Prejudices: dismissed for too long as an emotional issue

Prejudices: dismissed for too long as an emotional issue

How do prejudices work, and how can we counter them? It is an established fact that prejudices influence society. People are therefore judged on the basis of characteristics that are in no way relevant to the situation. For example, those with a foreign surname are less likely to be invited to a job interview and a female patient with pain is taken less seriously by doctors than a man with the same complaints.

According to philosopher and psychologist Lieke Asma, this often happens unconsciously. As a result, people often have poor insight into exactly how prejudices work and how they are maintained. ‘When I wonder whether I am being discriminated against or whether I discriminate myself, my answer is often: ‘I don’t know’, Asma writes in the introduction to Blind spots. Her book about ‘how implicit biases (mis)lead you’ takes a practical approach to a complicated subject. Asma offers a down-to-earth, original perspective on a charged discussion.

There is already an extensive scholarly tradition on prejudice and discrimination. In the past few years alone, a multitude of books and scientific articles have been published. What makes Blind spots otherwise? Asma summarizes: ‘If we really want to understand the problem of unintentional and unconscious discrimination, we must turn our attention to the outside world: the facts and our reactions to these facts.’

A practical effect could be, for example, to shift attention from the question of why female colleagues are interrupted more often to agreeing not to interrupt female colleagues, because the facts show that women are interrupted more often. cases then become men in the same situation.

Asma encourages her readers to be less busy with themselves. This call is above all practical: continue to look at what our actions actually bring about instead of endlessly searching for how they came about. This endless search for the inner causes of prejudice is exactly what many other psychologists and philosophers have been writing about in the past few years.

Iceberg model

In the first part of Blind spots Asma describes how that came about. Since Freud, psychology has been based on the ‘iceberg model’: the assumption that only a small part of us operates consciously (the tip of the iceberg) and that there is a large subconscious beneath the surface. Prejudices hide in that subconscious, which we do not have direct access to.

In the second part of the book, Asma explores the limits of this model, which is above all concerned with the inner workings of the mind and therefore much less with the rest of the world. The conclusion of Blind spots is that this psychology focused on subconscious patterns cannot solve the problem of prejudice. Asma argues that the iceberg model attempts to ‘reduce the problem to a measurable essence’, but that the subject is simply too complex for that.

She argues for the inevitability of discussion and doubt, and above all for letting go of the emphasis on one’s own subconscious in the fight against prejudice. It is more important to face concrete reality and to always ask ourselves what we are doing with our choices in social reality. In substantiating this argument, Asma does refer to an impressive number of writers who actually ‘focus inwards’, so anyone who is particularly interested in this can Blind spots can also be used as a handy overview.

Crystal clear

In terms of style, Asma is clearly a scientist. No underlying assumption is left unexplained and all research findings cited are explained in crystal clear terms. On the other hand, readers without a scientific background may sometimes lose the thread, especially in the first part of the book.

No matter how clear the explanation is, the pace is sometimes very high and the numerous scientific jargon terms are all explained only once before they reappear (sometimes pages later). Anyone who has forgotten by then that AMP stands for ‘Affective Misattribution Procedure’ (a research method from psychology that tests how our reactions to things are influenced) will have to patiently turn back, because the book has no alphabetical index at the back. The bibliography is designed as a kind of short final chapter, in which all cited literature is presented in a narrative manner, per theme. In itself a very nice find, which may encourage more readers to do further research than a classic, dry bibliography. This would only have worked even better in combination with an easy-to-consult term index.

However, anyone who takes the time to get used to the collection of new words will be richly rewarded. Asma’s arguments are all rock solid, and are therefore very useful for anyone who has to deal with discrimination or is thinking about it. Because Blind spots is primarily a scientific book, every point of view is extensively proven with hard research facts. The interpretation of these facts may be open to dispute, and this often happens in the social discussion about them. However, thanks to Asma, no one can get away from the facts themselves anymore.

Apart from that, she always keeps an open mind in her approach to the subject itself. She assumes (after thorough substantiation, of course) that ‘perspectives and experiences that you may not have access to are crucial to understanding the problem’, and shows that critical reasoning and listening to others go hand in hand. Blind spots presents a rock-solid scientific basis for what is still too often dismissed as an emotional issue.