We live in a world that is not always socially homogeneous, whose diversity is represented not only by resident neighbours of foreign origins, but also by fellow citizens who carry lifestyles and values that are not necessarily identical to ours. How, in such diverse neighbourhoods, can a Neighbourhood Watch group be born and work properly? How can we, starting from our own diversity, prevent prejudices and conflicts between neighbours by working for the common purpose of ensuring security and tranquillity in our neighbourhoods?
Our mind filters the data taken from each experience to build our representation of reality, that we never know completely. The result is mediated by the context that the data provides us, by the emotional value we attribute to it, by what we already know about that reality (right or wrong), by our mentality and by our social and cultural belonging. This way, we form opinions and judgments about the world.
In the evolutionary path of the human being, the brain has developed two forms of reasoning: the algorithmic and the heuristic. The first is logical and rational but requires processing time. The second is automatic and is based on beliefs, habits, and opinions.
In our environment, we are continuously exposed to a huge amount of input, and we cannot process them all. In addition to being psychologically expensive, it would also be useless and too slow from a practical point of view. To formulate an idea about something or someone, we cannot think that we have all the information available. We need to use simplified evaluation processes. Mental shortcuts (which we apply without realizing) that allow us to judge and act. These shortcuts include cognitive prejudices and stereotypes, which offer a simplified, but often inaccurate, view of reality.
Effect of first exposure
Sometimes we make decisions based on information that is easier to remember. It's easier for us to think of events and actions we've been dealing with more recently. We remember an image more easily and better than a text. We remember exceptional events better than ordinary ones. We remember better the narratives rich in emotions than simple isolated facts. We judge the importance of an event based on how frequently we talk about it. And the more we talk about it, the more we remember it. That is why media coverage of an event can interfere with our perception of phenomena and offer us a distorted view. The media do their job, which is to keep us informed, but we must be aware that not everyone is authoritative, reliable and independent of external influences. Each image that is provided to us by the media represents only a small part of reality (and it is not said that it is the most representative). We are also continually exposed to fake news that, perhaps because it is false or emotionally charged, travels faster than real news.
To form opinions that correspond as much as possible to reality, we should carefully select our sources of information and cross check them with other sources. Instead, very often, we take for good the posts read on social media only because they already confirm our judgments (or prejudices) without making any other effort of understanding. We should not rush to conclusions just because we are overwhelmed by the abundance of news available.
Stereotypes and prejudices
Stereotypes and prejudices[i] are terms often confused, but they have different meanings. A stereotype is a shortcut that we use unknowingly to obtain information, while a prejudice is an attempt to protect ourselves from something we do not know.
Both change our way of seeing the world and can distort our perception of reality.
Through stereotypes, we simplify and catalogue reality, identify the general characteristics of our group, and maintain some form of mind and social control. Our mind looks for easy explanations to find a certain regularity in the reality we observe, in order to make us calm. Stereotypes originate from our own culture and that is why they are so difficult to eradicate. They are gross simplifications, with respect to groups and people, with which we build our prejudices.
A bias is a judgment about facts or people of whom we have no direct experience or is based on insufficient data. The very word pre-judice indicates a judgment before having the data to evaluate the facts. For example, if we see a person climbing a window at night, we instinctively think that it is a thief instead of the owner who has lost the keys to the house. Generalizing, we indiscriminately attribute certain characteristics to an entire category of people, ignoring all possible variations.
How prejudices are born
Prejudice indicates an instinctive propensity to perceive, think and act in a negative way towards a person or a group belonging to a category different from ours. It is easier to think that evil is in the other, rather than in your community, in your family or even in yourself.
Prejudice is based on our fears and phobias in respect to the other, to the different, to what we do not know. This mechanism dates to the evolution of the human and animal species and its survival mechanisms.
Numerous studies confirm that we tend to remember more accurately information and episodes that already confirm our points of view and we tend to forget or dilute those that question them. When the data of experience are not in line with our beliefs, we experience a state of inner discomfort (cognitive dissonance) that leads us either to distort the data so as not to undermine our ideas, or as would be desirable, to elaborate a new reading that integrates the new information.
The different types of prejudices and stereotypes
Negative prejudices can be applied to different categories of people: foreigners, homeless, disabled, people with psychic problems who seem dangerous, strange, inferior to us. Positive prejudices can also be just as wrong. To think that doctors, teachers, law enforcement and priests are "always" good people is also a mistake.
Racial prejudices are particularly entrenched and, even when they do not manifest themselves explicitly, they survive in subtle and hidden forms, keeping at a distance, civilly, those who are perceived as different.
