The Blind Spot of Prejudice
Judges 12:5-6; Galatians 4:28; John 13:34-35
This morning we give a shout out to Pavlov’s dogs from your Psychology 101 course in college. I’ll give you a moment to retrieve your notes on your Iphone. And, yes, Mr. Cunningham and Ms. Harris, this will be on the exam.
Poor Pavlov’s dogs, trained to respond to a beep so that they would literally salivate in advance of the reward they would receive for pressing the bar after hearing the right sound. They were early soldiers in the exploration of how our brains actually work. Suffice it to say that with the invention of the MRI and other techniques for finally being able to study the mind working in real time, we have made enormous advance in understanding the architecture of the brain in the neurology department over the past two decades. This, in turn, has allowed the psychology department to more precise ways to demonstrate the practical limitations that are built into how we perceive the world, how we actually reason, and how all of this affects our actions and our values.
What have we learned? There are glitches in the software in short. And these are not just in my Uncle Bob, although he has more than the rest of us, especially when he is drinking. But the default wiring in our minds has structural limitations, many of which we have intuited in earlier eras. St. Paul, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin all noted that we humans are universally incapable of moral perfection. They just couldn’t give us statistics to show how and why. So they spoke in anecdotes.
Today, our researchers have traded their clerical collars for lab coats and they have traded the bible for a clipboard full of data points. But, after exhausting analysis of the subject, they raise the same question that St. Paul and St. Augustine raised 2000 years ago, “What the hell is wrong with us?”
I offer one small example today on the way that prejudice actually works in our mind. It has to do with the intersection of perception, category and inference that leaves us with a bit of a blind spot in our actual working day world. If I could have a slide from my trusty assistant,” SIRI, could I have a slide please?”
The mind is a precision instrument of measurement as you can see from the enclosed picture of two table tops of identical size and shape. If I could have you quickly memorize both of them, so that we can illustrate our acumen in just a moment.[i] What? What is the problem?
They don’t look the same to you? A lot of people say that. See there is something wrong with you too! They are definitely identical as a neat little trace will show. Allow me to demonstrate.
We humans don’t actually lay down eidetic images in our memory tape as you might suppose. We don’t just have raw tape that we input like a video camera. We are more complicated than that. We are always filtering and interpreting as we go.
We use context and association when we are looking at things to help us fill in the gap, so that we understand what we are looking at. You don’t remember nearly as much detail as you think you remember because you rely on your personal ability to categorize, which requires a lot less mental concentration.
And you may ask yourself exactly how much of the time do you rely on how your mind categorizes things subconsciously versus how much of the time you are really perceiving things as they are in front of you. Professor Eric Candell at Columbia University who has won a Nobel Prize for his life time of study on human memory guesstimates that it is about 80-90% of the time.
I’ll give you a quick example of how this works and I need three volunteers.
Listen to this short story and provide the proper answer if you would. Ready? Quick answer.
“A Father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene and the son, badly injured, is rushed to the hospital. In the operating room, the surgeon looks at the boy and says, “I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son.”
How can this be? Will, , , … Anybody?
What just happened? We set you up by using 9 male words and exactly 0 female words: father, his, son, father, son, boy, boy, he son.
You are leaning in a direction already. Then we introduce another word, “surgeon”. Your mind is already categorizing as it is listening to the words you are hearing. And a huge percentage of us easily presume that “Surgeon” associates with Male.
Boom, we just discovered a mental “blind spot”. This can be particularly infuriating if say you are a woman in the audience today who just fell for this conundrum and you have a long history of involvement in women’s rights issues, and you are sitting there right now thinking, “I just presumed that surgeons were men.”
Well, yes it is. And you are not alone. We have now reproduced this disjunction thousands and thousands of times on that most overworked laboratory rat in the psychology department, the undergraduates at Brown University. It is not possible to be prejudice at Brown because of the sterling quality of impartial education that permeates the very ether of Rockefeller Library that sits in the middle of the campus. It is built into every course syllabus and forms the motto of every social club.
