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Prejudice is the parent of mindlessness and social weakness


Roman Kosolapov | Shutterstock

David Mills - published on 11/30/17

You can't write someone off and then expect them to listen to you, or be persuaded by your arguments.

The world often thinks of Catholicism the way some readers think of science fiction — as something a little inferior. Someone sees the signs and thinks, “Oh yeah, those guys” or “Oh yeah, that stuff.” And Catholics can think of each other that way too.

A professor who writes science fiction found himself peeved at a study that showed readers of “literary fiction” were more empathetic than readers of “genre fiction.” He seems to have taken it as a put-down. So Chris Gavaler and his colleague Dan Johnson set up their own study. They published their findings as a paper called “The Genre Effect” in the journal Scientific Study of Literature.

The diner and the spaceship

They gave different readers the same story with the setting changed. One story was set in a diner, the other in a spaceship. The only difference in the texts was a few words that marked the setting, like “door” for the literary text and “airlock” for the science fiction one. “They say this should have meant that readers were equally good at inferring the feelings of characters, an ability known as theory of mind,” the Guardian explains.

But no. Readers of the science fiction version thought it had “dramatically” less literary quality. Fewer reported feelings of living in another world, of putting themselves into a character’s place, and of empathy for the characters. They worked harder to understand the story’s world but not as hard to understand the way the characters thought and felt. They scored lower in comprehension as well. In other words, they got far less of the benefit we think reading should give.

This had nothing to do with the quality of the story, because the two versions told the same story. Gavaler explained (as quoted in the Guardian) that readers “biased against SF, thinking of it as an inferior genre of fiction … assume the story will be less worthwhile, one that doesn’t require or reward careful reading, and so they read less attentively.” This assumption “lowers their scores on objective comprehension tests because they miss so much. Interestingly, they don’t even realize it, because they still report that the story required less effort to understand.”

He called this “a self-fulfilling bias.” The study showed “the weakness is with the reader, not the story itself.”

Two sea-green griffins

G.K. Chesterton wrote in his Autobiography about this same kind of misreading in terms of humor. He noted that some people think a good argument entertainingly illustrated isn’t as good an argument. “If you say that two sheep added to two sheep make four sheep, your audience will accept it patiently — like sheep,” he writes.

But if you say it of two monkeys, or two kangaroos, or two sea-green griffins, people will refuse to believe that two and two make four. They seem to imagine that you must have made up the arithmetic, just as you have made up the illustration of the arithmetic. And though they would actually know that what you say is sense, if they thought about it sensibly, they cannot believe that anything decorated by an incidental joke can be sensible.

He adds: “Perhaps it explains why so many successful men are so dull — or why so many dull men are successful.”

The weakness is with the reader.

How prejudice works

The professors’ study and Chesterton’s observation help explain how effective prejudice is. It works by offering definitive pre-judgments based on markers. You see the markers, you know what to think. “Oh yeah, those guys.”

Catholics get this all the time. Your Facebook page probably fills up with constant examples posted by outraged friends. We see it in the dismissive treatment of pro-lifers as unsophisticated, uncaring rightwingers from the suburbs and the backwoods who “fetishize the fetus” and don’t care about children after they’re born. The word “prolife” is enough of a marker to set off this reaction. Rarely can you get someone who’s written you off to listen to what you have to say.

It helps to know that you’re sometimes being rejected based not on what you will say but on the way someone else reads the marker “Catholic.” You see that, you know where you are in the argument. But it’s also useful in understanding yourself and your weaknesses, for prejudice of this sort is a severe weakness.

We need to know what markers of our own trigger what reactions. I know some of mine, though I’m sure I’m blind to a lot of them. I write some on apologetics, but I find it hard sometimes to argue in person, because certain markers make me want to say, “You’re a moron.” One of those is the line “I think a lot of Christians are hypocrites.” Another is the “Children with leukemia!” argument that God can’t exist.

I’m not quite sure why these annoy me so much and so immediately. My guess is that these are two objections I had to work through myself and found them wanting and tend not to think well of those who offer them as if they were intelligent. I probably also react because the people who use them tend to be so smug about it. To get beyond my reaction to the marker to see and hear the people is one of my “growing edges,” as HR people put it. My priest has a more critical way of putting it.

You probably have them too. Because they’re pre-judgments, you can’t easily see them. One way to see them is to look for the people, ideas, or groups to which you react with your version of “You’re a moron.” You look for the things that have that fingernails-on-blackboard effect on you, that turn you instantly from Mr. Rogers to Hannibal Lector.

We can’t do much about the world’s prejudice against the Church. We can do something about our own prejudices against others.

Read more:
When you love the hate you feel, your hate owns you.

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