“The killing of Americans and their civilian and military allies is a religious duty for each and every Muslim. We, with God’s help, call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill Americans and plunder their money whenever and wherever they find it. ” “The September 11th attack gave a harsh lesson to these arrogant peoples, for whom freedom is but for the white race… God willing, America’s end is near. ” –Osama Bin Laden, in a February, 1998, appeal to Muslims, and a videotaped statement in the fall of 2001.
It is hard to find a more explicit example of prejudice than this appeal by Osama bin Laden. Although sociologists often differ in their precise definitions of the term prejudice, it invariably involves a negative attitude toward the members of a certain group, based solely upon their membership in that group. From Osama bin Laden’s viewpoint, non-Muslim Americans are the group he holds a negative attitude against and hence the main target of the various hostile manifestations of his prejudiced attitude.
The purpose of this essay is to describe the commonly accepted social psychological explanations for this implacable social phenomenon, to present the reasons that have been put forth by social psychologists over the years as to how and why prejudice exists. In view of this, a brief definition of the term ‘prejudice’ will first be provided, to dispel any doubts in the readers mind about the same. Following that, the concept of social categorization, the main driving force behind the conception and intensification of a prejudiced attitude, will be discussed.
Subsequent to that, a few other concepts that have been put forth as social psychological explanations for prejudice will also be briefly described. Before moving on, it is necessary to provide an articulate description of the terms prejudice, stereotype and discrimination, since they will be used frequently through this essay. Prejudice is a hostile or negative attitude toward a distinguishable group of people, based solely on their membership in that group1. Where prejudices lurk, stereotypes are seldom far behind.
The term stereotype has evolved greatly over the past few centuries, and has gradually come to mean generalizations, or quite often over-generalizations, about a certain group of people, wherein identical characteristics are assigned to all members of the group, regardless of actual variation between members2. Common examples of stereotypes are those of the materialistic Jew and the African American basketball player. Discrimination can be defined as negative or harmful action taken against members of a particular group, once again solely due to their membership in that group3.
Thus, discrimination can be aptly referred to as ‘prejudice in action’. The merciless killing of white Americans, in part arising from Osama bin Laden’s provocative statements, is a glaring example of discrimination. One word that stands out in all of the definitions above is ‘group’, which seems to suggest that the categorization of people into different groups is instrumental in the development of prejudiced attitudes. Bearing this in mind, a brief description of how this categorization takes place will now be provided, followed by an explanation of how prejudice is borne out of this social categorization.
Social categorization can be described as the process of classifying people into different social groups according to certain characteristics that they share in common. These characteristics can range from colour of the skin, to religion, to nationality, to even the football club one supports. One fundamental way that people are categorized is on the basis of in-group and out-group, where, as the names suggest, an in-group is a group to which a person feels he/she belongs, and an out-group is a group to which a person feels he/she does not belong.
Following this categorization, one’s attitude, thoughts and behavior toward someone are influenced by one’s perception of the group to which he/she belongs. Stereotypes held about that group are invariably applied to all members of the group, while individual differences and variations between members either go unnoticed or are dismissed. This perception that there is less variability among the members of the out-group than within one’s own in-group is called ‘out-group homogeneity bias.
‘ Furthermore, this categorization ultimately culminates in positive feelings and preferential treatment for people who have been defined as part of the in-group, and negative feelings and unfair treatment for those defined as part of the out-group. The process of social categorization is portrayed in the following example. Suppose a Manchester United supporter enters a sports cafi?? before a Manchester United versus Arsenal game4. Looking on one side of the cafi?? , if he notices a group of people wearing Arsenal shirts, he will instantly feel contempt for them.
This is because they will immediately be categorized as the out-group, and stereotypes held by him about Arsenal supporters will be applied to them, resulting in him thinking of all the people in that group as arrogant conceited snobs. He will, in all probability, not even consider the possibility that the supporters may be different from his perceived notion of Arsenal supporters. In fact, if he is an outspoken individual, it is also fairly likely that he will hurl a stream of verbal abuse at the group of Arsenal supporters.