Prejudice may result from fear or caution, or a negative experience, or from laziness. It may also result from ideology, political opinions, wishful thinking, or stubbornness. Fortunately for us, as we study our own prejudices, and learn to see past our initial responses, the easier it becomes. Unlike many other human failings, the more we work on our prejudices, the easier it is to eliminate them. This is because the elimination of prejudice opens up more opportunity for understanding and happiness. My friend, Gillyk asked: “Is it possible, I wonder, ever to be completely free of all taint of prejudice?” I believe that it is possible, and that many have succeeded. But we must be aware of the fact, that even when we are acting without prejudice, others may see us as prejudiced, because of their own prejudice. Bending over backwards, or providing certain people with ‘extra’ rights in order to repair an unjustified or unfair situation, is a very dangerous strategy, and doesn’t usually improve the health of society.
There are certain popular concepts that are widely accepted, but are untrue and misleading. Are all men created equal? No. But we do believe that they are created with equal rights. On the whole, men are taller than women. But almost every man is able to find a particular woman who is taller than he is. One has to be free to see the exceptions, and similarly, we have to be free to make certain wide sweeping generalizations, without being accused of hatred, racism, and other crimes against humanity.
Prejudice is a word that simply means “pre-judgment”. That is, before we have learned all we possibly can, about something… anything for that matter, we sometimes judge it, based on previous opinions, not necessarily connected with the particular situation in front of us.
As I mentioned in a previous post on the subject, prejudice does not just refer to our attitudes towards people. If I were to tell you to visualize a table, you might think of a table with four legs, though there are tables with three legs, one leg, and tables that are braced against a wall, and have no legs at all. Thinking about the possibilities may slow down our reaction time to all sorts of stimuli. But it widens our understanding when we view the world around us with an open mind. It is to our greatest advantage, to examine our environment without the walls and blinders of infantile attitudes.
But in order to remain rational, and take advantage of our intelligence, we have to face certain regrettable circumstances, and not try to impose irrelevant standards on a difficult situation. I may believe in the inherent worth of every human being, and respect for my fellow man whenever and wherever possible. But there are still wars in this world, and though it takes two to tango, if one doesn’t ‘fight back’, one may very well be killed or enslaved by the other side. So it is sometimes necessary to be cautious; especially when the person we are dealing with belongs to a group of people who wish us harm. If a person has been convicted in court for pedophile behavior, it is not prejudice to oppose his employment as a school guard. Or to inform the public that he has moved into a certain neighborhood. We are obliged to care for our own; to protect those we love.
Likewise among animals, despite the fact that the prophet foresaw a time when the lamb would lie down in the company of the wolf, and despite the fact that I have personally witnessed friendships between dogs and cats, cats are very cautious when they see a dog in the neighborhood. They are not willing to risk their lives for the sake of a remote possibility. This is not prejudice. The more we stick to a rational appraisal of what is going on around us, the better and healthier our lives will be, and the greater our accomplishments.
I have found that in most cases where there is ingrained prejudice about something, there is a grain of truth, or a misunderstanding, that the prejudice has built on. The important rule is not to allow emotions to take the lead when making judgment, and to have respect for the world around us. It is natural for us to care most about our immediate family, and then our tribe, our nation, our species, and so on. To feel the same love for a flower in our garden that we feel towards a family member, is to deny our selves. But it is possible to have love for all the world that surrounds us.