December 23, 2006
From the opinions flowing through our letters' column, it is obvious that at a minimum, there are many who firmly believe that prejudice is at the root of much of our national malaise. The definition of prejudice provided by Gordon Allport some fifty years ago is still used as an authoritative definition of the term prejudice: “aversive or hostile attitude toward a person who belongs to a group, simply because he belongs to that group, and is therefore presumed to have the objectionable qualities ascribed to that group.”
Prejudice is seen as having different sources, chief among them being different forms of fear. Fears can arise from several different types of threat: the expectation that the other will do one harm; the perception that the different worldview of the other will create challenges to one's own; the presumption that interaction will lead to embarrassment, rejection, or ridicule; and the generation of fear of negative consequences as a result of negative stereotypes.
A children's mantra blares out in sing-song fashion, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Words, in fact, can hurt; vicious language is part of the arsenal of the bigot and the bully alike. Unfortunately, prejudice is not simply an attitude that remains internal to its owner; it impacts behaviour. When negative attitudes on the basis of differences translate into behaviour, we have as a result, discrimination and the social inequity it produces. Therefore, efforts to reduce prejudice are well advised to take the social context into consideration when focusing on the individuals' attitudes.
At least since Allport's generative book on prejudice, the contact hypothesis has been the backbone of a high percentage of efforts to reduce prejudice. Simply stated, the hypothesis is that the increased knowledge resulting from increased contact will reduce prejudice levels. Our policy makers from the previous and the present administration appear to accept this theory.
Unfortunately they ignore the many caveats in the contact hypothesis, the most broadly discussed being that the contact must be positive. Allport himself suggested four conditions for this: 1) that the groups be relative equals in the contact; 2) that they have common goals; 3) that there be little or no competition between them, and 4) that their meeting be supported by those in authority.
Much of the prejudice reduction work being done focuses on children. Since our prejudices tend to both develop and harden in childhood, the hope is that finding ways to reduce prejudice in childhood will have long-term consequences for society as a whole. One group of experts posits: “Reducing prejudice and discrimination occurs most successfully when majority and minority individuals interact, have positive experiences, form personal relationships, engage in open and truthful discussions with each other, and develop a personal commitment to reducing prejudice and discrimination.”
For this to occur, diverse individuals need to be in contact with each other both extensively and intensively. Schools may be one of very few places in which this is the case. Some may fear that reducing prejudice toward an outgroup may reduce children's identification with their own group. Another team considered this question: “The pattern of results we obtained provides empirical support for attempts to overcome intergroup prejudice through programmes that promote participants' retention of their respective ethnic identities, as long as the programs also encourage their greater openness to other ethnic groups.” In other words what they are saying is that you can't really understand your own culture unless you understand others. Far from being a detraction to one's identification with, and love for, one's own culture, learning to appreciate those of others could actually be an enhancement.
It appears that much progress has been made in the development of strategies for reducing conflict. Two big problems still loom before us however: the problem of involving sufficient numbers of people in these efforts, and the problem of translating changes in individual attitudes to changes in group ethos. In addition, of course, is the need for our policy makers to become more au fait with the nuances of the latest findings on the contact theory for reducing prejudice.