What’s that thing that help us differentiate a cat from a dog when both animals have four legs, one head and a tail? The answer is in the cognitive process called categorisation. When we put things in categories and groups, that gives order and meaning to the world around us, a world that is full of sensations, facts, but also danger. However, there are situations when putting everything in one is wrong and harmful, and here we’ll talk about stereotypes and prejudices.
Stereotypes are images about groups of individuals that cannot be changed easily. Eastern Europeans are thieves, black people are criminals, Maori people live on benefits, Jews are greedy, Muslims are extremists, women can’t drive, young people are inexperienced, and so on and on. In the field of psychology there is interesting research about how people emphasize on within group similarities and on between-group differences: that’s why at school our friends were always cooler than the ‘nerds’.
Prejudices on the other hand are opinions that are not based on actual experience. Many people hold prejudices on foreigners without even going abroad, for example, because foreign people are different. This is a cognitive reaction that can be seen as a way to cope with the evolutionary fear that comes from everything that’s new. People blame foreigners, in our society – migrants, for being lazy, for stealing jobs, or for just being inferior. Just like the mass madness that marks all the wars of the 20th century…
Unconsciously, we all hold some kind of prejudices, but there are ways to fight them. The first thing to do is to start being active. Let’s say that you watch some political show on TV that tells you how migrants are the worst problem for the economy of your country. Then you read the same and on top of that, you hear your friends talking about it. You are kind of starting to agree because the majority is against you and due to conformity, a common psychological behaviour that represents agreement with social norms and groups, you don’t say a word. Well, don’t be sacred to voice your thoughts. Next time form an opinion based on facts and research and express it. Start being an active person that can communicate their own ideas listening to different points of view at the same time. Don’t be scared of disagreeing. Talk and listen because there’s some truth in each dialogue. Transparent information is a major way to fight prejudices.
The second thing is to stop being so emotionally and physically detached from things. Let’s say that you’ve read about another attack, about another poor country, or about another abounded child; actually you do that every day. This is the so called systematic desensitization in psychology. In the end, all the misery is only figures for you. Of course, it’s not healthy to carry all the world’s pain on your shoulders, but try to find a cause you care about and do something about it. You can volunteer, research, donate, do some field work, or write about the world. Next time someone says an offensive thing about a foreign country, you can react. You can say you’ve volunteered there, for example, and explain that it is actually the media that presents all the bad images to the public. Without using rude words, hint that only brainwashed people believe in things without any empirical evidence.
Last but not least, react in everyday life. By ignoring a situation, you inactively contribute to prejudices and stereotypes. There are many ways you can fight hatred and ignorance every day. Let’s start with all the sexist and racist jokes we know: next time someone says something you find wrong, don’t be silent. Because women are equal and because Indian people don’t smell like curry. If you see someone insulting a homeless person on the street, ask that person to apologise: it’s not a choice to be poor. Also if you can, help people in need. I’m not saying to take risks and fight someone with a gun, but there’s nothing difficult about calling the police if you see something suspicious or you hear your neighbours beating up their child. If you see a disabled person who cannot get on their train, due to the bad infrastructure we face in our cities, just help: having a disability doesn’t mean you can’t function normally. And of course, educate people starting from yourself and the little ones around you. For instance, why don’t you modify the traditional tales? Because not always the Princess is in need and not always the colour blonde means beauty.
Fighting stereotypes and prejudices might be difficult but it is a cause that’s worth fighting for.