We look at a stranger and subconsciously register gender, race and perhaps class markers. These reflexive cognitive observations reveal nothing about the person yet often carry heavy judgmental baggage. In gender, it may be sexual; in race or class it may be the accrued social and economic biases of generations. If someone walking behind us is a white man wearing a suit, we may feel more secure than if he is an African-American wearing a hoody. Yet either is capable of ill will and harm.
When we see a homeless person or the person ahead of us in the checkout line using a food assistance card, some of us may see someone with no self-discipline or initiative, a hanger-on, while others may see someone who can’t find their way into, or back into, our rapidly changing system of labor and capital.
But the person who sees a victim of economic change and redundancy may be no more right than the person who sees a slacker because without personal engagement, we can’t really know anything substantive about a person and would be wrong to assume anything. Yet, we persist in our uninformed judgments – perhaps from a need to create a yardstick by which to measure our own moral or social standing and feel superior.
Bias is a mixture of ignorance and mental laziness. When we make judgments without engaging personally and taking the time to absorb the stories and facts that give shape to those we meet we loosen the social bonds that make communities work.
This issue is important because it defines a sharp ideological divide in the parties vying for our presidency – the semi-religious belief in the autonomy of personal freedom and the supremacy of the individual versus the belief in a commonweal and the idea that we’re stronger as individuals if our communities are strong, healthy, and secure.
In the supremacy-of-self camp, the “other” falls easy prey to our latent biases. Skin color, economic status, and gender as abstracts allow us to apply labels – as Mr. Trump has done with Mexicans, as we have all done at one time or another with minorities in our own history, or as Germany genocidally did with Jews, Poles, and Romany.
Somehow, we’ve lost the equilibrium between community and individual enterprise that made us a beacon for the world. Our tolerance for intolerance could well mark the end of a beautiful run.