And yet, when our researchers spread out over the campus armed with their Implicit Association Test (or IAT for short), they had the undergraduates perform a very simple test and you can take it also at www.implicit.Harvard.edu.
The test had a group of famous white Europeans from American history: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John F. Kennedy,
The test had a group of famous black African-American from American history: Jackie Robinson, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass (I understand he is trending right now).
List of white dudes, list of black dudes.
Then they had two more lists. One was a list of pleasant words: Lucky, peace, sweet, sincere, diamond.
The other was a list of unpleasant words: Agony, disaster, crash, grief, rotten, tragedy.
They asked the students to look at both lists, then they gave them a test. They asked them to sort the lists, pairing the pleasant words with the white dudes, pairing the unpleasant words with the black dudes.
Easy enough. Then just for comparison, they flipped the association around. They asked the students to pair the White dudes with the unpleasant words. Then they had them pair the Black dudes with the pleasant words.
In advance, they asked all those liberal minded undergraduates what the results would be and 100% of them predicted that they would be able to pair them equally, a reasonable assumption given the fact that this is how smart kids get into Brown, memorizing lists and repeating them quickly upon command.
Much to their shock they discovered that they were slightly faster pairing the white dudes with pleasant words, than they were pairing black dudes with pleasant words.
Conversely, they were slightly slower at pairing White dudes with unpleasant words than they were pairing black dudes with unpleasant words.
When we presented them with the evidence, they almost all said the same thing, “let me take the test again.” Smart ass little bastards. So the researchers had a longer, slightly more complex exam at the ready and the result of the second exam was…. Exactly the same.
Malcolm Gladwell took the test. He is the author of “Outliers”, “The Tipping Point”, “Blink”, David and Goliath, and writes for the New Yorker. And this is what he said to Oprah Winfrey about the exam.
“I took it the first time, and it told me that I had a moderate preference for White People… I was biased- slightly biased- against Black people, toward White people, which horrified me, because my mom’s Jamaican… The person in my life who I love more than almost anyone else is Black, and here I was taking a test that said, frankly, I wasn’t too crazy about Black people you know? So I did what anyone would do: I took the test again. Same result… and it was this very creepy, dispiriting, devastating moment.”[ii]
Our minds don’t simply take in the evidence that is in front of us objectively, like an eidetic image- an eidetic image is what people have with a photographic memory. I sat next to a couple guys in French class at Princeton. They were horrible at languages but they had to pass this course for PhD, so they would just memorize the whole chapter. You could watch them finding the answer on the page and then boom. I once asked our professor, “Do you have an exam for stupid people like me because I’m smarter at languages than them.” I hate those people…
Our minds don’t just lay down tape. They sort and categorize, so we can anticipate, we can fill in the blanks. And what these little Implicit Association Tests show is that prejudice is built into the way we categorize. It isn’t huge, just to be clear, but it is there… even among those open minded little bastards at Brown university.
Most of us aren’t even aware of this until we get to some major impasse that exposes it in a way that we can’t really avoid. I had the experience like most of you who have served on jury duty. Our case involved three African-American youth that were pulled over at 3:30 a.m. on Rte. 22 in Plainfield, New Jersey. The policeman approached the car, asked for ID, whereupon the driver of the car sped away. The officer testified that the driver swerved the car to try to hit him, knocking the officer to the ground.
There were no eye witnesses to the interaction. We had twelve of us on the jury, seven white people and 5 African-Americans. Simple case… We close the doors, go over some preliminary details and I ask for a show of hands. How many people here believe the testimony of the police officer?
All 7 white people raised their hands. How many believe that the police officer is lying? All 5 of the African-Americans said he was lying. Same testimony, polar opposite interpretations. I think it took us like 3 days to work through the process and through that, to see just how race categories help us to fill in the blanks, to anticipate and understand what it is that we are seeing, sort through our categories, challenge certain assumptions.
