Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Snide and Prejudice: thoughts flowing from Celtic Imagination No 6

This photograph of pebbles on Chesil Beach is meant to be suggestive of diversity and difference. My imaginative thinking about this one runs like this. Simply desaturating the image and then adding colour selectively draws your attention to three of the pebbles in particular. If you were looking down, which out of all of these stones would you pick up? Especially important is the next question - why? If we disregard colour, the stone in the centre is most dissimilar to the rest, being larger and much flatter in profile, but it is those three coloured stones which grab our initial attention. Yet they are only different to the rest; they are not intrinsically better or superior to the others. Quite deliberately the photograph plays with our value-judgements and perceptions. For me it begs all sorts of sociological questions about the mechanisms which shape stereotyping, racism, and issues of inclusion / exclusion. We might pause to reflect upon just how complex is our 'simply seeing' of  one another. It is anything other than straightforward.

Now look at the original photograph. The three coloured stones become unremarkable amongst many similar ones. A geologist might well be drawn to pick up a particular pebble because of it's relative rarity in this location. Someone keen to skim a stone on the water might go for the flat one. Unlike the modified image, however, your response is not being skewed or influenced by me.

Clearly there are many ways in which we filter and judge what we see. At one level these are all just stones, yet our evolutionary neurobiology is such that we filter, order, pattern, categorise and rank without having to think about it. Trapping out our instant reactions to things or other people in terms of our attitudes, preferences or prejudices can be very revealing. How we come to have them in the first place is an altogether more disturbing question. For instance, how has our seeing of one another changed post 9/11 and 7/7? More worryingly, who manipulates the way we see and why? One thing is for sure: it has changed, and not for the better. And yet our collective ways of seeing one another can and do change for the better. Forty years on from the civil rights protests and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, the people of America stand on the threshold of an historic choice. For the first time in their history an African-American is on the Presidential Ticket. That this particular fact about Barack Obama has been the focus of so much comment, in much the same way as has Hillary Clinton's gender, shows both how far we have collectively come and how far we still have to travel.

So, with apologies to Jane Austen devotees, 'Snide and Prejudice' seems to be a good tag-line for this post. Both terms relate to attitudes and behaviours which are rooted in how we see each other. I chose 'Snide' ("expressive of contempt, derogatory in a malicious, superior way") and 'Prejudice'  ("an adverse judgment or opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge or examination of the facts; an irrational suspicion or hatred of a particular group, race, or religion.") because these are characteristics which we can trap out and change. We can also ponder how we came to have them in the first place and seek to address those sociological mechanisms too. This is exactly what we see Jesus doing in his dealings with the religious and political establishment of his day. He sees people in a very different way to them. He challenges their value-system and, through his words and actions, subverts and transforms it.

In his perception all pebbles are equally valuable.

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