I’ve been asking myself where exactly does prejudice come from.
- Inherited insecurities?
- Superiority complex?
- Prejudicial teaching?
In 1954 Gordon Allport linked prejudice to categorical thinking claiming prejudice was a natural and normal process for humans. According to him,
“The human mind must think with the aid of categories…once formed categories become the basis for prejudgement. We can’t possibly avoid the process. Orderly living depends upon it.”
So writ large prejudice, according to Allport, presumes a society unavoidably categorized into boxes into which our prejudgments are deposited, all neat and tidy. “Can’t possibly avoid” implies we don’t have a choice in the matter. Perhaps we don’t, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do our best to be aware of it. And it certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question it when we notice ourselves labeling others.
The truth is there is very little that differentiates us from one another. We share dreams, aspirations, faults and foibles that are basically pretty similar. The tyranny of prejudice is it denies us sight of our shared humanity.
For instance, the other day I came upon a panhandler at the 145th Street exit off I-5 in Seattle. I did just as Allport suggested I would, and immediately dropped my errant friend into the category of drug abuser as I righteously looked away. It was as if I could not resist the process of registering my prejudice and it all happened in a blink of an eye.
What’s so scary is the ease with which I tumbled into this process. Those of us who claim no bias or prejudice can, in a moment’s notice, don the robes of a clansman. My lazy mind conveniently dropped this panhandler into a category that gave me a green light not to give a damn. It just seemed so much easier to:
- establish a category, and
- wrap it in a principle, and
- drive off in an aura of self-righteousness.
The thing is, I know better, don’t I?
Years ago when I was newly sober I frequently passed a panhandler on a street corner near the Seattle Public Market. I uniformly resisted the temptation to help thinking (knowing) he’d use the money for liquor. One night I was in need of a meeting. It was late and I was a bit shaky, and I found a “Hoot Owl” meeting in an area heavily populated by people who were homeless. When I entered I kept my head low, not wanting to be identified as one of those down-and-outers. Then, much to my surprise, my panhandler acquaintance from the Market got up and chaired the meeting. His lead was positively riveting. The guy was really smart with a ton of good sobriety.
You could have knocked me out of my chair.
All the bullshit I’d made up about him to allow me to write him off as a loser was just that — bullshit. Turns out he was a Vietnam vet with PTSD. His condition was such that anything resembling a “normal” life was pretty much not possible so he constructed a life for himself that worked and kept him sober. His story was one of hope and freedom, quite truly inspirational. He was living his life as he chose to live it and was happy, joyous and free.
It wasn’t lost on me that the category I invented for him said a whole lot more about me than it did him. This incident reminded we are all equally broken and equally in need of grace.
A final thought.
The next time I returned to that freeway exit I remembered the guy I had encountered near the Public Market.
- I remembered what he taught me.
- I remembered how I found myself in him.
- I remembered prejudice must be seen and questioned on a daily basis.
I discovered there exists a bigger box, a category into which we both might fit if I dare to examine my own life honestly: a box called compassion.
Just a thought…
Copyright © 2018 Patrick J. Moriarty. All Rights Reserved.
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