In my last essay, I accused us of being “suspicious characters,” who willfully seek targets for those suspicions. The real people we interact with on a day-to-day basis may function in this way. But usually, we know them too well to see them only as villains. And even when they are detestable, there tend to be reasons – fear of reprisal, the need to maintain a good “working relationship,” the moderating opinions of friends and co-workers, and so forth – that prevent us from directing our hostility openly.
Thomas Henricks, Ph.D., is Danieley Professor of Sociology and Distinguished University Professor at Elon University in the United States. His scholarship has focused on the nature of human play, particularly as that activity can be contrasted to other pathways for human expression, including ritual, communities, and work. More generally, he studies how experience and self-awareness are socially and culturally constructed. He is the author of numerous writings on play, many of which have appeared in The American Journal of Play and in Play and Culture Studies.
Editor: Arman Ahmed
For such reasons, it is more convenient to find villains among the “quasi-real,” individuals and groups we encounter primarily through television programs, websites, and newspaper columns. Because we know these persons only by their misbehaviors – for what else does the media emphasize? – it is quick work to comprehend them categorically, as instances of derangement, depression, indoctrination, or cultural inferiority. Pictures of their faces and a few biographical details are usually supplied to us. Those “executive summaries” lead to a conclusion. People of that “type” seem dangerous. We should guard ourselves against them.
“Aliens” – immigrants, the poor, and outsiders of every other description – fit this list of prime-suspects nicely. So do racial and ethnic minorities. These others live amidst the dominant groups, or more accurately, they intersect with them in public places. People of the different types can view each other in large stores, waiting rooms, gas stations, and parking lots. At such times, the most ordinary courtesies may be exchanged; perhaps one person says “thank you” or steps aside to let another pass. There is a sense of quiet congratulation; things are going smoothly. But conversation, like those brief looks and gestures, rarely ventures beyond that. Behind these blunt assurances, a perception of difference lurks. People leave the open zones to return to their respective accommodations. The newscasts begin.
That judgment – that categories of people are fundamentally different – and that those differences emerge as behavior patterns, value-commitments, divisions of interest, and even outright hostilities – is difficult to extinguish, even in a society committed to democratic ideals. More accurately, it is difficult to extinguish for those who do not mix openly with different kinds of people in shared neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, clubs, teams, and churches.
Some people – and all credit to them – pursue connections that bridge America’s isolated life-spheres. Others transcend their ignorance by a sheer generosity of spirit. But many lack those civil dispositions. And within that latter group are those who satisfy themselves by venting their antipathies fully.
This essay extends the above concerns. Its topics are prejudice and a seductive companion, pride.
It is common to think of prejudice as something that “bad” people are infected by and that good people successfully resist. I must admit my introduction above seems to support that viewpoint. But of course this is not the case. All of us display the typifying impulse. We identify the people we meet by recognized social currencies: age, sex, height and weight, ethnicity, social class, region, religion, and of forth. Most of us carry preconceptions – judgments based on prior experience and tutelage – that provide us with expectations for the event-at-hand. We believe that the person before us is accustomed to being treated in a certain way and perhaps expects to be treated that way now. We anticipate that they are “reading” us with similar intent. To take an extreme case, we introduce ourselves to a four year-old differently than we do to a forty year-old.
Most of this is natural enough. Humans are categorizing creatures. Those categories help us anticipate events and make sense of them after they occur. They steady us emotionally, and assure us both that the world itself is an orderly and that we ourselves are moving forward within as we should.
The problem of prejudice is linked to the character of our preconceptions and to the ways in which we develop and apply these.
To take the latter of these two points first, prejudice reflects processes of over-generalization, conclusions that are usually produced by faulty reasoning and extended by willful resistance to new information that would modify them. To be prejudiced is to believe you understand someone based on what little evidence you have seen or heard about them. Prejudiced people feel they “know enough” to put those beliefs into action.
English literature’s most famous example of this is Elizabeth Bennett who, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, determines that Darcy is unsuitable because of his stuffy, high-born manner, his unflattering remarks about the young women of the community, his suspicions of her older sister’s marriage motives, and his general contempt for her family. Her reservations are entirely reasonable. And yet the course of the novel features Bennett’s development of a more complete understanding of the fellow. In the process, she reviews her own framework of interpretation – perhaps it is the case that her family is somewhat scattered and ill-advised in its judgments. She learns, by increments, that there is more to Darcy than his cold manner suggests. In the end, her views – of Darcy, of herself, of her family, and indeed of many of the book’s characters – have moderated. Some originally distant relationships move to acceptance and intimacy. Others become less familiar.
It is easy to condemn people for what little we know about them, especially if their actions have harmed us or our friends and families. In such ways, and not without justification, we build conceptions of persons, a sense of who they are and how we must approach them.
Generalizing from acts to persons is one conceptual leap. A second involves jumping from persons to groups. A college friend of mine hated all Puerto Ricans because a group of boys once knocked his younger sister down and took her bicycle. That small moment produced an enemy-race. Who of us has forgotten the phrase: “A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged”?
Most, I would venture, have been hurt by a stinging insect in the yard. We lash out at it even though we know it was we who disturbed its natural occupations. Returning to the scene of the crime with swatters and spray, we try to kill the offender. So be it. But there is a more exaggerated response. Let us attempt to kill all creatures of this type or, more than that, kill any flying insect – no, any insect – that inhabits our yard, not only today but every time we go out there. Austen’s great rationalist measures her motives and reactions. She comes to her senses. We should do the same.
