Tempted to Point Out an Act of Prejudice or Discrimination? Here Are Some Risks

Does consciousness-raising provoke hostility?

Posted Nov 10, 2010

It is risky to call attention to instances of bias, prejudice, discrimination, or wrongdoing. In my last post, I quoted at length from a blogger (Christina from Onely) who noticed an instance of singlism at Psychology Today. She had pointed out that in a list of 10 life-enhancing tips, 3 assumed that everyone has a ‘mate.'

I greatly appreciated that act of consciousness-raising. Some other readers did, too. With well over 100 million single people in just the United States, and with Americans now spending more years of their adult life single than married, there is something discordant about using coupled people as what linguists call the "unmarked form." We learned a while back that the exclusive use of the male pronoun is not appropriate when the statements we are making are relevant to women, too.

In many ways, the norms of science now respect our diversity. Many psychology journals require authors to describe the racial or ethnic composition of the people who participated in the research that is being reported. If you are a medical scientist and you want to get research funds to study only men, you had better be studying prostate cancer.

It wasn't always that way. Early research on heart disease was overwhelmingly about heart disease in men. It took an awareness of the importance of including both women and men in research to discover that the disease is not entirely the same in both sexes.

I knew, though, when I published my last post, that both Christina and I would be maligned. Just about every time I point out an instance of singlism, some people object - and the themes are consistent over time. I'll talk about that in this post.

There's another more important reason why the negative responses were predictable - there is a whole area of published research on people's reactions to those who claim to have experienced prejudice or discrimination. Often, those reactions are not pretty - even when the person claiming discrimination was clearly and demonstrably a target of unfair practices. In a future post, I'll review some of that research. [UPDATE: Here it is.]

Not everyone puts down the person who has been the target of bias and says so. People who are most disparaging of those who claim discrimination tend to have a particular belief system. I will describe that, too, in the future post (this one) in which I explain the research.

For now, I'll just mention some of the responses to my last post, almost all of which were predictable from past social psychological research:

  • Attack the people who are pointing out the prejudice. Tell them they are self-centered, angry and resentful, overly sensitive, and playing the victim card. Add that they must have too much time on their hands.
  • Dismiss the acts of singlism as unimportant. Say that they are "petty instances," not "ones that matter and affect people's lives."
  • Blame the consciousness-raisers. Tell them that if there is no progress in eradicating the prejudice in question, it is their own fault.
  • Broaden the scope of the derogation. Make it clear that you also think it is ridiculous to have to use words like ‘she' when just using ‘he' should be perfectly fine. Chalk it all up to political correctness run amuck.
  • Don't just disparage the person pointing out the bias - also castigate everyone who agrees with that person.
  • Proclaim that everyone else is a target of discrimination, too, including married people. (Never mind the programs of research showing far more discrimination against some groups than others.)
  • Note that you are a member of the targeted group and that you have never experienced discrimination. (Never mind that with regard to singles, discrimination is written right into the U.S. laws.)

Note how many of these reactions amount to little more than name-calling. For the most part, they are not reasoned arguments that we can debate (which I always welcome). Many seem to be expressions of hostility, and perhaps contempt. Also notice that often, the person coming under attack is not the person practicing the ism, but the target of it.

There is a psychology behind this. As I will discuss in the future, social scientists are beginning to understand why some people get so upset when bias or discrimination is alleged, and how that, in turn, makes some of the targets of prejudice reluctant to speak out. (I wonder how many people silently read the nasty comments and thought - wow, I'm not going to get involved in THAT discussion!)

Although lots of these exchanges are unpleasant, they do serve a useful purpose. For every person who expressed a damning view of the consciousness-raisers, there were probably many more who shared that view. So let's talk about it.

I've addressed nearly all of the issues that were raised in previous posts; they are listed below. I also added this new category, POINTING OUT SINGLISM: THE RISKS AND REWARDS, to this entry in which I collected various other posts under particular topic headings. (Also check out this post, Sweating the small stuff: Micro-inequities and micro-affirmations, over all All Things Single (and More).)

If you have read nothing other than the comments sections of posts in which I've pointed out singlism, you already know that there are risks to speaking out. As much as I appreciate it when other people contribute to the consciousness-raising, I also recognize that getting personally insulted is not something that everyone can tolerate. One of our best hopes, I think, is to get these matters so routinely recognized that the problem is accurately viewed as an impersonal and societal issue. That's a whole different thing than treating it as personal, which is what happens when specific people are labeled as self-centered whiners.

We've seen it all before in other social movements. Remember "uppity blacks"? "Ball-busting women"? Singles will not be exempt from this. We do, though, have the benefit of the historical perspective of what other groups have experienced, even if our experiences are not always of the same magnitude as theirs.

Below are my previous posts on this topic.