Forgive me if it goes astray.
But when I woke up this morning,
Could have sworn it was Judgment Day.
I was having a rather jumbled dream, right before I woke up this morning, about divers getting the bends and people finding it difficult to change prejudiced attitudes. The two situations seemed to be logically connected, and while the similarity between them may not be easy to put into words, I'll give it a try.
Decompression sickness or "the bends" is a painful and occasionally fatal condition that affects divers who return to the surface too rapidly after a deep dive. Because water exerts more pressure on the body than air, nitrogen dissolves into a diver's blood in larger amounts than would ordinarily be found in the human body. The additional nitrogen causes no problems while the diver remains in a high-pressure environment. As the diver returns to the surface, however, the gas comes out of solution and forms bubbles. During a slow ascent, the bubbles leave the body through the lungs without causing any harm, but a quick return to the surface will leave the unfortunate diver with a large amount of potentially deadly nitrogen bubbles in the body.
For the most part, prejudiced attitudes are also the result of external pressure. We all absorb some amount of bigotry from the society around us, no matter how open-minded we try to be; and it's always circulating through our minds, just as we always have some amount of dissolved nitrogen in our blood. Under particularly oppressive social conditions, when stereotypes and hate speech become commonplace (as we have seen regarding autism in recent years), the pressure to think and act in prejudiced ways increases significantly. When this happens, if we are fortunate enough to be in the majority group, we may not even notice that anything has changed. Because we see these attitudes all around us, in ordinary situations, everything seems normal.
We begin to notice our prejudices only when the social pressures lessen—that is, when there are voices speaking up for respect and acceptance, challenging the forces of intolerance. If this process happens gradually, it seems like a natural evolution in our thinking. But when it comes about very suddenly, the abrupt change in social pressure makes many people uncomfortable, and they react accordingly.
Most of them are not inherently evil, small-minded, or incapable of appreciating human diversity. They just have the bends.