Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Prejudice

We live in a dangerous world, as many campaigning today would tell us. Many appeal to our fears to fuel their own drive to power. But often times they resort to feeding our biggest enemy. They label groups as "suspicious", accuse candidates of being up to no good...all but accusing them of being "the enemy". It is a tactic that can separate us more than all our other differences - cultural, economic, religious, language, or politics. It comes in many forms with many names, most provoking automatic defensiveness. But to understand and defeat it we need to see it in it's most basic form.It is called prejudice.

Prejudice, to break it down linguistically, is just pre-judging. It is like a judge ruling a defendant in a trial guilty, before hearing any of the evidence. It is judging an individual based on what we know or think about the group he or she is a part of, rather than on his or her actions. We tend to form opinions about groups -like for instance, blonds - based on a small sample of interactions with some individuals- and make a broad group generalization by which we then use to evaluate any other members of that group. And usually the generalizations we make are not positive.:(

Think of it this way. If you were bitten by a dog as a young child you might be fearful of all dogs. If you avoided dogs because of this, your attitude toward them would be governed by your early experience. All dogs would be judged based on that one encounter you had,even though they may be the most gentle of dogs. If, on the other hand, you were like me, and had multitudes of positive dog experiences while young, you would approach dogs quite differently. Childhood experiences can be very powerful but as adults we need to rise above those or we will remained trapped in our own little world...and be used by those who prey upon prejudice.

The driving force behind prejudice is fear. Like the previous example we can develop fear from early experiences-or learn them from our family or friends. Our strongest, most basic need is self-preservation. Real or perceived threats to that will cause us to become defensive and look for shortcuts to build our defenses. Much like we label medicines and food for quick and safe action, we label people to enable our bodies and minds to react on short notice. But these are dangerous shortcuts. It puts us in a constant state of "fight or flight" and stunts our living. And it hurts others, as well.

We have seen throughout our history that in times of distress we lean towards prejudice. In times of economic downturn we discriminated against many categories of immigrants (Italians, Irish, Jews,Asians,etc). After Pearl Harbor we let fear drive us to lock up thousands of American citizens in internment camps, simply because they were of Japanese ancestry. And after 9-11 we looked with suspicion on anyone who was either Arabic, or Muslim, or whom we thought were. Lately there are those in our country who use the label "Muslim" as a smear and dagger with which to attack their opponents. And we invaded a country (Iraq) which had not attacked us,based on the fear that if we didn't there might be a "mushroom cloud".

How do we battle this? There are three things we need: knowledge, choice, and humility.Knowledge is needed to dispel the fog of the unknown. We have a fear of the unknown often because we think "what we don't know can hurt us"...we do not share the explorers' expectation of wonderful discovery, but rather fear the bad we imagine awaiting us. Get to know those who are different from you - economically, racially, culturally,even politically. Expand your "sample" of experiences so that you will see a truer picture of the "group". Don't judge all dogs by ill-tempered guard dogs, there are many scruffy unconditional lovers out there in dog form.

Choice... you must choose to avoid generalization and welcome the exploration of the unknown. It takes work, but you will be rewarded. Don't be like the American tourist who goes to Paris and dines on hamburgers. Life is too short to be stunted.

And last, humility...you must accept that you are not perfect. We all fall into the trap of generalizations and prejudice from time to time. You must resist it by being willing to examine yourself and work to correct the flaws you find. And you must be willing to extend the grace you give yourself to others...the freedom to be who they are, not some caricature of your fears. As you want to be treated you must treat others. Would you like to be judged based on the bad behavior of someone who looks or dresses or worships as you do? No? Then don't do it to others. It's as simple as that

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