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, gay among straights, atheist among believers — and still a good egg. Granting the exception can be a first step toward dismantling assumptions and stereotypes.
Multiple studies have shown that support for same-sex marriage is strongly linked to having close friends or family who are gay. It’s less a comprehensive change-of-heart than a willingness to accommodate someone in your own circle.
I learned from Dr. Brittany Shoots-Reinhard that social psychologists have an even better name for this kind of exception-making. 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.
It’s not always a positive thing. Re-fencing can also be a way of resisting that bigger step, a form of “stereotype maintenance” rather than stereotype change.
But it can be a start. 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.