I've always taken pride in the fact that I am not racist, but something happened the other day that made me reassess my self-belief , and it got me to a-thinking; is racism a manifestation of our basic primary behavioural characteristics, a flaw in our programming, so to speak?
It is widely accepted that our neocortex, developmentally, limits the number of people with whom we can maintain stable social relationships - an idea first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar. Dunbar's number, as it was originally entitled, predicts a mean group size of 150, although other studies resulted in figures from 140 to 300.
This number range coincides neatly with village and tribe sizes since neolithic times, church congregations and military company sizes. Since they were first documented in Roman times military forces maintain company sizes of between 90 and 200. A number found to be the optimum size for a physically close group led and managed by one senior officer, fighting for each other. A military company is by definition an artificial construct which is a reflection of our natural optimum 'gang-size' and our predilection for such.
But the actual numbers aren't important, what is important is that we need gangs. I use the word 'gang' in the sense of a group of people who, through the organisation, formation, and establishment of an assemblage, share a common identity.
In situations of survival pressure we are programmed to seek out and maintain physically close gangs, employing mutual grooming to maintain a sense of group identity - modern human mutual grooming differs from our ancestors in that language has evolved to replace the the time consuming physical social grooming we can observe in the animal kingdom, you know; delousing, ear-hole hygiene, preening etc - thankfully...
Implicit in this social model is that members of other gangs are 'different from us', whether these perceptions are real or not, that 'otherness' in part defines your group as different, usually superior - we can't help it, our basic cognitive processes drive us to reinforce our own identity through our social network and our shared characteristics. In essence we are programmed to fear anything different, it is a threat to our identity - an identity we define and reinforce through our gang membership.
We just can't help ourself, it is a matter of survival - when we feel passionate about something, anything, when we believe that it's a matter of survival so to speak - we seek out groups of like minded people who in turn help reinforce our dislike of that which we perceive as different, whilst corroborating the correctness of our views, no matter how illogical they are. And there is a gang for everything; mugging, Christianity, racism, right wing, left wing - you get the idea.
Even those who claim to be anti-'pickyourprejudice' join gangs; social groups of like minded individuals who draw strength from their network and feel superior to, whilst fearing, those who dare to disagree - no wonder they're so bloody righteous, so sure that they are correct - it's a matter of survival.
So the next time you feel angered by those who dare to question your most dearly held beliefs or preconceptions, try to transcend your reflex response to tear their arms off and smash their heads to a bloody pulp and understand that they aren't as different from you as you might think - they're just programmed to disagree with you.
We don't need to flock like sheep to reinforce our prejudices, we know what they are and we should be willing to have them challenged, not just willing to, but enjoy it. If you must join a gang; don't join the gang you might support, join their opponents and relish the opportunity to walk in another man's shoes and have your beliefs tested - that and the opportunity to fight your biological limitations, you might just help advance the species.
Oh yeah and back to my navel gazing: I'm not racist - just a little afraid of those who are different from me, I canny help it...