Primates and Prejudice

I’ve just come back from one of the best trips of my life, and to think, because of a bit of pride and prejudice, I almost didn’t go!

Like anyone entering a new career, graduate students and junior academics get anxious about new experiences, especially large events in which the potential for public humiliation seems frighteningly ubiquitous. Several years ago, when I was a newly minted graduate student, the academic conference was one of the most horrific things I could imagine. Even asking a question seemed out of the question, never mind actually giving a paper! I eased myself in gently, just listening to begin with. Largely, the academics I observed were polite and kind to one another. Perhaps asking questions wouldn’t be so bad. So the time came for me to ask my first question. I thought about it carefully, and with as little of a tremor as possible, put my hand up. The panellist to whom the question had been addressed seemed interested and responded at length. In fact, my question sparked further discussion from the floor. I breathed a sigh of relief: my first conference question hadn’t been a humiliating disaster! The sigh of relief, however, was short lived. At the end of the session the chair invited the panellists to make closing statements. Most responded with the usual thank yous to the chair, the audience, and to their fellow panellists. Then came the final academic in the row. This was not the speaker to whom I had addressed my question, but a lean, smart-looking, American, who took the opportunity to lean forward and say that, frankly, he thought the question on religion (my question) had been “vacuous”. My face went red and a lump came to my throat. The Blackadder phrase, “the hot crumpet of shame burned on my cheeks”, would have been a good one to describe this moment of slightly adolescent, but utter, humiliation. After the session had closed I completed the obligatory small talk with my neighbours, and, as casually as I could, found the farthest away and most private toilet in the building and cried like a baby. Whilst he had disagreed courteously with the other men on the panel, this senior academic had, in front of an audience of other academics whom I respected, called me “vacuous”. That particular insult hurt my pride as it went straight to the chip already on my shoulder. Though I consider the event differently now, at the time I couldn’t imagine anything worse.

Vacuous? Moi?
Photograph by Bungle

Since vacuous-gate, I have asked many questions at conferences and given my own papers too. I have been lucky enough to have had a more than positive experience of conferences ever since. Despite this, years and years later, I was gripped by utter horror when my supervisor suggested that we submit a panel for a large American conference. At the time of the aforementioned vacuous comment a friend had claimed, on what authority I’m not sure, that American academics were just more aggressive during conferences, due to the teaching style in the US. While I suspected that this comment had, in an odd way, been designed to make me feel better about having been publicly savaged, this prejudice had stuck with me on some level. I had never been to America and had no other contact with American academics, I thought, perhaps, there might be some truth to it. In my fevered imaginings this American conference was going to be a feeding frenzy of savage, American, academic sharks, and I would be the bit of old calf leg thrown into their midst. I was green about the gills with trepidation. What nonsense! Of course, when I arrived at my first conference in the USA, everyone was utterly lovely. Senior academics and grad students alike, were welcoming, friendly, and generous. My trip to the states turned out to be the most tremendous fun: I learnt so much and opened my mind to new research possibilities. Papers ranged from the intellectually challenging to equally erudite but also hilarious offerings, such as "Queen of the Jungle", a talk on how the primate politics of the Elizabethan court echo the machinations of rhesus monkeys! I left America knowing that I couldn’t wait to go back. If I had to make a generalisation I would say that American academics are, on the whole, friendlier, more nurturing, more relaxed, and more courteous than their British counterparts (but don’t tell anyone I said that). It may seem silly (or worse than silly) to you that a person could manage to form a judgement on a whole continent of people based on no more than hearsay and a bad experience, yet a good dollop of fear, mixed in with bad advice, and a helping of personal insecurity, is the perfect recipe for prejudice. Unfortunately, it's just what we primates do.