Then we have the national stereotypes (the British are reserved and disciplined, the Italians nice and superficial) and those of gender (women are emotional and sensitive, men are strong and aggressive).
What is true about stereotypes?
It may also be true that, if we compare a group of English with a group of Italians, in the first we could see order and confidentiality and in the latter expansiveness and superficiality, but it is a mistake to think that all the English or Italians manifest these characteristics in equal measure. It is an obvious error of generalization.
The more culture immerses us in a certain model, the more, unconsciously, we tend to make it our own. A continuous, silent, limiting, and dangerous process of internalization.
Stereotypes are not only a simplified key to interpreting reality, but also contribute to creating it. Members of a discriminated group may even come to feel inferior themselves, thus giving a justification to what we think of them and a sense of what happens to them.
Prejudices and discrimination are very closely connected and cannot be fought only on a cultural or psychological level. Discrimination is an interweaving of historical, economic, and social elements. However, we must not underestimate the power of culture, language and information that convey stereotypes and prejudices, reinforcing and sometimes normalizing them.
How do we free ourselves from prejudices?
When we stand firm on stereotypes and prejudices our thinking collapses on itself, confirming our erroneous views. On the contrary, a reasoning advances our knowledge of reality, makes us take a step forward, integrates the information we already have, creates something new
It is difficult to completely get rid of prejudices, but not impossible. We must learn to recognize them because they limit us in our experience of the world. Prejudices prevent any change, they do not make us evolve, they never make us change our minds. They prevent us from fully opening our minds and truly enjoying our freedom of thought.
On a personal level, if we want, we can do something to get rid of the prejudices that we can identify as such.
If we don't know someone, what's the point in judging them? Let's take the time we need to get to know them better. If this is not possible, let’s abstain from judgment. It will do us better than develop a prejudice.
Let us seek clarity, let us focus on our personal perception, let us not be carried away by common opinions. We should never take anything for granted and keep an open mind.
No one will ever be the same as the others. We do not judge. We accept the fact that we are different.
What can a Neighbourhood Watch group do to prevent conflict and prejudice between neighbours?
- We can put in place social exchanges between different groups present in our neighbourhood, with the aim of obtaining more information about the other and developing greater mutual understanding, trying to observe the facts from their point of view.
- Implement forms of dialogue in small groups, as this helps break down barriers.
- Develop campaigns for education in legality and diversity, for respect for common values and acceptance of the other.
- Do not underestimate the moments of conviviality between neighbours (considering that sooner or later the pandemic will end). Street parties, neighbourhood parties, birthdays are all great opportunities for mutual knowledge.
- Research and identify with other groups mutual stereotypes and prejudices. No one is free from them. What matters is to be aware and not to act on them. No one deserves to be judged in advance.
Distinguishing between real harm and opinions
Sometimes it is difficult to avoid prejudices towards noisy, disrespectful, hostile neighbours whose lifestyle is very different from ours. In these cases, however, it is vitally important to be able to distinguish between a real damage (disturbance to the condominium’s quiet, dirt, improper use of shared spaces, all behaviours that must be stigmatized and, in case, sanctioned according to common rules) and our aversion[ii] to lifestyles outside of our schemes. In the latter case it is important to work on one's own prejudices, to open up and accept the fact that ours is not the only possible world. The knowledge of others could also reserve us many positive surprises, discovering for example that, although starting from different cultures, we have the "same daily concerns" regarding family, work, children, school, or even common interests. In short, a common humanity.
It is also important to separate the fact from the person. Often, from the facts, we create (because of stereotypes, prejudices, language or current mentality) "labels" to be applied on the whole person, and then it becomes difficult to separate the two. If I call a thief a child who has stolen one or even more times, I can even maybe confirm him in that tendency and push him to steal again, as he has been already labelled a thief.[iii] A person who commits an act of vandalism is responsible for an act of vandalism and is as such punishable but shouldn’t be considered a "vandal". In short, with labels we remove the possibility of "redemption”, and we find ourselves on the uncomfortable role of the judge.
Of course, we cannot rule out that, after having honestly evaluated the facts and without any preconceptions, our prejudices will be confirmed by reality. This confirmation, however, must not prevent us from continuing to look at reality outside of stereotypes.
Leonardo Campanale - EUNWA President
[i] Neil J. Smelser, Sociology, 1991, Pearson Education Company, pp. 198-200.
[ii] M.C. Nussbaum, 2010, From Disgust to Humanity, Oxford University Press
[iii] S. Premoli, 2021, Di chi è la colpa, Mimesis, pp. 25–26
© all rights reserved