Will You Enjoy This Post Before You’ve Read It?

One of the online communities I’m in is engaged in the discussion of the difference between preference for the familiar and prejudice. Instinctively, we recognise there is a difference but where it lies can be much harder to pin down. For me, the starting point is pre-emptive denigration.

We all have preferences, both general and for specific circumstances, that we wouldn’t consider prejudice. For example, I prefer cosmic horror and, when I have had a busy day, prefer sitting on the sofa with a book; does this mean I am anti-romance or anti-night clubs? I suspect the idea that reading sci-fi on the sofa rather than going out makes me prejudiced seems a reach.

However, the question becomes more contentious when asked about, for example, dating or friendship. On one side, people say that if one can just prefer sci-fi one can just prefer people like oneself. On the other side, people argue that only dating or socialising within certain groups is prejudice. And neither side is utterly lacking in sense: it is oppressive to say that a heterosexual man can’t exclude men from matches on a dating app; and it is equally oppressive to say a landlord can exclude Irish people when renting.

Is one of these rocks out of place?
©stuant63 – CC BY NC 2.0

A way to square these apparently conflicting perspectives on the reasonable is to consider what the difference between preference and prejudice really is. To paraphrase a popular wood stain advert, the clue is in the name: a preference is something one prefers when making a choice; whereas a prejudice is something one has pre-judged, i.e. already turned against before considering the choice. Returning to my liking for sci-fi, my preference means I’m more likely to choose sci-fi when looking for a new book to read but doesn’t mean I won’t choose a romance this time; whereas, if I had a prejudice against romance, I would already have decided I wasn’t going to pick romance when I next chose a book and might well think other people shouldn’t read romance either.

Much—if not all—of the apparent conflict falls away from the more contentious situations if viewed from this perspective of having already decided something is lesser before making the choice. For example, if one loves football, gardening, and car repair one’s friendship group might not contain an Asian woman because there aren’t any Asian women in the area who like those things; the difference between a preference for friends similar to oneself and a prejudice against those who are not is in whether one is open to being friends with an Asian woman or has ruled it out because Asian women aren’t worthy to be friends. To answer the potential challenge, this can also be applied to sexuality: has one only dated people of the opposite gender because one is heterosexual or because one thinks homosexuals are lesser.

Knowing what is in someone else’s head is ridiculously hard even if one can ask, so this isn’t even close to a rigorous test of other people’s behaviour or lives; however, as a way of assessing whether one is being prejudiced it can be a helpful start.

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