I had a conversation recently with a friend who lives in a suburb of Belfast, which can be summarised as follows: "Where I live, we have no problem. We have learned to forget our differences and get on with it. If only 'we' could deal with 'them' and 'their prejudice', imagine where Northern Ireland could go?"
The irony of such a prejudiced view on prejudice was missed by my friend. It was a classic case of compartmentalisation - a refusal to see any connection between personal attitudes, thoughts and actions and the lot of others. The end result is that no responsibility falls on "me" for what is happening to "them". We become bystanders.
In this context, our latest survey 'Do You Mean Me?' is both revealing and disturbing.
It appears that our negative attitudes to others are hardening. And this increases according to social contact, from workplaces, to neighbourhoods, to home. Indeed 30% of those surveyed indicated that they could perceive of some circumstances which would justify holding a prejudiced viewpoint.
Our survey also asked people what they thought about different groups. The group which attracted the most negativity was the Traveller Community with 54% of people saying they would not want a Traveller as a neighbour.
Although relatively low numbers (7%) had negative views about people from a different religion, this rises when you ask if they would want someone from a different religion as a neighbour (10%) or to marry a close relative (17%) compared to 6% and 8% in 2008.
Attitudes are hardening towards people with physical and learning disabilities and mental ill-health in the workplace. More than a quarter of respondents (26%) said they would mind having someone with mental ill-health as a work colleague, compared to 17% three years previously.
There were also strong negative attitudes towards transgendered people, Eastern European migrants and lesbian, gay or bisexual people.
The survey also reveals there has been a sharp rise in people who feel that they have been treated unfairly. One third of respondents said that they had experienced harassment or were treated unfairly during the past three years because they belonged to a particular group - that's 17 percentage points up on the equivalent figure in 2008.
It found that people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, those with a disability and who are lesbian, gay or bisexual are more likely to feel they have been treated unfairly. Notably, only one-fifth of people made a complaint about their treatment.
It is a continuing concern for us that so many people may be treated unfairly and not seek redress. We provide advice to the thousands of people each year and will continue to prioritise initiatives that reach out and connect with those who are in most need of our services.
The survey also included questions about under-representation of groups in public life. More than two thirds of respondents said they would like to see more women in management positions in the workplace; 65% said they would like to see more disabled people in work and 63% said they would like to see more female MLAs.
We believe that the business community and all political parties should take these results on board. More sharing, more diverse workforces and political representatives will lead to better decision-making which is more reflective of society.
Equality must underpin all that we do and it is welcome that this principle has been recognised in the Executive's Programme for Government. The findings from this survey will certainly shape our work going forward and we hope that they will also inform and guide the work of others.
I firmly believe that we are at a time where a small measure of courage and some creative thinking could allow us to construct new ways of being together, recognising our differences but going ahead in a way that accepts we need to deal with them rather than deny them.