Underneath The Skin

Posted: 1 January 2018 in Cultural, On the Pilgrim's Road, Understanding Others
Tags: , ,

Ferry.jpgHotel staff knock on the door, but we are changing.  No this is not a convenient moment.  Ah, this will only take a moment.  Comeback later. But I just want  …. And so on.  That there was an awkward exchange of words in this hotel was not uncommon.  Trip Adviser reported several people commenting that the staff were rude.  But that is so easy to say and there’s no context.  And damaging to what I thought was a good hotel and good staff.

This is Gambia, not Gloucester or Ghent.  Conversations get quickly complicated.  Unlike in Gloucester or Ghent, in Gambia there is a massive difference in wealth, colour, and culture between guest and staff. Race is the most apparent difference, but just culture and comparative wealth are also easily missed trip hazards in chat.  John Barge’s study Before You Know It (the title says a lot, eh?) tells us that our brains are primed by prudent and rational evolutionary instincts to trust people who look like us.  And to fear those who look “other” as a threat.  Including unconscious racism.

Nothing new then?  True – but he goes on to demonstrate the profoundness of this.  For instance he analysed assess people’s perceptions to carefully edited balanced filmed interactions between black and white people.  With care taken to show positive words and actions by people of all racial backgrounds.  The findings were chilling.  The main character in the interactions were consistently perceived as being more positive towards white characters and negative towards black characters.  Further studies with Asian-American children showed that actions enhancing their group identity helped personal performances in totally unrelated tasks.
Us and them.
Us and them.

So we are deeply conditioned racists, classists and ageists?  And social media is set to reinforce this just a bit further?  Am I (and the hotel staff member) a racist, as we square off in the bedroom?

If I deny the unconscious bias I fool myself. However, it is so un-PC to admit it.  Modern thinking has so little room for allowing people to have two opposing views simultaneously.  An aspiration, and a recognition of actual behaviour.  Christian thinking recognises this and calls it the clash between “the flesh” and “the spirit”.  Or the difference between “the old man” and “the new man”.  And by other terms too.  Human thinking seems to leap between the Terrible: man’s existence as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes), and the Wondrous: man with “the faculty for perfection” (Rousseau). One unnecessarily bleak, the other woefully naive.

To me the Terrible reflects the 20th century, and the Wondrous, the 19th.  Oddly, as I reflect on my conversation in Gambia, the ancient Christian insights still have real bite for our ordinary lives, daily realities, in the 21st.

Bill

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