Socialist Worker

Are we ‘hard wired’ to be prejudiced?

Issue No. 2248

Racism, sexism and homophobia are deeply entrenched in our society. While many people reject these ideas, many others don’t.

David Cameron’s recent comments against immigrants play to these prejudices. Some people even argue that these ideas are part of the very make-up of humanity.

But human history is a history of exploration and cooperation. For example, Christopher Columbus was greeted with warm curiosity when he first arrived at what is now the US.

Ideas do not simply grow out of people’s heads, but out of the circumstances of life.

The idea that people are “naturally” prejudiced today partly stems from the argument that prejudice is a way for humanity to survive, and is knitted into our very DNA.

Marxists do not deny the existence of prejudice. Nor do we deny that these ideas can be difficult to get rid of. But understanding where these ideas come from is vital to how we understand, challenge and defeat them.

Divisions are encouraged by our rulers. Ideas that seem to have been around forever actually have a relatively short history.

Racism came about as a way of justifying the transatlantic slave trade.

Sexism can be traced back to the earliest days of class society. Women’s oppression, and the emergence of a nuclear family unit, was a way of determining who would inherit wealth as class society developed.

This was not “natural”. It was because of the development of the way humans produced goods and food.

Productive

The popular view of the role of women inside the family has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. It was once a commonly held belief by men and women alike that women belong at home.

But now these ideas are challenged by a majority of people.

If it was the “natural order” for women to stay in the home, how come so many people now think women’s lives should be different?

The huge movements for women’s liberation in the US and Britain in the 1960s helped to kick many ideas to the sidelines.

Similarly, homophobic ideas grew up with the drive to re-establish the family during industrialisation.

People who did not fit into the mould of child-producing heterosexuality were seen as “unproductive” and a threat to ruling ideas and “morality”.

Unity between ordinary people terrifies bosses and governments. People like Cameron use immigrants as scapegoats to deflect anger for an economic crisis caused by bankers. They blame women and migrants for falling wages.

Reinforcing these ideas starts early in our lives. Studies into learning development show how learned behaviour, such as the encouragement of young children to “prefer” certain things, take hold very early.

But the fast development of ideas should not be confused with genetic characteristics. We are all bombarded with ideas from day one. People treat even newborn babies in different ways depending on their genders, for example.

Unbeatable

But these backward ideas are not visible under a microscope. They stem from the society we live in.

Humans are complex and hold many different ideas in their heads at the same time. People who share with their friends every day can still think that people are ultimately selfish.

The collective labour of human beings, through work and struggle, changes the world.

Prejudices continue to exist and sometimes feel unbeatable. But the reality is that despite the dominant ideas of people at the top of society, the majority of people do not attack black or gay people on the street.

Humans have survived and flourished through cooperation. It is capitalism that divides us.

Capitalism rewards selfishness and individualism. The most ruthless people get to the top of society.

It pits worker against worker, using every division possible to keep people apart. This is the real reason for Cameron’s attacks on immigrants.

Struggle can bring people together as a class. The TUC demonstration on 26 March was a shining example of the unity we need to change the world—so is every picket line. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt shout these possibilities even louder.

Every struggle against racism, sexism or homophobia is vital in uniting people. But it is the process of revolution that can finish these ideas off altogether.


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Tue 19 Apr 2011, 17:53 BST
Issue No. 2248
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