Saturday, 27 August 2011

On learning not to be awful

Things I have achieved in the last few years:
  1. Going from being virtually incapable of conducting a phone conversation with anyone other than my mum, to being commended on my telephone manner, "striking the perfect balance between friendly approachability and professionalism".
  2. Learning some basic knitting facts the hard way (50g of DK cotton is going to go a lot further than 50g of wool/silk blend, and that cheap'n'chic cardie is going to be a lot more expensive if you forget this fact: YARDAGE, Hannah, yardage!).
  3. Learning, however slowly and imperfectly, not to be a transphobic dickhead.
Number 3. is clearly not something to be proud of: congratulating myself on treating people with respect as human beings would be pretty grotesquely insulting.

Neither is this some kind of self-flagellating intellectual delousing exercise, where I confess my sins and hope that you'll all welcome me back to the fold as a penitent sheep.

It is, rather, a message of hope.

In A Mind Of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, Cordelia Fine presents evidence that, whether or not you subscribe to prejudices against marginalised groups, simply being aware of stereotypes allows them to be a factor in your thinking:
You may not personally think that women are nurturing, that black men are aggressive, or that Jews keep a tight grip on their wallets, but you can't pretend not to know that these are stereotypical traits of women, blacks and Jews ...
All the information about a certain group ... is closely intertwined in the brain. This means that if you use one bit of the schema - even just to be able to say 'Ah, an Asian' - then all the other parts of the Asian schema get restless. As a result, information in the Asian stereotype is more likely to be used by the brain.
Which is disheartening: WOE IS ME, I am cis and living in a transphobic society, and so have a brain full of negative prejudices regarding trans people! How ever am I to become good and clean and not a judgey bigot!

Through hard fucking work, says Fine:
Our unconscious will eventually help out if we consistently make the conscious effort to act in a certain way in particular types of situation ... The first step is to acknowledge your brain's unwelcome bigotry.
Researchers have found that people who form egalitarian implementation intentions of this sort are happily impervious to the usual unconscious effects of stereotype priming.
In short, I've made a deliberate attempt not to let myself off the hook: when that sneaky little voice is muttering "well, what do you expect of a ... ", I tell it to shut the fuck up. I've acknowledged that I'm not perfect - identified which prejudices I subscribe to most heavily - read everything I can find so I can quickly quash any bastardish thoughts with the body slam of logic and compassion. And after a while, not-being-a-total-dickwit becomes second nature, so I'm free to cringe in mute horror at the Bones episode "The He in the She"!

Can I just say again that I'm not setting myself up as some sort of paragon here? The use of the first person in that last paragraph is not meant to convey "wahey, check ME and my egalitarian implementation intentions out", it's to avoid this becoming some sort of "I am telling you what to do, because I am perfect, uh huh". I'm not. That's kind of my point. My natural inclination is actually to be fairly misanthropic, and it is really easy to allow myself to attach shitty horrible prejudices to that.

I doubt I'll ever completely abandon all the nasty assumptions buried deep within my wacky brain: that's how the brain works. But I can try. And the most important thing I got from Fine's book is that the willingness to try is the key to overcoming one's reliance on stereotypes. I'm far from perfect, but I am willing.

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