The Peril of Our Patterns
Of course, our patterns also come at a cost. We get plenty of metaphorical exercise jumping to the wrong conclusions about everything from the weather, to people, to situations. We misjudge constantly. It’s often benign, but sometimes it’s not. Like when we walk around an injured person lying in the street in desperate need of help. Or we stroll past a neighbor who could be in danger for her life. We may be missing important clues, but we stick with our own interpretations, anyway. As useful as it is, as secure as it may make us feel, speeding up our thinking (i.e., reducing temporal space) by packing our conceptual distance full of our invented meanings without a reality check can be catastrophic.
Prejudice epitomizes this. Defined as “an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.”, prejudice gets us in trouble constantly – especially in our increasingly inter-connected world. We base our interactions with strangers on things we’ve seen, read, or been told, making snap assumptions about other people and situations for the sake of expediency. If those strangers (or even acquaintances, and possibly even friends) happen to belong to a different ethnic or religious group, have divergent political opinions, or belong to another economic class than us, it’s all too easy to fall back on assumptions and beliefs about them which may or may not apply. Our prejudices can be favorable or unfavorable. But at the very root, they’re conceptual short-cuts that save us from having to work to figure out our confusing world. That convenience comes at a price.
We pay that price regularly, in terms of racially motivated conflicts, violence, and discrimination. The Othering discussed earlier is a prime example of how our need for convenient explanations crowds out the chance to learn more. We come across someone who’s unfamiliar to us, and because they fit some of our preconceived notions of what such-and-such a type of person is like, we fill in the gaps of our understanding about them with what we’ve read or heard. It’s especially easy to fall back on prejudices supplied by members of our community, church or close friends and family. They let us make up our minds more quickly about what to think of that person, how to interact with them, or now not to interact with them. But it comes at the cost. We may shut that person out. Or we may attack them. People are beaten and killed out of hatred based on little more than hearsay. We love our conceptual short-cuts, for sure. But they may be based on plenty of ideas other than the truth.
We tend to not realize what’s happening, of course, as we speed up our thought processes. We may prefer our own biases to the facts. We may not think we need facts. Or we may not want the facts, as they’d just interfere with the meanings we’ve assembled to give us a sense of belonging in an often hostile world. We’ve got a lot invested in our own versions of what’s going on, and you can hardly expect people to just ditch their most comforting prejudices, when they make them feel so safe and secure in an overwhelmingly complex world. Sometimes, our meanings, our patterns, are all we have. As much harm as our prejudices may do, the fact that they’re so widespread is a testament to their importance for “normal” everyday functioning.