Racism and types of thinking

I don’t usually stray from “the environment” but I am cross about something connected with racism, so will write about it.

A couple of days ago, UKIP MEP Janice Atkinson got into hot water because she was recorded in a moment of folly referring to a foreign lady using a flippant and rude phrase.  The press have revelled in this like a highly hypocritical hippopotamus in glorious, warm mud.  The next day, football manager, Malky Mackay, was hounded by the press and noisy and righteous people, for a number of ill-judged messages he sent which had rude content – referring inappropriately to people who were variously homosexual, Jewish and overweight.

I might be juvenile, but among other things I thought it was quite funny.  I bet that lots of good and normal other people did, too, in darker moments of weakness.  In these circumstances I wonder what makes me so bad and what makes the press and the pious campaigners for various rights so good?

To explain this, I reflected on how the human mind works – admittedly relying on limited knowledge, based on recent reading and thinking; but I think my explanation is fairly solid.

The mind has two important systems (which you can learn about in Daniel Kahneman’s best-seller, Thinking, Fast and Slow): an intuitive system which works quickly and instinctively; and a slower, more ponderous rational system.  Kahneman calls them systems 1 and 2.

Intermeshed with these systems we have a complex of values, which are nicely explained in Chris Rose’s book, What makes people tick.  We acquire values – attitudes and beliefs – throughout our lives, through the influence of parents, family, teachers, friends, our peers and our experiences.  Earlier on in life, our values tend to be associated with survival, security and tribalism – so-called “settler values”.  Later on as we seek self-actualisation our values are associated with reward, material wealth, hedonism and status – “prospector values”.  A third stage is the “pioneer” who is more interested in ideas, ethics, other people and the world around them.

People who have learned to be very attentive to the rights of others are those who are lucky enough to have passed right through to the end of the third stage and are at the very pinnacle of human decency.  Others, for a range of complex reasons, do not get so far, and remain as settlers – suspicious, insecure or xenophobic, or as prospectors – full of fun and bling and whaddevva.  (Note to serious people: I exaggerate, here, for fun, and this does not to justice to the sophistication and learnedness of Rose’s book.)

So, in our minds there are instinctive thinking and reflective thinking, and there is a complex of values – old ones, new ones, tribal ones and enlightened ones.

When Malky Mackay is having a laugh with his chums and makes a ripe comment about someone, his system 1 is in action, reflecting more tribal or juvenile thinking patterns.  Perhaps he has had a glass of wine and system 2 was not alert enough to impose later, learnt values of political correctness onto the discourse.

Perhaps, similarly, Janice Atkinson was tired during a busy day, reverting to system 1 mode; her intuitive brain made a slip, and system 2 was not smart enough to catch it.

I think this is normal, human behaviour.  It does not imply anything about whether Malky Mackay and Janice Atkinson are good or bad people.  These incidents are not a test of character and even if they were, one data point has little statistical validity.  Now, if a fat, Jewish, gay, black woman is lying groaning on the pavement, and both Malky and Janice, after reflection, were to choose to walk on the other side of the road and not lend a hand, then that might well reflect undesirable character.

Sometimes I am terribly racist, in a system 1 way: when I read about elephants being slaughtered and I think that it is all to do with the Chinese.  Then I am a terrible Sinophobe.  After some reflection, however, I realise that it is only a small proportion of the Chinese who are responsible for buying elephant ivory, rhino horn, pangolin meat and tiger penises.  And the fact that they are Chinese is irrelevant – except for that fact that, being in China, it is a matter for the Chinese government to deal with them and not the UK government.  So after a moment my racist feelings subside and I can think clearly about the issue in a system 2 way, applying learnt values of enlightenment.

Similarly with Malky and Janice.  In a weak moment of stress or banter, they might say something silly.  That is, they might be human.  But in important moments of reflection and decision-making, they are unlikely to let their system 1 thinking prevail.

I don’t think this all makes me or Malky or Janice bad.  Just human.

Thus it is annoying when spokesmen and spokeswomen for rights jump down the throat of people in such situations as Malky and Janice found themselves in.  The incensed responses of anti-discrimination groups are as instinctive and intuitive as Malky’s and Janice’s error.  They appear so full of righteousness and piety as if they believe themselves to be sinless.  If you want the world run by angels, go and live in heaven.  I am sure if we took a magnifying glass to their lives we could find something they don’t feel so proud of.

Anti-discrimination campaigners should show more understanding of the human mind and more sympathy for the difficult situations in which people are put.  They need to understand that everyone has come on a developmental journey, that the relics of earlier days are still in their minds, like it or not, and from time to time, those earlier values might pop out.  But those instances do not constitute a fair reflection of the overall integrity and character of the people they judge.

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2 Responses to Racism and types of thinking

  1. Hal Jones says:

    Dear James
    System 1 and 2 thinking evolves and its system 2 campaigning to adjust system 1 errors that gradually improve system 1 thinking so criticising system 2 thinking for being OTT is knee jerk, ie system 1: if you reconsider using your system 2, then you may feel that system 1 and 2 are inextricably interlinked and necessary.

  2. Mark Meyrick says:

    Surely if you REALLY acquire values in the way that Chris Rose’s book suggests, they are embedded and you can’t slip into system 1 behaviours, such as Malky M and Janice A…it’s like a door that swings shut behind you, that you can’t go back through. It’s too easy to have a convenient excuse handy in which you can say ‘Ah, sorry mate. I was a bit system 1 there. But I’m really system 2′. Beliefs about things like racism, sexism and religious bigotry should be embedded I would have thought. I would agree with you on ‘lesser’ social values, such as ‘fattist’ comments for example. Quite where one draws the line between ‘serious’ and ‘less serious’ belief values on the scale of political correctness then becomes moot.

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