra susceptible to environmental stress.

The other side of human nature

So are we doomed to grab what we can for ourselves and our kin, ignoring the big picture until the world burns? It's possible. Perhaps even likely.

But the Tribal Instinct authors remind us that humans are adaptive:

"Finally, evolution teaches us that intergroup relations in humans are never static (unlike in many other species): Your enemy today can be your friend tomorrow and vice versa (Keegan, 1994). To cope with these uncertainties, humans have likely evolved a flexible tribal psychology that enables them to form coalitions to compete as well as cooperate with other groups, depending upon the assessment of costs and benefits."

Also, the constructs we've created to managed a society comprised of large groups such as cities and states – law, religion, social mores, media that, at times, counters the us-them narrative – can curtail the rougher edges of the us-them dynamic.

However, those same modern rules can be used for exploitation. For example, having set up a system of land rights, many governments don't recognize indigenous people's claims to their ancestral lands because they have not asserted those rights through the modern channels.

Still, sometimes the checks work: for example, some indigenous people are beginning to use modern systems to increase their power.

In February 2011, an Ecuadorean court delivered a judgment against U.S. oil giant Chevron, ordering it to pay billion to clean up pollution on indigenous people's land. In the 1970s and 1980s, the company dumped more than 19 billion gallons of toxic waste and millions of gallons of crude oil into waste pits in the Amazon jungle. Local people say the pollution caused more than 1,400 cancer deaths and continues to kill fish and wildlife. But this decades-long problem is not yet resolved; Chevron continues to fight back legally.

In Nigeria in 2006, the oil company Royal Dutch Shell was ordered to pay .5 billion to the Ijaw people. However, like Chevron, Shell has not yet paid. Another lawsuit filed in the United States (Kiobel v. Shell) accused Shell of aiding and abetting human rights violations committed by the Nigerian government, including acts of murder and rape. Shell continues to fight that as well. A United Nations report from August 2011 found that Shell had not met the Nigerian government's or its own standards for oil extraction in Nigeria's Ogoniland, resulting in widespread pollution that threatens more than 1 million people and the ecosystems upon which they depend.

Ingroup fighting

Still, as resource pressures intensify, even ingroup members can turn against each other. "Intergroup discrimination is often stronger when there is resource competition (Brewer & Campbell, 1976)," wrote the Tribal Instinct authors.

This phenomenon is already in evidence too.

Climate change is linked to the recent increase in dramatic droughts, which harm crops and contribute to food scarcity. When the U.N. Food Price Index goes above 210, riots, unrest become more likely around the world, according to Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Massachusetts. The research was reported recently in New Scientist magazine. In July the index was at 213. "Both the 2011 Arab Spring and the 2008 riots in places such as Mexico, India, Russia and Belgium may have been partly triggered by high food prices," said the article.

The epic floods cause by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 stranded thousands of people without food or water -- most of them very poor. The resultant looting and violence as a means to meet basic human needs was often perpetrated against fellow sufferers and even Good Samaritans who were attempting to rescue people from flooded hospitals or to deliver food.

As human populations continue to swell and resource scarcity intensifies, we need to openly acknowledge and actively consider all facets of our human nature as we think through how to mitigate such conflicts.

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