Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Why Yes, I'm Prejudiced...

...if you mean that my brain prejudges situations based on previous experience, facts in evidence and in advance of specific actions. But that's probably not what you mean.

"Prejudiced" usually describes the attitude or actions of one who prejudges another on the basis of an assumption about them based on a single or limited human dimension. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition is:

  • having or showing a dislike or distrust that is derived from prejudice; bigoted:people are prejudiced against usprejudiced views

In that context, the connotation is negative, but using the literal translation from Latin, prae meaning "before" and judex meaning "judge," it does not have to be applied negatively. It is possible to judge someone as having positive qualities associated with only one dimension (i.e. beauty = goodness). But the term is rarely applied to that sort of judgement.

Normally, we talk of prejudice as applied to race, gender, sexual orientation and a few other categories. When society discusses prejudice, the reference is usually to a person or persons who use narrow character assessments to make broad assumptions about groups. But are there other ways to prejudge people? I think there are. I prejudge people based on how their actions affect themselves, those around them and the whole of society. The actions which cause me to do that rarely have anything to do with race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. I assess individuals by how they treat others. Does that qualify as a prejudice?

If so, COLOR ME PREJUDICED. I am guilty.

Because, all other things being equal, this is how my brain thinks:

I prejudge cashiers who can't make change as deficient.

I prejudge people who speak poorly as being ignorant.

I prejudge children who are publicly rude as having negligent parents.

I prejudge people who drive aggressively as obnoxious.

I prejudge people with multiple junk cars in their yards as being lazy.

I prejudge people who scream and curse at their children in public to be bad parents.

I prejudge people who wear pants with a waistband around their hips to be slaves to prison fashion.

I prejudge people who wear clothes that tightly cling onto and in between their rolls of fat to be legally blind and/or lacking in honest friends.

I prejudge people who leave their Christmas lights up all year as lacking in the most basic level of motivation.

I prejudge people who buy flashy cars and overpriced toys as having more money than sense.

I prejudge people who throw their trash on the ground to be lazy.

I prejudge people who buy junk food with food stamps as irresponsible.

I prejudge people who use illegal drugs as plain old stupid.

I prejudge people who drink and drive as criminals.

I prejudge people who vote strictly according to their holy books and leave their God-given brain at home as under-informed.

I prejudge people who have surgery to fight the natural effects of time and age to be in denial.

I prejudge people who cut in line as rude.

I prejudge grown-ups who wear t-shirts featuring cuddly cartoon characters as childish.


Allow me stress this fact: I have been guilty of many of these acts myself.  As such, I expect you may have judged me similarly when I committed those acts. And I don't blame you for that.

As humans, we are each in possession of a brain that makes thousands of observations per minute. I draw from past experience to find data that applies to present circumstances.

I judge first with my eyes, but I don't stop there. My ears vote almost simultaneously. I don't need to interact with you in order to form an opinion, and if I don't have that interaction, my knowledge is stunted at the opinion stage.

If I do interact with people from groups that are different than my own demographic - white, middle-class, college-educated, middle-aged, married, straight, Christian - I will likely find other areas of commonality that bridge the initial gaps in similarity. Though that interaction, I gain the opportunity to see beyond our differences in religion, education, skin color or choice of partner. We may bond over gardening or sports or a book we both read. The world of possibilities for similarity is huge, compared to the narrow categories in which we may differ.

I believe that it impossible to think without prejudging. However, that is not the same as "passing judgement." To "pass judgement" on another person is discouraged, but I think that, at least in the literal sense, it is very difficult to assess facts associated with a person and not come to some kind of conclusion. It needn't be a conclusion of good or bad, right or wrong or any other pair of opposites, but we can be aware of a fact and judge that that particular fact doesn't change our overall assessment of the person.

Prejudging a person or situation is an unavoidable function of a working brain, and is only bad if it is where we stop thinking. Prejudging should only be the first stage in an assessment, and is best followed up by more information. The trick is to go beyond initial, limited impressions, the opinions of others and our gut reactions, to discover a whole person. I don't want to be judged by my demographic profile or a single trait any more than you do. If you must judge me, try to do so by observing how I treat my fellow man.

And I will try to extend the same courtesy to you.