I cannot even remember everything that happened but it was a process that revealed how important it is for us to peel back the onion and try to get at these assumptions that we make based on our categories. Walter Lippman called these categories stereotypes, or pictures in our head, because stereotype was the plate that printers used a long time ago to print pages in a book. It could make identical pages from a single copy. [iii]
We aren’t going to get rid of them exactly. But, we are called to transcend them. And this is one of the basic teachings of Jesus in the gospels. It is why love is such a profound and beautiful thing.
Jesus taught us, “A new commandment I give you that you love one another. Even as I have loved you, that you love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
In the New Testament, there are two dimensions to this love both very personal. One is that we need each other. We need to have a place of profound enough love that we can hear from each other our very different perspectives, our very different lived realities. It gives us a richer understanding, a more vibrant compassion. Our experiences are very different, our prejudices are different too.
And when we bring those differences together, infuse them with the spirit of love, we create what Paul called Koinonia, the beloved community. It is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic fellowship, through the loving Spirit of the Christ, and we celebrate our difference, appreciate the different kinds of beauty, understand the variety of human experience. That love can transcend us so that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female”, no inside or outside. No through the power of love, in our difference, you complete me and I complete you.
Our difference makes us better, makes us spiritually more rounded, more understanding. We compliment each other, reflecting God not in one single Truth with a capital T but in the myriad, the panoply of truth, each with a small t. Don’t you want to be part of that? I know I do.
Love is a powerful thing, spiritually. It can change us on a personal level too. The Gospel of John depicts God as the Father of Jesus, a beautiful image in its own way. I know, for many of you, I ask you to suspend your image of your own Father that was distant, stern, overbearing.
When the Gospel of John thinks of this image, he imagines what Father’s want for their children, how you want them to grow into the beautiful potential that they have, how you want them just to be self-accepting because when we put them to bed, stroke their cheek, reach down and kiss them, we hope they can know how much we love them and value them just as they are. They are our beloved child, worthy, important.
The Irish writer Sebastian Barry had a teenage son that was depressed, sullen, withdrawn. He and his wife, like so many parents of teenage boys, could not figure out what was going on. One day his son tells them that he is utterly miserable because he has come to realize that he is gay.
Barry said he and his wife literally said, “Praise God is that all?” But then he did what good Father’s do when their kids tell them that their experience is so very different from their parents, he listened. He said he let his son tell him what it was like to be gay- a very straight, traditional, middle age man watching episodes of RuPaul’s Drag race- something he never imagined he would be doing.
But he wanted to understand. He wanted a new context for a different kind of love than he had ever thought about having when he presumed all his children would grow up heterosexual. And he grew and he changed. And he became an advocate.
You probably know that a couple years ago, Ireland voted to legalize same sex marriages. At the time Sebastian Barry decided that he would write a letter to the editor of the Irish Times on the eve of that vote. His letter is a reminder of the power that a Father’s love has to bless and empower.
“As the more than proud father of one shining person who happens to be a member of the LGBT community, I will be voting Yes in the coming referendum. In that sense it is a personal matter. I have read quite a bit in the papers about our new more tolerant society, and that may be so, and of course it is a solid point of view from which to vote Yes, but I don’t see it as a matter of tolerance, so much as apology.
Apology for all the hatred, violence, suspicion, patronisation, ignorance, murder, maiming, hunting, intimidation, terrorising, shaming, diminishment, discrimination, destruction, and yes, intolerance, visited upon a section of humanity for God knows how many hundreds of years.
My child will be just shy of 18 when the votes are cast, and therefore cannot vote himself. By voting Yes I will be engaging in the simple task of honouring the majesty, radiance and promise of his human soul.”
My sisters and brothers, God loves you like that. God is your advocate. Live out of your majesty, radiance and promise. Transcend the categories you grew up with through love. Build a new community of harmonious love. Love differently than you imagined you would have to and may you be blessed to see those around you bloom. Amen.
[i] Maharzin Benaji and Anthony Greenwald, Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People (New York: Bantam Books, 2016), p. 3.
[ii] Ibid. p. 57
[iii] Ibid, p. 72-73