Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

Are we programmed for prejudice?

By Melanie Judge

In offering a response to the question, “are we programmed for prejudice” I wish to make the case for why thinking about prejudice is incomplete without thinking about it alongside power.

I will address this in two ways: Firstly, by problematizing dominant representations of the victims and perpetrators of prejudice, and how these might re-entrench the very structures of power by which they come to be. Secondly, I will argue for an intersectional understanding of prejudice so as to make visible its disproportionate impact, as a form and function of inequality, on those lives and bodies at the social and economic margins.

I draw attention to the content and context of prejudice and in particular its violent materialisation. The content of prejudice works to create and maintain existing hierarchies both within and across gender, sexual, race and class categorisations. At the same time, the context for prejudice concerns both historical and contemporary arrangements that render its violences such an enduring feature of how we relate to each other in South Africa.

Present patterns of prejudice are shaped by historical forms of sociability that are not unrelated to colonial and apartheid ways of thinking, being and doing. These include how heterosexuality asserts its dominance over queerness; how both white and economic privileges are legitimised through the spatial marginalisation of the black poor; and how patriarchal masculinities and femininities thwart alternative forms of sexual and gender identity. These and other formations of prejudice take shape in psychological and social scripts that dehumanise the Other. For example, heterosexuality gains its valued status through the devaluation of gay and lesbian people. Similarly, whiteness as a dominant cultural mode is contingent upon the debasement of blackness, whilst hetero-masculinity is constructed through its diminishment of women and gay men.

In contexts of deepening inequality, the struggle against prejudice is also about who counts as fully human and how these terms are set. Psychology as both a discipline and a practice has played, and continues to play, a central role in these contestations. Not only in shaping public and private narratives of what is means to be human, but also in regard to psychology’s own legacy in the production of hierarchies of humanness. Organised psychology’s involvement in producing racialised thinking, as well as its classification of sexual “deviance” as pathology, are but two examples of this legacy. However, the post-apartheid constitutional dispensation has prompted shifts within the psychological establishment. By way of example, the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA) is amicus curiae (friend of the court) in a precedent-setting case against homophobic hate speech. PsySSA has also led the development of a ground-breaking sexual and gender diversity position statement, as well as taking public positions against systemic violence. But there is far more to be done on this score, particularly to prompt psychology’s conscious contribution to social and economic justice — both within and outside its formal structures.

There is a tendency, often inscribed in law, to individualise prejudice. Some psychological perspectives have been inclined to reduce it to the proclivities and behaviours of “mad or bad” individuals that bear no relation to the rest of us. This approach conceals how prejudicial acts are made possible and probable within the dominant power relations, ideologies and discourses that shape the social domain.

This is not to say that acts of violent prejudice are devoid of psychological content, rather that the over individualisation of its cause, dislocates the psyche from social context. This in turn works to invisibilise the histories, structures and conditions by which certain groups come to be systematically hated and others come to wield prejudice to enable and sustain their privileges.

This brings me to “hate crime” as a dominant interpretive framework for understanding and responding to violent prejudice. The discourse of hate crime constitutes two primary figures: the hater, as the perpetrator of violence, and the hated as its victim.

Oftentimes, in talk about hate crime, the bodies and identities of those to whom violence is done tend to be naturalised, homogenised and hypervisibilised. Such identities — such as black lesbians or migrants from other parts of Africa — are represented as groups of hated Others, their vulnerable status often over-determined. In this dyad of victim and perpetrator the state is positioned as the protector of victims and the punisher of perpetrators. Yet in this configuration, the state’s own power to act prejudicially, and to injure and oppress is often obscured. The massacre of miners at Marikana exemplifies the complicity in violent prejudice of an increasingly repressive state apparatus.

I am in no way suggesting that structures of the state be absolved of their obligations to act against prejudice, through legal and other means. Rather, I am cautioning as to how both law and state are themselves implicated in the production and perpetuation of vulnerability and violation.

Prejudice is often conceived of as directed towards a set of marked and singularised identities, as a form of discrimination against LGBTI people, black people, women, or the poor. Yet when discrimination is understood through a singular notion of identity, it is easy to erase how racism, heteronormativity, patriarchy and economic exclusion are mutually reinforcing systems that oppress and exclude. These systems, working together, render people more, or less, exposed to the prejudices that underpin them. Thinking about prejudice in an intersectional way exposes how, within current social and economic conditions, certain lives are more precariously poised to face the strong-arm tactics central to their continued marginalisation. In the same moment, wielding prejudice also provides dividends — certain identity positions derive power benefits through the marginalisation of others.

