Monday, 16 January 2012

"Little Old Lady" - Part I

Don’t ever say those words again; I mean it.

I’m an old woman now and I hear the dismissive insult for what it is. Casually tossing out that phrase is mindless, and perpetuates a destructive stereotype. Likewise calling older people, “Dear”. Another favourite, “the blue-rinse set”. I just about bit my friend’s head off when he referred recently to some older women as “biddies”.

Of course language like that didn’t bother me when I was young.  As a teenager in the 1960’s I believed that old people were dim-witted-stick-in-the-muds who feared new ideas. The ones I knew seemed easily shocked at small changes like wearing jeans to school and church. Those old people were clueless. Our clever generation would put the world right. The fact that I would eventually become one of those old people myself was irrelevant and, in fact, unbelievable.

Although the wise ones have always taught that we must imagine ourselves in another’s shoes, it’s hard to do so if the shoes are truly foreign. 
I learned this the hard way. 
It took personal experience as an object of gender prejudice for me to recognize how much wrong thinking there was about girls and women (boys and men also). As a young woman I suffered personal losses from such narrow-mindedness and grew more impassioned as I studied “herstory” (groan) and became politically aware. After I was more enlightened, I met  many men and some women who found it impossible to imagine why people like me felt so strongly about gender equality. When I raised the issue they would look at me as if I had green antennae and a tail, utterly alien. Many women at the time thought they were making a convincing rebuttal against fighting for equal rights by declaring “But I’ve never been treated differently because I’m a woman”. They could not and would not imagine walking in my shoes.

Bias and prejudice sneak up on us without warning.
I shock myself by making assumptions about slow drivers, Muslim men and Republicans. 
If you see a headline about Stephen Harper or Barak Obama do you expect the worst or the best? Might your expectation be biased?

Some definitions:
BIAS and PREJUDICE can be used as synonyms but with a different slant.

BIAS: An inclination or preference that influences judgement away from being balanced or even-handed. Prejudice is bias in a pejorative sense.

Irrational, preconceived opinion that leads to preferential treatment to some people and unfavourable bias or hostility against others,due to ignorance (or in direct contradiction) of facts. Prejudice literally means, pre-judgment.

One might have a reasonable bias based on one’s own experience or research. I confess that I still hold some bias against males, though it’s being exorcised by my love for my three adorable grandsons. My personal experience, my knowledge of history, and current news reports (another ex-husband murdered his former wife in Toronto last week) combine to tempt me toward a bias against men as a group.
And one might have a prejudice stemming not because of personal experience but for reasons like childhood teaching or natural xenophobia or one's cultural norm as we see with long-standing ethnic enmities.

Allowing ourselves to retain these biases is lazy. Instead of anticipating new adventures we sleep-walk with the familiar. This drowzy thinking breeds dangerous feelings of  distance from "those" people (idiots, jerks, etc.) instead of increasing our sense of human commonality. 

What are the fixes? Prejudice can be moderated, at least, by experience and/or education. Have coffee with someone from an alien group. There's nothing to lose and lots to learn. Force yourself to read a book by Mark Steyn, Naomi Klein, Irshad Manji, or Pope Benedict, whichever one you're not drawn to. If we can bring our biases to conscious attention once in a while, we can choose to reject such sloppy attitudes because of our clear-eyed commitment to justice, compassion and wisdom.

I’m still discovering my own prejudices, but hear this: the next time you’re tempted to say “little old lady” bite your tongue.