Most of us these days have a computer of some kind. We understand pretty quickly that if we don't make certain choices, the computer will make them for us. It's something called "default settings." If I don't choose a font and type size for something I'm typing, the default is Calibri, 11 point. I can choose any of a few hundred fonts, in a range of sizes. But if I don't make that choice, I get Calibri 11 point. I can easily choose another default. But until I do, it's Calibri 11 point. There are a lot of those default settings. Unless I do something to change them, they stay with me, making choices about how my computer works. That's what computers do. They keep doing what they have been told to do, and do it the way they have been programmed to do it, default settings and all.
We humans also have something very similar to those default settings built into us. Some of those settings are wired into our brains, as a result of our development and adaptations over many, many thousands of years. Some of those settings arise from what we were taught, formally or informally. We pick up the language and the attitudes of our town, our families, our neighborhood, our schools, our friends, our churches, personal experiences, and lots of other sources. I had a friend years ago who said, only partly in jest, that he was twenty-six years old before he knew that "Damn Yankee" was two words.
I think the best way to think about prejudice is to think of it as made up of default settings. Racial prejudice, religious prejudice, prejudice toward Italians or Chinese or gays or vegetarians or beards or tattoos or environmentalists is built into us little by little, from dozens of sources, over a long period of time. I doubt that many people have ever thought it through: "Let's see, I think I'll hate blacks, and gays, and Muslims, and Presbyterians." That's not the way it's done. We are only vaguely aware of the process as it is happening. But the outcome is quite enduring. And it feels like we have reasons for our feelings.
Unfortunately, it's not as easy to change the default settings in our brains as it is to change them in a computer. I've been working to get rid of my prejudices for a very long time. Like 60-plus years. I choose not to be ruled by prejudice. But in some situations, the old intuitions are still there. I think that may be why some of us get so angry about other people's prejudices. It feels better than being angry with myself. So rather than decreasing the prejudice in others, we reinforce it as anger answers anger.
From my experience, the best way to change my default settings is to get to know the people I'm prejudiced against. I grew up with no blacks, no Jews, no Asians, no Catholics, no gays (or so I thought.) I knew a lot of people who hated those folks. By the time I left that little Iowa town, a few days after graduation from High School, in 1952, I knew I didn't want to be like that. But it wasn't automatic. It took time, and experience, to learn not to follow the defaults. There are still some remnants there. But now, I mostly choose how I will think about and behave toward people. It feels pretty good.
Our tendency is to treat prejudice as a kind of moral failing. And in one sense, I suppose it is. But I think it's a bit more realistic and effective to think of it as a very natural part of us that we just need to get past. I think we all have defaults that need to be reset.
JIM DINSMORE lives in Tehachapi. His column, "The Human Scene," appears regularly in the Tehachapi News.