All types of thought –also those of scholars and scientists – proceed according to established models, stereotypes and prejudices. Prejudice is intrinsic to every cognitive process: according to Hans Georg Gadamer, prejudices condition the historical reality of an individual far more than his judgments. He believes that it is impossible to set them aside, although one can continuously question them to avoid them becoming crystallized.
In another meaning, prejudice is an opinion, a feeling, an attitude cultivated and/or expressed not through a social group’s or an individual’s direct knowledge, ma on the basis of platitudes, clichés, and more or less widely shared stereotypes. Typical of prejudice in this sense is the tenacious resistance to the tests of experience, knowledge and direct relating. Crystallizing itself into irreversible forms and becoming the usual and socially shared habit of perceiving and portraying certain categories of people or minority groups, prejudice can increase or justify discrimination and racism.
It is prejudice in the negative sense, in particular addressed at minority groups, that attracted the attention of many scholars, resulting in many interpretative theories, almost all useful for understanding a phenomenon with a very complex aetiology. Starting in the Fifties, these studies multiplied, also due to the influence of the book by Theodor W. Adorno, entitled The Authoritarian Personality, published in 1950. The result of collective research, this book investigates prejudice mainly within the context of the individual personality, interpreting it finally as the result of a rigid, conformist and authoritarian education.
Within the framework of social psychology, the book published in 1954 by the American author Gordon W. Allport, The nature of prejudice, has the merit of integrating an analysis of the cognitive processes with that of the social dimensions of prejudice. According to Allport, prejudice is an “attitude of rejection or hostility towards a person belonging to a group, simply because the person belongs to the group, and hence it is assumed has the negative qualities generally attributed to this same group”. Prejudice arises from cognitive processes and in particular from the inclination each individual has to categorise, organise, simplify and schematise the complexity of social reality. In turn, since placing people in categories is per se a reductive process, and associated to an affective-assessing element, categorising can in turn produce stereotypes, arbitrary generalisations and labelling.
Once again within the framework of social psychology, another important contribution is provided by Henri Tajfel, addressing the social function of prejudice, correctly analysed within the framework of relationships –multiple, complex and changeable ones – between different social groups. Proposing to investigate the process leading to the discrimination of individuals and groups that differ from “us”, he emphasises how prejudice plays a role in the field of identity, especially when one’s own social identity is perceived as uncertain and threatened, one tends to preserve or recreate it through categorising processes emphasising the us/others difference, the positive image of oneself and the negative one of others. Stereotypes and prejudices are structured on the basis of cultural tradition, of the system of values, of the interests and the need for differentiation of a given group, and can nurture or justify discrimination and hostility.
Stereotypes and prejudices tend to simplify social reality, denying its complexity, multiplicity, ambivalence and historicity. They often appear in forms of arbitrary generalisation, naturalisation of real or presumed historical, social and cultural characteristics of the victim-group; as a tendency to label a category of people or a community on the bases of a few and standardised features, and to designate, on the basis of these, all the individuals in it: all Jews are ultra-Zionists, greedy for money, linked to powerful lobbies, all Muslims are fanatics and potential terrorists, all “gypsies” are beggars, thieves, child kidnappers, all illegal immigrants are deviants or delinquents. The “others” are therefore deleted as individuals, as unique and singular persons.
Some prejudices, formed and stratified through various stages of European history, become repertoires that are always latent, periodically re-emerging or returning to be mobilised in different contexts and with different functions and objectives. This is in particular true for anti-Jewish prejudices and those against Roms and Sintis. The stubborn prejudices about “gypsies”, even those that seen the most trite, contribute to increase stigmatisation, discrimination and hostility: for example, in Italy many institutions often act on the basis of prejudice that considers them as “nomads” always and forever, which contributes to their segregation in ghetto-camps.
Prejudices –nowadays more than ever transmitted, legitimised and strengthened by the mass-media- set off a vicious circle that has been analysed extremely well by scholars: if the minorities that are the object of prejudice cannot access fundamental rights, such as for example the right to a home, it is because prejudice and consequent discrimination prevents them from exercising this right. This in turn, by increasing their marginality and visibility, nurtures the prejudice, the discrimination, and even the xenophobia.