Prejudiced? What me?

Yes me – and (forgive me for pointing this out) – yes you too!
Prejudice is part of being human.  We each have a point of view.  We come from somewhere.  We’re formed by our experiences.  And we prejudge things.  That’s what prejudice is – forming instant opinions on each new scene / experience / person we encounter.  It’s part of our make up, and a key element of our self-protection.  It keeps us safe.

Pre-judging is related to our instinctive “fight or flight” defence strategy.  By carrying prepared templates of potential danger points in our mind, we give ourselves a microsecond advantage as danger approaches.  Animals display similar responses. Try to swat a fly and it’s gone almost before your hand moves. Why? Because it was pre-warned.  Watch how wild animals behave – deer for instance. Their reaction time seems impossibly fast. But when a familiar person comes near (such the game warden who regularly feeds them) they graze contentedly.  They’re prejudiced against most humans, but they see the warden as “safe”.

Let’s talk about caricatures. They have often played a part in propaganda, which is a tool for creating prejudice.  But caricatures (or cartoons) are not always destructive.  They can be fun.  But why do they work at all?  When you think about it, a cartoon carries very little real information.  It is a greatly simplified image – but we quickly recognise the person who it’s intended to represent.  Studies have shown that our brain’s face recognition apparatus also uses simplified images.  We don’t need a fully detailed portrait to recognise someone we know.  Just a few lines will do.  Face recognition cameras copy that simplicity, but come up with remarkably accurate results.

So, prejudice is a safety measure, and its underlying features are built in to our brains and bodies.  We needn’t be ashamed of our animal instincts.  But we do need to remind ourselves that we’re more than animals.  The instinct to pre-judge situations or people is a safety device to protect us in the short term.  It’s OK to be prejudiced for just as long as it takes to break into a run to escape imminent danger.  That’s what the instinct is for.  But once that instant is past, we should rise above our instincts.  We have animal bodies but we’re endowed with intelligence.  We are capable of making balanced judgements – so let’s do that.

But few of these “instincts” are truly instinctive.  Experiments have shown that a very young child seeing a snake is as likely to react with curiosity as with fear.  Our pre-judgements are informed by experiences, including second-hand experiences like stories or films.  We learn to classify people with particular features, maybe racial features or styles of dress, as threatening.  Rising above those lessons requires determination and honesty – honesty, that is, about our own unreasonableness. To escape from prejudice, we need to admit that we’re prejudiced, then to teach ourselves to re-classify the people we have misjudged.

Do not judge”, said Jesus, “or you will be judged”, and he was not necessarily talking about an end-of-the-world divine judgement. Hatred provokes hatred. Fear generates fear. Prejudice spawns prejudice.  Most of us can sense when we’re being judged.  It may be the way someone looks, their tone of voice, perhaps their body language – or it may be some more subtle sense that we can’t explain – but we feel uncomfortable about it.  So, when we judge another person, they probably sense our attitude, and we shouldn’t be surprised if they react badly.  Remember the old advice – when you point the finger at someone, three fingers are pointing back at you.

When we choose to define someone as “bad”, “inferior”, or any negative we might choose, we lose perspective.  Nobody can be defined in such simple terms.  Personalities are very complex.  Our narrow judgement blinds us to the truth and leads us astray.  The Pharisees couldn’t understand how Jesus behaved towards people they judged as inferior – “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them[i], they protested.  Jesus saw people as whole, noticed their faults, but believed in their potential.  Jesus also said, “…Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you”[ii].  That seemingly extreme advice is actually the height of wisdom.  Prejudice is a knee jerk reaction.  Loving our enemies, blessing them, and praying for them is a strategy for turning dangerous opponents into potential friends.  They may never have become enemies but for the fact that people like us were prejudiced.

© Derrick Phillips 2022

[i] Luke 15:2 (NIV)
[ii] Matthew 5:44 (KJV)

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