Is Prejudice Like A Mouse?

By Graham Peterson

They say that if you see a mouse in your house, they’re everywhere.  Mice have every reason to hide from you, so if one of those little bastards is so hungry that he’s willing to scurry into your kitchen while the lights are on, it’s a good guess that the walls are crowded and food is getting scarcer.

The social justice movement uses the same logic when reasoning about prejudice and discrimination.  If you can pick up a trace of discrimination in a resume audit study, for instance, it is safe to assume that such racism or sexism exists just about everywhere else — because like the mice — people want to hide their racism and sexism.

That might be true, but I doubt it.

I don’t see a lot of people hiding their racism and sexism.  I see people keeping their racism and sexism to sympathetic company, sure.  And I see a lot of unabashed racism and sexism among, say, the police in my Chicago neighborhood, Blacks at 55th and Garfield, Irish city workers, and among some of the hicks in my home town.

Social justice advocates assume that, like themselves, one who’s had one’s prejudice exposed will be shocked and disgusted at oneself, and change. It follows that there must be a gigantic subconscious conspiracy in which people lie to themselves, and one another, hiding their prejudice.

But it could be the case that discrimination is actually hard to detect because it’s actually uncommon.

Maybe it’s the case that in some boundary-keeping settings like policing, hiring, and dating, where people have little information about one another, they use crappy observables to determine whether they’ll get along.  And maybe outside these particular situations, people really don’t think much about, or have to invoke, consciously or unconsciously, their prejudice.

Discrimination is in this view extremely difficult to detect because it is simply rare, not because people are actively (or inactively, in an embodied or subconscious or habitus-y way) hiding their prejudice.

Note that it still wouldn’t really take much discrimination to maintain a world that looks pretty segregated.  People mostly choose to stick with their own, and people who do attempt to transgress boundaries only rarely stir up prejudicial sanctions.  Like murder, most people just prefer not to murder one another, so murder is rare and so are murder trials.

If this is the way discrimination actually works, one way to make the world less segregated would be to caution people to be nicer and get more information about one another at social boundaries.  I think we do a lot of that and should keep it up.

But a particularly bad way to do it would be to claim that everyone is constantly fomenting nasty attitudes toward one another, constantly putting each other into homogenized and prejudicial categories, and constantly needing to be called out for it.

Demanding apologetic prestations from people, or screaming at them to shock them out of their “denial,” is not how we’re going to make the world a more tolerant place.

Rare but influential boundary discrimination means that we need to focus our energies on particular rituals in which people evaluate one another and have poor information, and persuade them to get better information than skin color, gender, religious affiliation, etc.

That’s tolerance.  Prejudice is not like a mouse.

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