The dimensions of prejudice I am speaking of are not static, nor should they be accepted as “just the way things are” or indeed, “just the way we are”. In fact, current gender, race, class and sexual orders are coming under increasing pressure as individuals resist their constraints on speaking, moving and living.

These resistances are recrafting the terms of the social, opening up transformative possibilities for alternative forms of relationality to emerge. And yes, such possibilities do require that we bring down the statues that have, in many ways, cemented our national imaginary.

I wish to suggest that prejudice is viewed as a series of ongoing “encounters” that organise the social sphere, rather than as predetermined acts or attitudes. These encounters operate in both centralised and diffused ways. They shape our sense of belonging — to a nation, in a community, to a discipline, in a room. Prejudice is a way of being — a way of relating to oneself and to others. The psychological, social and political dynamics of prejudice prop up existing power relations. It is thus necessary that the work of non-prejudice disrupt these relationships of domination and subordination. This disruption is a personal and a political project. If it is to be transformative, it is necessarily a place of dis-ease (rather than disease). Confronting one’s own capacity to do prejudice, as well as how it invests one with power over others, has the potential to yield more equitable, just and inclusionary ways of being together.

Melanie Judge is an activist and scholar. This is an edited extract of her address on a roundtable debate “Are we programmed for prejudice?” held at the 21st annual South African Psychology Congress held in Johannesburg from September 15-18 2015.

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    • RSA.MommaCyndi

      I disagree. I don’t think that prejudice has anything to do with power. Fear can create just as much prejudice as power. I do, however, believe that we are hardwired for it. He who spoke different may have a disease that we don’t have an immunity to. He who spoke different may be wanting to raid our cattle like we did, to those who spoke different, last week.

      Even a cursory glance at a pre primary school will show how being ‘part of the pack’ is important. Anyone who is different gets to sit at the “geeks and freaks” table. Whilst those who are the ‘cool kids’ get to determine the culture of the pack.

      The power does not create the prejudice, the widespread acceptance of prejudice creates the power

    • Peter Watermeyer

      Underneath a guise of scholarly analysis, this article is beset by much underlying prejudice of its own! There are very many unstated implications, such as that inequality is bad (it is a vital economic driver) or that homosexuality has no social drawbacks. Or the blatantly political post of Marikana, as if there were no preceding outrages which precipitated the events, which may also be viewed as an unfortunate over-reaction whose victims brought an inevitable degree of prejudice on themselves. Are we not to be prejudiced against criminal behavior? More significantly, the article implies a blatant prejudice against power-relationships which are the inevitable if unfortunate cost of a cohesive society and all the benefits that brings. I think this all goes back to the fundamental sociologists’ assumption that society can provide a wonderful environment for all, without addressing how and by whom this Utopia will be paid for.
      In conclusion, prejudice is an absolutely normal form of human and animal behavior. The mind works by generalisation, as exhibited by Pavlov’s dog. It is unreasonable prejudice that needs to be guarded against, and in determining what is unreasonable, it behoves any analyst to rigorously weigh all implications, not just the desires of would-be social architects who make minimal contribution to, and pay even less attention to, the creation of wealth and social order on which we all depend.

    • catherineharrison

      ‘In offering a response to the question, “are we programmed for
      prejudice” I wish to make the case for why thinking about prejudice is
      incomplete without thinking about it alongside power.
      I will address this in two ways: Firstly, by problematizing dominant
      representations of the victims and perpetrators of prejudice, and how
      these might re-entrench the very structures of power by which they come
      to be’

      Huh?! What’s wrong with:

      ‘Are we programmed for prejudice? We can’t think about prejudice without also thinking about power. The way that victims and perpetrators of prejudice are described in the media, in court records and in informal conversations is biased against the less powerful and reinforces prejudice.’

      I’m prejudiced against this type of language that I call ‘academic’ English. It masks confusion. For instance, what is a ‘perpetrator of prejudice’? Prejudice is a ‘preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience’. It is being used here to mean an action. It’s distressing that so many people appear to be impressed by woolly thinking and commonplace ideas.