Why do people discriminate? I am not just asking about race, class, gender, ethnicity, etc…, but of exclusive group behavior in general. I believe that there is a common core to discrimination that does not explain its entirety or the intricacies of its various forms, but does explain much of its proliferation in these so-called pluralistic times. The idea can be explicated in various ways, but they are all equivalent.
People do no understand themselves to be discriminatory unless they are conscious of intending to be so. The emphasis is on intention, not consciousness of or attention. That is, the person can be conscious of the act and even paying a lot of attention, but only intention counts for them. Let me clarify what I mean: if you were to challenge the person about the act or awareness of the act, it would not be denied. What would be denied is intending to discriminate, and since only intention matters, the fact of bias does not matter since the fact does not lead to understanding oneself to be discriminatory.
For example, Paula Deen’s recent protestations that she is not racist appear to fit this pattern: her words and acts are slathered in racism, particularly cultural and social subordination of people of color, but she insists that she did not intend to be racist. This is closely related to the “beautiful soul” phenomenon, which I would define as a person who commits bad acts, yet insists that they cannot truly be bad because “I am a person who would never do such things!” Read: I have a beautiful, pure, untarnished soul that no one can see that excuses whatever acts I appear to do. Of course, the problem with this cases is that self-understanding should not be the sole indicator of discrimination. In the case of the “beautiful soul,” that person never attributes anything negative to self-understanding.
Drawing upon my research, I propose a thesis explaining why these individuals do not understand themselves as prejudiced. The issue is one of phenomenological semantics or hermeneutics: the ray of conscious intention renders the object of attention consciously meaningful. Without intention yet with attention, the object remains meaningful in a subconscious way. For instance, the door and doorknob are meaningful insomuch as one encounters them when opening a door, yet this meaning is subconscious: we attend to them without intending them. The distinction between intention and attention, given the operative definition that I am using, is one of degree and not kind. Moreover, I am treating intention as a conscious, noetic, or cognitive act, while attention is first a pre- or sub-conscious, anoretic, non-cognitive act. Continental phenomenologists should note that I am using intention in a recognizable yet unfamiliar way; it is motivated by pragmatist phenomenology.
There is a practical reason for the distinction between intention and attention. A nominally discriminatory person has habits of separating intention and attention. In plain speech, this means that the person is practiced at acting upon bias without understanding it as bias, and gains the title “discriminatory” because the individual resists that self-understanding regardless of the facts.
Returning to a theoretical explanation, we must attend to something for it to be capable of being experienced as meaningful. Yet we must intend it for us to grasp that object with the intended meaning. Hence, prejudice grasps the object but only with the intended meaning. Likewise, the person is shocked at being called a “misogynistic pig” because he didn’t intend misogyny.
Returning to the practical reason for making the distinction, the inveterate bigot treats meaning as a private personal domain: only what I intend matters. Hence, I and my bigoted fellows will do what we always will but attribute ill-will, laziness, stupidity, and much else to those people. We, my fellows, are not bigoted: we have friends who look like that! … and thus bigotry gains the imprimatur of social acceptance, is strengthened, and becomes the America that we live in today. Systematic discrimination and oppression that does not know itself as such.