© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

A bump in the fence line

A series of short posts while I’m writing a book on the secular/religious mixed marriage.

I love finding out that a concept I’ve had in my head for years has a name.

Example: Someone dislikes all gays, then learns that his brother is gay. Instead of dropping the prejudice altogether, he will often grant an exception: “I don’t like gays, but Kevin’s okay.”

In American Grace, Putnam and Campbell call this the Aunt Susan principle. Even people in relatively homogeneous families and social groups often (and increasingly) have an Aunt Susan or a “pal Al” who is different from the rest — a Jew among Christians, or gay among straights — and still a good egg. Granting the exception can be a first step toward dismantling assumptions and stereotypes, but it can also be a way of resisting that bigger step.

fencebumpToday I learned (from a great post by FBB’s Dr. Brittany Shoots-Reinhard) that social psychologists have an even better name for this. It’s called re-fencing. Instead of tearing down the fence that separates us from a disliked or distrusted group, we build a little bump in the fence line to accommodate the one we know and love.

Re-fencing is a start, but it can easily become a form of “stereotype maintenance” rather than stereotype change. The key to helping someone move past this middle step, to encourage a more complete dismantling of the prejudice, Shoots-Reinhard says, is to “confront people with multiple instances of disconfirmation (like multiple friends coming out as atheist).” In time, hopefully, the fence becomes too curvy to stand.

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This was written on Friday, 19. July 2013 at 10:55 and was filed under mixed marriage, Religious/Nonreligious Marriage Book. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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