It all starts when we punish our kids.
What “all starts?” Well . . .
Childhood punishments are where we first hear talk about “the other,” about “those kinds of people,” about Good People and Bad People.
- You don’t want to grow up to be one of those people, do you?
- You’re bad. I told you to be good!
- “Jimmy played with matches. Don’t be like Jimmy.”
- Stay away from those kids, they’re bad.
Those aren’t very direct, it’s no simple thing to draw a direct line from there to something like Ferguson, but a few things can be said, and if you’re looking for proof of anything in the foggy sphere of social science then you’re just looking for a way out of things you don’t want to hear. If social change relied on hard, math-style proofs, our progress would be at full stop instead of just being really, really slow.
Even when phrased in the second best way, descriptions of when we behave and when we misbehave are still about what we are, and not about things we only did or didn’t do. Santa Claus wants to know if you’ve been a good boy or a good girl, he needs to know you haven’t been naughty. When it’s our own language, and especially if we only know one language, it’s easy to forget what that verb is; we rarely conjugate words we learned as young children, but those statements don’t speak to what you do, they speak to what you are.
When we do something wrong, it’s because we are bad. Of course when we think a bunch of people do something wrong, then they are bad.
Of course, a good definition of bigotry is thinking that “the other” does what they do for impossibly stupid reasons, and that can as easily be descriptive of how a parent reacts to a young child’s misbehavior as it can to one race or culture’s inability to comprehend the actions of another’s. What we do, and therefore what we are, has its reasons and makes sense. The destruction wrought by a toddler or the rioting of an underclass race is just senseless. They need to be made to understand that they’re being bad.
Of course, little sponges that humans are, everything we do anywhere near a young child, and especially what we do to them, the stuff that affects them directly, is stuff that we are modeling, stuff they are learning. If we explain everything we see not in terms of processes, not in terms of interactive activity but rather simply because of what the people doing it are, of what the person doing it simply is, then that is how they learn to understand the world.
And, yes, that is a problem, and one cause for the problems we have understanding one another across cultures and across races; it opens the door for bigotry, it skews us toward not trying to understand the experience of “the other” because we already have our explanation, it’s just what they are.
Here’s the rest of the series: