Thursday, April 30, 2009

Concerning Prejudice and Bigotry

The title of this article , "Concerning Prejudice and Bigotry" is not redundant. Bigotry has attached to it social opprobrium. We have evolved taboos which marginalise bigotry, which is an attitude that expresses itself in discrimination against and persecution of ethnic , racial and social groups. On, where I post most of my current articles, I got into a discussion with Siempre Solo and Coloranter Raver. Between the two of them, they raised a range of questions that I will attempt to address.

Prejudice occupies in my personal lexicon a morally neutral place that has nothing to do with societal attitudes about ethnic divisions. I will illustrate my definition of prejudice with an anecdote.

A woman I know was attending a large public gathering. Sitting next to her was a little girl who spoke to her with a French accent. Since she was fluent in French, the woman started a conversation with her. She spoke unwittingly in a high pitched tone and simplified vocabulary. The little girl answered her with some weariness in her voice, "I know I look like a little girl, but I'm actually 19 years old. My growth is stunted due to medical conditions that would take a while to describe. "

My friend was very surprised but absorbed the information with tact. Her pitch and subject matter focused to talk of the news from Paris, of the world situation and the cost of airline tickets. She focused on thoughts emanating from the mind of a young and mature adult rather than the child she had imagined her to be.

This anecdote is an unusual example of prejudice. My friend started out with a preconceived image of who she was speaking to. Her first impression was that she was speaking to a child. She quickly replaced that assumption with factual knowledge and acted upon it in an appropriate manner. She carried left the visitor with whom she spoke on friendly terms. She could have clung to the assumption that the young woman was a child. She could have made jokes about her stunted growth. She did not choose to act that way. Unfortunately, not all the people who encountered the young visitor discarded their first impressions so gracefully. It is for this reason that she sounded a bit weary when she explained her incongruous appearance.

My friend was prejudiced. She had a preconceived notion that she was speaking to a six year old. She quickly discarded her perception when it was clear that it stood in the way of reality. She did not become blind to the child like appearance of the woman sitting next to her. In some ways it was useful to bear it in mind when understanding her relationship with the world.

The prejudice that is described as bigotry is a cognitive disorder. We all act upon a series of assumptions about the world around us. Some assumptions are borne out by fact. Others are not. When I was in Italy, I was served tomato juice for breakfast. At my father's urging, I drank it with considerable distaste. To my great surprise, I found out that it was orange juice. Closer inspection revealed that the appearance of the pulp in the juice was like that of orange juice that was actually orange. Had I clung to the assumption that I was looking at tomato juice, the loss would have been mine.

In social relations, we start with prior assumptions about those to whom we relate. These starting assumptions can be based on race, language, attire or any number of other factors. Most of the time, the people we meet might not conform to our prior assumptions. Sometimes they exceed our expectations. Other times they fall short of them. But in the best of circumstances, we replace our prior assumptions with valid observations. Over time, the initial assumption might shift to more closely resemble our accumulated impressions. In a healthily resilient mind, this should be an ongoing process.

Prejudice is in my peculiar lexicon a stage of cognition. It is simply a starting point of prior assumptions that one tries to replace as quickly as possible. Narrow mindedness is the unwillingness to discard prior assumptions and replace them with first hand observation. Narrow mindedness and bigotry are in a sense cognitive impairments.

How does one deal with a person who will not let go of prior assumptions? Arguing is of limited value. I believe that civility is the anecdote. One should challenge prejudice by refusing to conform to it or be offended by it. Prejudice within oneself can be countered with introspection. It is a slow process of evolution.

The language with which we define and question social relationships should be reexamined. There are critical differences between prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness. We should define our language and in so doing define our feelings. Sphere: Related Content

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