Shakespeare experiments with this unfortunate combination in both Othello and Much Ado About Nothing. The prejudice at work in both these plays is one concerning women. Both plots rely on the early modern belief that women are mentally and sexually frail and easily corruptible. Othello and Claudio only too quickly believe in the supposed infidelity of their beloveds with very little evidence at all. Othello finds a handkerchief that he gave to Desdemona in someone else’s possession, while Claudio sees some woman (not Hero) in flagrante with another man. Both men leap to the conclusion that two plus two equals five. For them, the natural conclusion is that women are unfaithful. The same evidence could have lead them in the opposite direction, but of course it doesn’t. Even before these moments of crisis, each play is strewn with casual misogyny, focussing on women’s fickle nature.  In the very first scene of Much Ado, when asked whether Hero is his daughter, Leonato jokes “Her mother hath many times told me so.” This casual gag is a subtle reminder of the anxiety surrounding female chastity in Shakespeare’s day. Before genetic paternity testing the only way to determine the provenance of a child was by trusting its mother. In a patriarchal society that generally didn’t trust women with anything as dangerous as learning to read Latin, trusting them with the important matter of heirs wasn’t easy. Othello is also warned about women’s fickle ways very close to the opening of the play in Act I Scene 3. Desdemona’s father blesses her new marriage with this warning to her husband: “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: / She has deceived her father, and may thee.” Brabantio argues that since Desdemona has betrayed her father, it is likely that she will also betray her husband. In a society that views the woman as either a saint or a whore, the first dishonesty leads to total condemnation.

In order to tip this anxiety and prejudice into total conviction of guilt, Othello and Claudio both have a devil to whisper in their ears. Iago invites Othello to interpret evidence in a certain way, as Don John does for Claudio. However, these seeds of doubt were planted in credulous soil: the men wanted to believe the lies. Both Don John and Iago deliver a half-baked story and evidence that would never stand up in a court of law. Imagine Claudio on Judge Judy, my grandma’s favourite tv show.
“Did you see the defendant’s face?”
“No, your honour.”
“You’re an idiot. Get out of my cwourtroom!”
Judge Judy wouldn’t give Claudio the time of day. The non-fatal ending of Much Ado easier to imagine Claudio in Judge Judy’s courtroom, than Othello, who smothers his own wife. He’d have to have his own, horrible version of Making a Murderer on Netflix. Despite this, the plots of the two plays are very similar. The slight difference between them lies largely in the fact that one finishes before the other. In Act IV Scene I Claudio denounces Hero as an adulteress and leaves her (ostensibly) for dead. Others in the play describe this moment as Claudio murdering Hero (“Thou hast kill'd my child” says Leonato). In Act V Scene II Othello, convinced of Desdemona’s infidelity does, in fact, kill his wife. At that stage the plots of the two plays reach a parallel situation. Both men later learn that they were mistaken, but there are no takesie-backsies for Othello. Luckily, Much Ado is a comedy, so Hero’s “death” is not the end of the play. After Claudio has stormed out, Beatrice protests Hero’s innocence, staying Leonato’s hand long enough for the guilty parties to reveal themselves to the shambolic watchmen. Eventually the truth comes to light and Hero’s name is cleared. It is easy to imagine that had Othello proposed a cooling off period, or even asked Desdemona to have a cup of tea and a chat with him, everything would have been straightened out, and she, being the worryingly mellow sort of woman she is, would probably have forgiven him for all the confusion. If only he’d waited, instead of acting quickly, prompted by rumour, and blinded by prejudice.

The outcomes of Othello and Much Ado About Nothing, are, of course, governed by the generic requirements of tragedy and comedy; one was always going to end in tears. Our own lives, on the other hand, are a different story. It is our choice whether to be like Othello (strangle first, ask questions later) or like Beatrice (who is one of the few characters in Much Ado who understands the concept of innocent until proven guilty – and she does excellent banter). We all have our insecurities and prejudices, and there is always a little Iago in our lives who will (sometimes intentionally, but often unintentionally) distort, exploit, or feed these foibles. The trick is, not to act on prejudice, but to take our time, like a Shakespearean comedy, and wait for the plot to unravel. Imagine what fun I would have missed, and what fantastic people I would never have met, if I’d let bad advice from a friend and one bad experience scare me off! As Judge Judy would say “Oh pleeeease. Baloney! Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.”


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