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Mark Easton posts on talking about race – that it is very difficult to avoid insult engendered by using the wrong terminology. One of the implicit ideas here is that lots of well-meaning people are being tripped up by language and after one slight error branded bigots.

Mark Easton posts on talking about race – that it is very difficult to avoid insult engendered by using the wrong terminology. One of the implicit ideas here is that lots of well-meaning people are being tripped up by language and after one slight error branded bigots.

I’m not sure people are that quick to call each other bigots. But what interests me is the starting point of the accusation: the idea that the default state for ‘fair minded’ people is being utterly unprejudiced. That idea is misleading and perhaps even pernicious. It leads to accusation slinging and a kind of one-up-manship. I remember doing a training course and talking to another participant. We got on well but I thought she had a habit of picking me up on any slight implicit assumption that might have had a counterexample or a non-benign unintended consequence. This culminated in her replying to my saying ‘Albert Bridge is such a pretty bridge’ with the retort: ‘But aren’t all bridges pretty in their own way?’ Her accusation: a consequence of my assuming bridges were prettier than one another was that this was not fair on the ‘non-pretty’ bridges!

I don’t think, however consciously one pursues non-prejudice, that the default self-conception of being fair minded should be that of holding an absolutely pristine set of assumptions. Much of our view of the world comes from habitual learning. This is where the automatic brain takes in vast amounts of information and updates it according to experience. So a child might learn that turning handles opens doors. Then she might learn that someone can be on the other side of the door so to be careful when opening it. Then she might learn that when opening a cupboard door boxes may fall out, so be careful there too.

This kind of learning builds our picture of the world – we extrapolate rules for how things behave from limited data samples. This means some of our assumptions about what will happen in the world are liable to be prejudiced – the child never considers that a bird of paradise might fly out of the cupboard when she opens it, but this is perfectly possible. So habitual learning narrows expectations from limited information in order to avoid surprise. As Karl Friston says, ‘perception is enslaved to action’ – we assess what it is possible for the things we encounter to do, based on what we have previously done and are about to do.

As we get older we not only get more experience (make more prediction errors and thus have a richer view of the possibility of things), but we learn to correct the inbuilt biases of our habitual learning. But however hard we try, we will probably never come across enough prediction errors nor be self-critical enough to avoid some unwarranted assumptions. For example, the other day, I realised I think of airline pilots as essentially male. Now, I don’t believe they are, but my habitual learning has generalised from my experience and given me this assumption. Of course I have consciously corrected it, but that doesn’t mean I won’t, in the flow of conversation, make the same assumption again unconsciously (I can’t that easily change automatic processes).

Instead of starting the debate about prejudice from the assumption that fair minded people are absolutely free of unwarranted assumptions, why not accept that we are all of us engaged in editing out such assumptions, and that it’s hard. This would create a much more inclusive and humane environment for talking about such things. And just because something is hard doesn’t mean it is not a worthy pursuit!

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