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A bigot’s ‘rights’ ignore how culture shapes our brains

The tragic 200-year folly of the Crusades attests to the power of culture to shape and sustain strongly held ‘personal’ beliefs. Gustave Doré (1832-1883), Crusade against the Moors of Granada/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

There is no gene for bigotry. Bigots are not born, they are made by the people and the society around them. Our brains and minds are shaped by culture.

To quote a great American linguist, Edward Sapir:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone…

The “real world”, Sapir argued almost 100 years ago, is built out of the unconscious language habits of the group, which predispose a community towards certain ways of seeing the world.

Around the same time that Sapir was writing, two Russian psychologists, L. S. Vygotsky and A. R. Luria, were studying the effects on cognition of the economic revolution in the Soviet Union. They compared illiterate peasants in essentially feudal communities in Uzbekistan and Khirgizia with villagers who had been touched by the post-revolution collectivisation and technologisation of agriculture.

Vygotsky and Luria showed that even simple forms of categorisation and abstract thinking – like classifying basic geometic shapes – require cultural experience of a certain kind.

Culture and neuroplasticity

Culture gets under your skin, and deep into your brain. From the perspective of neuroscience, this idea is called “neuroplasticity”.

In our early years, our brains and minds are highly plastic. They depend on sensory input to grow and develop. In this phase of lives, our brains and minds take shape around the major habitual features of our environments.

By early adulthood, our minds and brains have developed elaborate structures. We have more ability to act on and change our environment. But the cultural shaping of our brains and minds predispose us to act on and interact with our environment in line with our established ways of seeing the world.

In his book Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology and Social Change, Yale professor of psychiatry Bruce Wexler describes this process as the “transgenerational shaping of the brain”. To exemplify the power of culture to shape the mind, Wexler turns from the latest findings of neuroscience to a brief history of the Crusades. It was, he writes:

… a 200-year series of largely suicidal expeditions of more than half a million European men, women and children to a destination halfway around the known world, in order to wrest control of holy places from a foreign and strange adversary that few of the expeditioners would have contacted without journeying for months over land and/or risking long and dangerous sea voyages.

And with their mums and dads making this behaviour normal, it’s hardly surprising that the zeitgeist produced enough kids who followed in their footsteps and embarked on the Children’s Crusade.

Our brains are shaped by the culture created by those who came before us. Clifford Geertz wrote:

A cultureless human being would probably turn out to be not an intrinsically talented though unfulfilled ape, but a wholly mindless and consequently unworkable monstrosity.

A form of cultural pollution

Bigotry blights a child’s environment as surely as any pollution. Ivan Bondarenko/Shutterstock

In the context of our biological dependence on culture, federal attorney-general George Brandis’ “right to be a bigot” is the right to pollute the shared cultural environment in which we live and raise children. It is the right to express views that, however much you feel are your own, you came by, largely unconsciously, simply in the process of living.

If you then have a nice big megaphone through which to broadcast your bigotry, your impact on that cultural environment will be significant.

From my many friends who have suffered its slings and arrows, I know that the content of bigotry is, above all, very dull. It’s very “same old, same old”. The pain of it comes from its capacity to narrow both individual and cultural horizons.

Brandis want us to believe that Andrew Bolt’s tawdry columns on fair-skinned Aboriginal people are part of the long, glorious struggle for the individual rights and freedoms. These are the rights and freedoms that A. C. Grayling argues make the ordinary Western citizen of today the equivalent of a 16th-century lord.

Grayling, in Towards the Light: The Struggles for Liberty and Rights That Made the Modern West, details the European struggle against the hegemonic power of a single church and of an absolute monarch. In telling the story of many individuals who are protagonists in this history, Grayling reminds us that many died, burnt at the church’s stake, in chains in royal dungeons, or on battlefields.

These struggles created the necessary cultural landscape for the abolition of slavery, for the rights of working people, for the enfranchisement of women, for universal human rights.

According to Brandis, Bolt – a columnist for the most powerful media mogul in the modern period, whose columns attacked a cultural group with the poorest social indices of any in Australia – is the latest martyr in this struggle. And Bolt is carrying on as if his recycled views are sourced from the deep well-spring of his self-made, searching intellect, as if he is Rodin’s Thinker, risen up off the plinth, to impart the fruits of his piercing cogitations.

But every act of speech has an agenda and a history. And it is always shaped by the audience to whom it is directed. This is why it is powerful.

And it is why we teach children, as part of their socialisation, that just because you think something doesn’t give you licence to say it. Families and communities would break down if we indulged ourselves by saying whatever we think whenever we like. If you don’t believe me, try it. See how long you can last.

Speech is the means by which we create the bigots of the next generation. And once bigotry is inside your head, it’s hard to get it out again. This is why so many in our community fear the consequences of the “freedom” to say whatever you think.

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