Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Prejudice Against People Who Get In Our Way

Why is it so hard to give the benefit of the doubt?

I keep telling myself “assume different, not wrong,” but it’s so hard to remember. Someone gets in my way and I quickly assume they’re wrong, stupid or bad, not just coming from a different perspective.

I’ve been working on it for decades, my tendency to assume that there’s something wrong with the people who get in my way, jumping to the conclusion that if they’re at odds with me they’re odd, weird--not just different. 

And it’s not just me. This is a fundamental human bias that goes back forever. For example the ancient Greeks used the word “barbarians” for people who were foreign but also bad. The term’s root suggests the prejudice I’m talking about.  It originated as “the people who say bah bah”, in other words people unintelligible to the Greeks. (we call it blah blah, so maybe we should update the word to blarblarians.)  If people are different, if they use a different language, have different goals, take different perspectives from ours, they’re as bad as barbarians.

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The prejudice shows up in the many ways we treat our subjective critiques as objective. When we say, “That’s nonsense” we mean “You’re wrong” but all we really know is that we don’t understand what’s being said.  When we say, “That’s irrelevant,” we mean “You’re wrong to bring it up” but all we really know is that we don’t think its worth paying attention to.  When we say, “that’s unkind” we mean “You are doing something bad” but all we know is that it disappoints us. When we call someone ignorant all we really know is that he’s ignoring things we think are worth attending to.

Why do we do we treat subjective frustrations as justification for objective condemnation?  I’m guessing in part to gird our loins for possible battle. After all, when people act differently in ways that get in our way, they could be out to thwart us. We err on the side of preparedness for battle with real obstructionists.

We square off. I’m right; my thwarter is wrong, though perhaps out of simple cognitive frugality. When we aim for a goal, our attention narrows. Anyone who gets in our way is imposing unexpected peripheral demands on us.  By definition they’re foreign or barbaric to our goals. No wonder we dismiss them by any means possible. 

You’re rushing, focused on get home from work on a Friday afternoon, and someone switches into your lane. He’s peripheral to your plan. Even if he had as much right of way as you, suddenly he’s still a jerk.

In frustration, we become impulsively hypocritical. The first thing to evaporate from our attention is any recollection of us thwarting others similarly.  In squaring off we experience a temporary local lapse of empathy

The hardest shoes to put ourselves in are the shoes of someone tripping us up. 

This prejudice is so universal it doesn’t even have a name.  I’m looking for one and welcome your suggestions, a prejudice against people who block us, a tendency to assume they’re bad, stupid, evil, etc. 

It’s not easy to find a name that nails it.

Prejudices aren’t named for the targets of the prejudice, but the objective standard employed by the subjective bias. Prejudice against blacks isn't called blackism but racism, against women isn't womanism but sexism. 

Race and gender are relatively objective standards of distinction. Here I’m talking about a subjective bias based on a subjective standard, a prejudice that praises people who support, assist, enable me and condemns people who thwart, impede, hinder me.

Helpism? Supportism? Assistism?

Thwartism?  Impedism, Hinderism?

We could call it obstructionism, a bias against people who obstruct us, but of course that term is already used pejoratively for people who obstructs us. A symptom of the prejudice I’m trying to name is the tendency to condemn people who get in our way as “obstructionists.”

The standard of judgment employed by the bias I’m describing is strictly subjective. As such it’s more like a chauvinism, -centrism or supremacisism.  Of course we have terms like narcissism and egocentrism. The prejudice I’m talking about would be symptoms of these, but these terms are too broad. Narcissism originated as self-infatuation. Yes, the more self-infatuated you are, the more likely you are to treat those who get in your way as bad. But you’ll also take more selfies, and talk about yourself a lot.  Narcissism is too broad.

Besides, narcissism is still treated as a rare pathology. I’m talking about something so natural to all of us that it could hardly be called a rare pathology.  Its effects are bad for us but it’s not rare.

I’m looking for a name for that specific trait in all of us, the snap judgment that those who thwart us are jerks.

Mywayism?  Outamywayism? 

I welcome all suggestions.  If you help me further my cause of finding a term for this, I'll praise you and an angel. And if you thwart me in my cause? Well, like I say...

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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