The other portion of this difficulty concerns the character of those judgments. We should acknowledge immediately that some of our beliefs are expressly, intentionally hostile. As any sociologist would point out, identity is built in a double fashion, positively and negatively. Some groups we seek our as our affiliates. We claim their standards to be our guiding principles. Other groups are marked off as different from who we are and from what are trying to do. We pride ourselves on being the people who are not “them.”
Difference-making – acknowledgement that the world is divided into selves and others, in-groups and out-groups, is one thing. Pluralism respects, even thrives on such distinctions; though it also raises the prospect that the people so differentiated will remain aloof from one another. It is another, and much more significant, matter to impute inferiority to otherness – to decide that those devalued others present threats to our own placement in the world.
It may be that humans have a inherent propensity for competition and status-seeking just as they are drawn innately to cooperation and to the most intimate forms of bonding. There are times-and-places where each of these extremes must be expressed fully. Prejudice trades in the former theme. Other peoples must be kept away and, when they come too close to us, kept below. High status is meaningful only when there are others who have their eyes cast upward. Degradation is the necessary complement of exaltation.
It is difficult to sustain these feelings of superiority without a few comrades who declare that we are right. So cooperation, in that limited sense, appears. We huddle together in our guarded communities and watch for the dark armies of otherness. They want, or so we believe, what we have.
That linkage – of prejudice to self-estimation – is the other side of Austen’s novel. Darcy is prideful. He has good reason; his is a family of “substance.” As such, they must not allow their position to be compromised by inferior connections. The Bennett family appears to be of that latter sort – modest wealth that is slipping away, a rattle-trap mother, a dithering father, a collection of unmarried daughters including one who “goes off” with a uniformed philanderer. Bad enough that Darcy himself should be exposed to such types; worse, that his friend Bingley should be captured by this family’s predatory eldest daughter.
Like Darcy, many of us feel we have something to lose by associating with inferior types. They have nothing to offer us, or so we think. They take greedily what society forces us to give them.
That strategy of “defensive individualism” can be the basis for a lifetime of dreams, preoccupations, and resentments. However, it is not just an individual affair, for it also includes “people like us” – family, friends and others of our set – who reinforce the barricades.
There is, it must be noted, a certain pleasure that comes from degrading others. Most of us enjoy the failures of an arch-rival sports team. We find it impossible to root for Red Sox and Yankees both. We enjoy killing bad guys, frequently presented as faceless hordes, in videogames. We anticipate the death of the major villain at the action-movie, his minions – in an ascending order of importance – having already died. Who mourns the zombie? All these are “characters” or “types.” We have no wish to know them further.
But real life, let us be clear, is different. Castigation is consequential, both for the persons despised and for we who despise them. Disdain – in extremes, hatred – is loneliness.
Austen’s novel is infused with that theme. Darcy himself seems a bit cheerless. Prideful people find themselves trapped behind their self-imposed barriers, like the country-set described in the story or worse, an English-style club at some declining colonial outpost. Within, there is the obligatory festivity of card-games, liquored drinks, phonograph music, and halfhearted flirtation. Much attention is given to food and costuming. A formal gala, something special this time, is being planned. There is talk of going outside at some point, perhaps an expedition to the county with a picnic as its jewel.
In such a world, people marry distant relatives. Property is consolidated. Outsiders, except retainers sworn to secrecy, are kept at bay. And each congratulates the other for supporting group standards.
It is not for outsiders to know if this culture of hearty high spirits is simulated, or if its counter-themes of boredom, alcoholism, and swooning disability are equally a pose. But there is a sense that this small world – lashed together on aesthetic and moral terms – is coming to an end. Too little air is in the room. Opening the doors and windows may mean that ordinary people will see what they should not or slip past unguarded borders. But unless this is done, everything will implode.
Like most readers, I tend to identify each of Austen’s main characters with a predominating flaw, chosen from the book’s title. This is wrong, of course. Fitzhugh Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett are both proud people who regard the other suspiciously. Both are clear, at least initially, that self-estimation – for persons and for families – is maintained by keeping dangerous others at a distance. Prejudice is the weaponry that accomplishes this.
Austen, ever-wise, instructs us that people must be open to the prospect of acknowledging one another as individuals. “Quality” is something to be identified with personal ability, character, and commitment – and not with inherited social station. Change, however pleasant or unpleasant, is part of social living. There will be ages of emotional and moral enthusiasm, like the Napoleonic era that was the book’s backdrop. But these historical energies must not block us from applying our most considered, patient judgments to the situations before us.
Despite its happy ending and persistent exploration of love, Pride and Prejudice is no romance. It is about the challenges of human discernment in a changing, newly mobile era, of seeing people as they are. One should not expect that a commitment of that sort – combining receptivity to otherness with careful scrutiny – will lead directly to amiable, supportive relationships. Some people will reveal themselves to be our enemies, some our friends. Most will stay in the latitudes between these extremes.
The real lesson of course is that persons must be judged on their own terms. Foolishness, much of it unrepentant, can be found at all social levels. Greed, envy, and the other vices have no special locale. Let us be open to the combination of qualities that each person represents – and to the fact that such people, like Austen’s hero and heroine, can change.
It was the gift of the nineteenth century to expand the circle of compassion beyond the relative narrow circumstances that Austen herself considered. Our ideas of community must broaden equivalently. We understand today that all kinds of people “matter.” Our confrontations with pride and prejudice must keep apace.