One of the things I'm always on the lookout for in my interactions with other people is signs of unconscious bias. Not that I have anything against being prejudiced per se - I certainly don't think that all people are created equal, for example - I'm quite willing to be biased as long as it's a bias I'm aware of. It's the idea that I may be biased unthinkingly that frightens me. I think there's an important difference between being a bigot and being opinionated - an opinion is something you form consciously, bigotry is a filter that keeps you from looking clearly at the world.
More importantly, there are distinctions I consider valid and others that I do not. I'm quite happy, for instance, to look down on Britney Spears fans or people who think Dan Brown is the greatest writer in the world, but I'd hate to think that I'm prejudiced against someone based on his / her gender, race or nationality.
I think the difference in my mind is that it's valid to discriminate against people based on choices that they make - partly because they're controlled forms of self-expression, and partly because these are valid indicators of deeper interests / abilities - but it's not okay to discriminate on the basis of things that people are born with / into. This may, of course, be a naively individualistic view, ignoring the effect that social parameters have on individual personality, but I still think it's unfair not to give people the chance to prove that they don't conform to the stereotype. The flip-side of everyone not being equal is that people within a particular sub-group are not equal either. So one shouldn't stereotype.
It disturbed me therefore that while I was writing a review of Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black yesterday, I found myself referring to the author as Ms. Mantel. This may not seem like such a bad thing, except that two days ago I wrote a review of Dan Jacobson's All for Love and had no compunction calling him Jacobson all through. Why the sudden formality with Mantel then? Why this need to patronise? Hilary Mantel is as serious a writer as Dan Jacobson is; in both cases the novels reviewed were the first books by either author I'd read , why then did I feel that I could be familiar with Jacobson but had to treat Mantel with kid gloves?
Some people would argue that what motivated me was merely a chivalrous impulse - a reluctance to express too easy a familiarity with a lady I don't really know. This is a horrifying thought. I do not, repeat, do not believe in chivalry. I believe that chivalry is just chauvinism put politely. At the heart of the chivalrous ideal is the assumption that women are 'special' creatures who require (and deserve) protection and preferential treatment. But once you make that assumption and assume that all women, independent of their individual preferences / personalities, are the same, once you make gender the sole discriminatory variable guiding your actions, then it's a short step to treating women as inferior. And isn't chivalry ultimately about marking women out, making them feel more like women (whatever that means)? By putting a 'Ms.' before Mantel's name, am I not insinuating that the fact that she's a woman is somehow relevant to the understanding of her book, and that it entitles her to be treated with greater compassion than I would treat a male writer?
I didn't finally use the Ms. of course - I called her Mantel, just as I called Jacobson Jacobson. But the fact that my instinct told me (still tells me) that I should put the Ms. in continues to disturb me.
Two (exceedingly thin) arguments I can advance in my own defense: First, could my need to patronise come rather from my assessment of Mantel's novel (which I disliked) rather than from the fact of her being a woman? Could it be that I felt comfortable addressing Jacobson less informally because having enjoyed his book I felt much closer to him than I did to Mantel? Or second, could it me something about the sound of the two names - the three syllables of Jacobson standing well enough alone, but Mantel seeming to short, too cursory, a chair too thin to sit on without that extra cushion of Ms. on top?
Is this just me? Does this happen to other people? Do they worry about it too? Am I just being paranoid?
 Thinking about it, I realised that I have no problem addressing women whose writing I'm familiar with by their unadorned surnames. I would never dream of saying Ms. Austen or Ms. Woolf or Ms. Murdoch for instance. So my first theory was that it was just because Mantel was an author I'd never read before. Unfortunately, the same applies to Jacobson so the argument doesn't hold.