Writing about Personhood a few days ago, I was focusing on the right we all have to be treated as people, and to view ourselves as having personhood status. Yesterday, writing about prejudice and snobbery, I’d started the process (unthinkingly) of exploring how we take away personhood from each other. The loss of self can be brought about by a great many things. When you are barraged from outside by harmful perceptions and attitudes, how can you hold a sense of yourself as a person? Today I want to look at some of the behaviour and circumstance that denies a person their right to self. Some of this can be about individual behaviour, but it is also targeted at groups.
Prejudice and assumption come when we look at a person, a group, family, ethnicity, religious sect, culture etc and decide that it means a certain negative thing. People who believe that blacks are more likely to be criminals, that men with long hair are likely child molesters, women in high powered jobs got there through sex, blondes are stupid, etc. This is all about stereotype, narrow-mindedness and ignorance. It’s about ignoring the individual in face of some randomly sourced sense of ‘normal’ that has no bearing on reality whatsoever. In stereotyping and this kind of prejudice, we make the myths around group identity more important than the real individual in front of us, and we attempt to deprive them of personhood.
Blame and scapegoating follow very naturally from this. Once you’ve decided that all blondes are stupid, why not go on to assume that blonde teachers must therefore be the cause of falling standards in schools? That may seem insane, but is it any less crazy for blaming rising crime (which might be rising reporting rates, not events) on immigrants? Or how about blaming societal breakdown on single mothers (who, do we imagine, got themselves pregnant and obviously wanted to be single mothers, no man involved or responsible at all?) We take the prejudices and we decide that social ills are the fault of our hate group. It’s their fault, not ours. They are wrong. We feel morally superior. We take away their dignity, their individuality, their personhood.
Discrimination comes next. We’ve decided whose fault it is, so now we get to punish them. We push them further out to the fringes, cut financial support, encourage the ‘good’ people to ridicule them. Perhaps in the process we accidentally stone to death a paediatrician when we meant to get a paedophile, but progress has its costs. We make laws to make sure that the people who are clearly to blame are not allowed to vote, or do the thing that makes them who they are. We outlaw their beliefs, or their way of life, and if they keep at it we have every right to lock them up.
Now that we’ve stacked the legal system against them, injustice follows. They don’t deserve justice. We all know they are the criminal type, because we’ve just carefully criminalised their behaviour. We probably won’t give them much access to justice when they need it either. Criminals shouldn’t have the same rights as regular people, should they? That’s not justice.
We have the power. We have the moral right. We know they are wrong. They are so wrong that we have to lock them up, or put them on medication, we have to legislate against them. We are protecting ourselves, the good people, our righteous upstanding families and the good of all, from the wrong people.
The outcasts lose all social standing and scope for financial security. If they are to survive, they must give up the things we don’t approve of and never speak of them again. If it’s ethnicity, they may be out of luck. We allow them no self esteem, or sense of place in our good community. They are not people any more.
It sounds obscene, doesn’t it? But how often do our politicians pick someone to blame, start finger pointing and rolling out legislation? It’s not just in ancient, fascist history that this kind of abuse happens. Who is the scapegoat right now? Whose fault is it? And how easily do we do this at a private level, in our own lives?