Home » Communication » Is Prejudice Wrong?

Is Prejudice Wrong?

I remember a heated discussion I had in the 90’s with an African American friend of mine over race, culture and prejudice. I often contended genetic innocence for American slavery every time he tried to tar me with that brush because during those years my ancestors were in Scotland, oppressed by the English… FREEEEEEEDOOOOMMMM!!!!

(Let it be known that my ancestor Robert the Bruce did not, in fact, betray William Wallace. After watching Brave Heart, I had labored for years under this guilt, discovering the truth only recently. I sleep much better these days.)

My friend, however, insisted that all white people were racists (that meant me), and that all people with white skin were responsible for what had happened to his people… including, I suppose, white Russian mountain dwellers who have never seen, nor known anyone who has ever seen, a dark skinned person. When I pointed out his hypocrisy, which I hope is obvious to everyone, he said, “Blacks can’t be racist… their hatred is justified.”

So, my friend was not actually against prejudice as a principle; he was only against being the victim of prejudice. For him, prejudice was as much a part of life as love, hate, jealousy, envy and self-preservation instincts. He believed that we should excuse, as just, some people’s hard earned prejudice.

But let’s define our terms. www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prejudice defines prejudice as, “preconceived judgment or… an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge… an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics.”

By this definition, with which I hold issue, any bias that can be defended by negative experience on any level would not be prejudice, but, rather, distrust garnered by familiarity, and, thus, justifiable.

Unfortunately, those amorphous souls, the great THEY, who shape the prejudices of political correctness, have infused our social consciousness with a ready acceptance of some groups’ “distrust” but not others.

  • If a woman distrusts men, she is justified… men stink, after all. If a man distrusts women (or even attempts to enter a discussion on gender that does not pander to the modern feminist agenda), he is a misogynist… the worst kind of person.
  • If a minority distrusts a “white” person, he or she is justified… his or her life has been hard, and no white person knows what it’s like to grow up a minority in America (Well, they’ve got me there). If a white person distrusts a minority (or even attempts to enter any discussion on race that does not condemn all whites and declare all minorities inviolate by nature) he is a racist… He or she should be fired, shunned and shamed into oblivion.
  • If a poor person distrusts a rich person, he or she is justified… their poverty is the fault of all those fat cats. If a rich person distrusts a poor person (or attempts to address the true causes of poverty), he or she is a snob, an out of touch oppressor who has built a life of luxury on the sweat and tears of others… they are poor because he or she is rich.

If our global wordsmiths will allow, I would like to suggest that “prejudice” is one of the most basic tools needed for human survival. People learn to instantly judge the signs of their environment, almost unconsciously, hundreds at a time, in order to anticipate the likelihood of outcomes, to act wisely to both evade potential threats, and to maximize potential advantages.

On the personal level, people learn to observe the signs of the way of things; they learn that you don’t tug on superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger and you don’t mess around with… those kinds of people… usually measured by numerous learned signs expressed through phonology, syntax, semantics, and paralanguage, as well as artifact, kinetic and tactile communication.

When one person encounters people from a different culture, however, (difference can be slight or severe) his or her ability to anticipate outcomes is diminished. Values and cultural cues have shifted. One finds himself or herself in the precarious place of being unable to understand the signs with accuracy and/or confidence. This leads to a host of problems in cross-cultural interaction… even between sub-cultures in a single society.

Tempers aside, I learned much during those discussions with my friend. I learned about culture, the complexity of what forms culture, and what shapes outsider’s perceptions of other cultures; I learned that what most label racism, especially the media and politicians, is not racism at all, that a good deal of “racial tensions” in our society are in fact both the entanglements of culture conflict—a far more complex phenomena than blaming everything on the color of one’s skin—and hard learned self-defensive judgments based on various levels of experience.

As with any element of human nature, like sexuality, appetite, competition, love, anger, etc., “prejudice” can warp into hideous shapes, but it is not, in and of itself, wrong. The point at which this “prejudice” goes from a healthy self-defensive assessment of one’s situation to being a blinding instrument of injustice is fuzzy, but in neither case is prejudice something we can eradicate from either society or the soul. The one is merely a perversion of the other, and the other is necessary for survival.
I realize that this topic is rife with unrestrained and often unexamined emotions. I would ask therefore, that you listen to what I have said, and not read into my words what I have not said.

  1. Racism is one form of runaway prejudice… there are others.
  2. Prejudice, while often misguided, is a natural part of people’s survival instincts—Judging situations instantly to predict outcomes.
  3. The difference between “sound judgment” & “prejudice” is fuzzy, being different sides of the same coin.
  4. Experience on different levels is a key element to honing one’s ability to judge situations for safety and profit—misjudgment is common, but judgment is necessary.
  5. A big part of a culture is the expression of its values and intentions in a system of commonly understood signs… a communication system.
  6. Engagement  of other cultures forces people together whose values & communication systems are different… often leading to fear, distrust, and/or miscommunication.
  7. While we cannot hope to eradicate prejudice, we should seek to ameliorate its worst forms among ALL, and not just some.

5 thoughts on “Is Prejudice Wrong?

  1. Rich Oberton says:

    I hope more people get to read and hear the good things you have to say. I agree with your estimation of the popular acceptance of some kinds of prejudices and that it is wrong. I would be interested in your comments about Tit 1:12-13. Is this an example of a justified prejudice? I’m not sure how Crete’s prophet Epimenides came to his conclusions, but Paul seems to agree with the estimation of the Cretans. It seems counter-intuitive to simply have a negative view of a people group no matter how justified because it denies an individual who may defy his group’s norms a fair hearing. Or do you think that a people group can prove itself so depraved that it would simply be naive to give any member of that group the benefit of the doubt.

    One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” He has surely told the truth! Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith

  2. John Gilkenson says:

    We are hard wired to edit people and events. And many times it’s incredibly accurate and simplifies our lives. Just some observations I’ve gleaned from reading Malcom Gladwell.

    1. I saw Gladwell do a lecture on his newest book, just a couple months back. He was impressive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: