We all like to think of ourselves as being open-minded, unbiased and non-judgemental, reacting to people and events based purely on their merits. Well excuse my French, but that’s bullshit.
By his very nature, Man instinctively categorises what he sees in order to make sense of his surroundings and thus define his behaviour. It’s what stops you kissing your boss (except at Christmas parties), throwing out food rather than cooking it, and driving on the left when you’re on the Continent.
Sure, this intrinsic drive to understand our environment is also what leads us to mistake harmless shadows and innocuous noises for monsters come to devour us in our beds. But it’s better to have a few petrified children than mistaking your food for rubbish or having your boss thinking you fancy a shag.
Yet categorisation is only one part of the story. The other, more insidious part is that we make assumptions on which we base our actions, often going far beyond what may or may not be true. It’s what makes me buy shirts that I think will make me appear sexy. But it also stops me putting my hands in a fire. That’s because we judge what is right based on a combination of our perceptions and past experiences: John Travolta wore garish shirts and was a sex symbol for a while ergo they make men look hunky. This fire looks hot, therefore I assume it will burn me if I touch it.
In other words, we are all prejudiced. We pre-judge. And that, I’m afraid, includes you.
As I walk around town, I often pass beggars. There are quite a few here in Lyon. Some I give money to, most I do not. Why? Because I unconsciously or consciously judge them as either “deserving my money” or “not deserving my money,” grading each also according to categories that I am unaware of, but which ultimately determine whether or not they will be enriched by my passing by.
Women are more likely to get my money, men less so. Children turn me into a giving machine, adults not so much. Though really old people get more of my sympathy again. And so it goes on: black or white, clean or dirty, smelly or fragrant, healthy or sick, disabled or able-bodied, unemployed or merely lazy, drunk or sober.
In each case, I am looking at how they appear and making assumptions. In most cases, I don’t know anything about what led them to their current predicament. I just use what I can see and in some cases smell, put them in a box and act accordingly. And often enough, whether it’s fair or not, I decide that they don’t deserve a donation.
Last week, a man drove a lorry into a crowd of people watching Bastille Day fireworks in Nice, killing 84 of them in a mile-long rampage before police finally shot him dead. In the hours that followed, the media and indeed the French government itself were quick to label the incident an act of Islamist terrorism.
Why? Because papers found on the man, Mohamed Bouhlel, showed he was of French-Tunisian descent.
The chain of thought was as simple as it was revealing about western prejudices: Bouhlel was north African, north Africans are Arabs, Arabs are Muslim, lots of people died in the attack, therefore he had to be an Islamist terrorist.
In the days that followed, a very different picture arose. A number of people close to Bouhlel said he never attended mosque or observed Ramadan fasting, that he ate pork, drank alcohol and took drugs. What’s more, he was in marital and financial difficulties, prone to violent outbursts and estranged from his family back in Tunisia. For their part, the authorities admitted that Bouhlel was not in fact on any watch list and had been known to them only for a case of road rage.
But the media weren’t going to give up their lurid story quite yet, and they eagerly pounced on a revelation by the police that geolocation data for his mobile phone showed Bouhlel had been at the scene of the crime on at least two occasions in the days preceding the attack. The media therefore assumed this was evidence he had staked out the location as part of his planning of a terrorist act.
The attack took place on the Promenade des Anglais, Nice’s boardwalk along the Mediterranean. It may be that one of Bouhlel’s acquaintances lived along there. It may be that he went there because a store along the seafront sold his favourite brand of cigarettes or a magazine he can’t get elsewhere. He may simply have gone for a walk along there because that, by definition, is what a promenade is designed for.
Terrorism has a very clear definition: it is an act of aggression deliberately intended to cause fear. Nothing we know about Mohamed Bouhlel so far suggests he did any more than cracking under stress and acting out his violent tendencies, albeit in the most gruesome manner.
It may well turn out that he was an Islamist terrorist; the product of fast-track radicalisation, as the current theory goes. But in the media and thus by extension public perceptions, Bouhlel has already been (pre-)judged. Simply because we humans feel obliged to put things into clearly labelled boxes.
There’s a beggar who sits outside my local Carrefour supermarket. He’s a shoddily dressed young man who seems to have a permanent sneer on his face. Slouched against the wall, he demands passers-by give him two euros. Not change. Not “Could you spare?” or “Please.” He just says, “Give me two euros.” And if, in shock, you shake your head and attempt to move on, he adds, “Then give me five euros!”
I’m sure he thinks it’s funny. He probably thinks his unusual approach to panhandling will make people like him and therefore be more likely to give him something. I know what it does to me: it pisses me off, and that puts him right at the bottom of my deserving-non-deserving scale.
He may well be deserving, but my mind has decided otherwise. So he'll never get a cent out of me. Or, I presume, out of you, you prejudiced skinflint.