Sunday, December 19, 2010

Good move in Congress

I am very pleased that Congress has now eliminated the ban on gay people serving openly in the US armed forces. I know many gay people who have served with distinction during the last decade, and it always pained me that they could have been discharged if their sexual orientation had been made known. Who knows how many other qualified people chose not to serve because of the previous law.

I am struck by how long it takes for society to overcome its prejudices. As I welcome our new employees each week, I tell them the story of the establishment of Beth Israel Hospital in 1916, which occurred because of discrimination against Jewish doctors and Jewish patients. Young people look at me in incredulity, wondering how a society could be so prejudiced. Well, I know doctors who tell me that such discrimination lasted through the 1960's for them here in Boston, limiting their professional options, or causing them to legally change their names to keep those options open.

I have read that prejudice and discrimination may have an evolutionary basis, rooted in the nature of primate and human subsistence groups. Here's just one example, gleaned from a quick Google search, from a 2004 paper by Harold D. Fishbein, Department of Psychology at the University of Cincinnati:

Our genetic/evolutionary heritage provides the initial push toward prejudice. My essential argument is that three sets of genetic/evolutionary processes that lead to prejudice and discrimination evolved in hunter-gatherer tribes. They were appropriate and necessary for that subsistence mode, which characterizes 99% of human existence.

I guess it is hard to counteract this stuff if it is really wired into our brains as a result of thousands of years of genetic selection. On the other hand, we should be advanced enough not to let us use our evolutionary inclinations as an excuse for inaction or continued discrimination or political grandstanding.


lynnie said...

It is truly a relief to see our country has the ability to evolve. As with most, if not all evolutionary processes, it takes a long time for change to occur.
To think that there may have have been hundreds, if not thousands of talented people, who had a dream to serve in the military and could not due to prejudice or , as Harold Fishbein describes it, tribalism is very sad and a great loss to our military in terms of talent.

Thank you for sharing the history of Beth Israel Hospital establishment and the plight of Jewish doctors seeking to practice the art of healing and patient's seeking care without discrimination. Unfortunately, for the many people/patients who were suffering and in need of care during those times may have done so unnecessarily. It is possible that the very Doctor that was kept from practicing due to prejudice may have discovered a cure for a disease that we instead had to wait another 20 years for.
Thankfully, BIDMC and it's leaders had the ability to, not repeat the abuse and mistreatment incurred by their predecessors and evolve into a Hospital were all are welcome.
If what Harold Fishbein says is true, then every human being has to wake up each and every day, plant their feet firmly on the ground, accept that prejudice exists in us all and do something to stop it.

Robert said...

It is about time, risking their lives for us warm and cozy at home. Gay or Straight both are lives.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't let us off the hook so easily as to say it is genetically hard wired. His paper says,

"As with other cultural values, norms and beliefs, prejudice and discrimination have to be learned", and that they are more prevalent in authoritarian societies. "[Authority acceptance] is probably the main genetic/evolutionary source of hatred of many outgroups."

It appears the predilection for absorbing these values may inherently exist, but change the society and you can change the value. We see that happening, albeit unevenly, in front of us now.