I happen to think that the singular evil of our time is prejudice. It is from this evil that all other evils grow and multiply. In almost everything I’ve written there is a thread of this: a man’s seemingly palpable need to dislike someone other than himself.
When we encounter someone who does not resonate as “just like me” we are facing a moment of profound choice. Our response reflects the deepest instinct of our heart. Unfortunately, far too many of us respond without even thinking about it, with prejudicial thoughts about the person’s race, religion, ethnicity, body, clothing, or differences in social class, sexual orientation, age or disability, or any other variation that gives us the illusion that we are better than someone else. People find all sorts of reasons to pre-judge one another, building walls of separation rather than strengthening our human community.
A recent experience I had with prejudice motivated me to write this article to call for a greater sense of accountability for how we treat one another. I just moved into a beautiful newly-built apartment in the village of my town. It is a building that houses two apartments and is designed to fit into the architectural style of this established quiet neighborhood. While waiting for the construction to be completed before moving in, I learned that 40 neighbors had signed a petition to try and block the construction. Why? They were concerned that people who rent would bring down the neighborhood. They perceived us as people of a lower class and therefore undesirable. Part of the irony here is that a dilapidated old house that was considered an eyesore was removed from this property to build this nice, new two-apartment dwelling. I feel sorry for these people that their worldview is so very small and that their hearts have so many conditions.
No matter if our response to another person is on autopilot or deeply thought out, we are responsible for how we view one another, and consequently, how we treat each other. Sad to say, most of us could use a bit of remedial attention in this area of our consciousness.
It is one thing to have a preference, but quite another to be prejudiced against someone by rejecting him or her for being different. If we could just bring our consciousness present to the moment of our reaction, we might see that instead of stepping into a judgment of another as “less than me” or undesirable because they are different, we have the opportunity instead to step into gratitude for the abundance and grace that we perceive ourselves to have and to be gracious to the other person. Ironically, our choice says everything about us and really nothing at all about the other person. It is a matter of whether the door of our consciousness is open to variations on the theme of what it means to be human or shut because we are threatened by dissimilarity.
I think that when we look below the surface of any prejudice we find insecurity and fear. Prejudice says far more about the one who prejudges than it does about the one who is being judged. It tells us the one who judges is compelled to put someone else down to feel elevated. It tells us that the one who judges is scared of being how the other is perceived to be. It tells us that the one who judges attaches much value to his or her own relative stature and that this stature is an essential ingredient of his or her sense of self worth.
No matter what form it comes in, prejudice boils down to creating a hierarchical separation between yourself and someone else. Whether rejecting the other or preserving your own status, the net result is separation. As Judith Light says, “Bigotry or prejudice in any form is more than a problem; it is a deep-seeded evil within our society.” Not only are we responsible for the consequences of our attitudes, but our children either learn and absorb prejudices from us or become prejudiced against people like their parents, and the cycles of judgment go round and round. Wouldn’t it be smarter for us as individuals and collectively as a society to teach ourselves and our children:
- To develop a healthy curiosity about the differences between people;
- To understand that most of the ways in which we differ are out of our control;
- That being different isn’t right or wrong — it’s just different;
- To enjoy the variations on the theme of being human;
- To be compassionate and charitable toward those who are actually less fortunate than we are;
- To expand rather than to contract when faced with differences;
- To develop the ability to discern the distinction between differences that are simply interesting and those that might merit some careful consideration.
Personally, I don’t think it would be much fun or very interesting to live in a world where everyone looks the same, earns the same amount of money, is culturally and ethnically the same, has the same level of intelligence, sexual orientation and body weight. Boring! I like our differences. But, I don’t like how ubiquitous prejudice is in our society. We seem to accept and tolerate it as though it were a normal way to be. Even for those of us who call ourselves “spiritual” or “a good person” it might be wise to take stock of our own behavior around prejudice. Do you experience prejudicial reactions to any individual or group of people? If so, are you willing to make the effort to change that by choosing a path of kindness that respects the dignity of all people? Einstein said “It is harder to crack a prejudice than an atom.” That may be so, but the benefit to us, to those we judge, to our society and future generations is well worth the effort. Let’s learn to be intolerant of our own intolerance.
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