In Praise of Prejudice

strangerdangerFor what a man had rather were true he more readily believes.  –
Sir Francis Bacon

If you are reading this, you have prejudice to thank – as well as a teacher, of course. The word “prejudice” is used today in only a negative sense, but just as every coin has two sides, so does prejudice. Prejudice is defined as pre-judging a situation, a standard, or a sector of society. In our modern world where the only absolute is that there are no absolutes; any intimation of judgment must be soundly condemned. But because none of us live in a vacuum, we still form strong opinions and personal preferences. This, naturally, leads us to assess and pre-judge the actions and motives of those we encounter. When an individual begins a personal defense by proclaiming, “Now I’m not prejudiced…” they are either preparing to contradict their own statement or confessing they are a fool.

There is a reason we teach children not to accept rides with strangers. There is a reason we do not walk down dark alleys at 2 a.m. with one hundred dollar bills falling out of our pockets. There is a reason we do not respond to e-mails from Nigerian princes offering us their fortunes. That reason is that we are prejudiced.  Being rightly prejudiced is not equivalent to being racist, homophobic, narrow-minded or bigoted. We readily acknowledge that not every stranger has evil intentions, we all know or have heard of someone who has successfully navigated a dark alley late at night, and, if there are any real Nigerian princes out there, we concede that some of them must be truly wonderful young men. But do we advise anyone to take those chances or excoriate them for failing to do so? On the contrary, were it not for proper prejudices, not a one of us would be here. Experience may be the best teacher, but only because it leaves an indelible mark that prejudices us against making the wrong choice again.

There may have been a time in our younger and more naïve days that we would not have taken such precautions, but as we mature and gain experiences we learn to pre-judge similar situations. We learn it is to our advantage to put into practice the simple statistical equation: “If Option A will most likely lead to Outcome B, would it be wise or unwise to choose this path?”

Just as there are exceptions to every rule, there is wisdom in the sad realization that stereotypes exist for a reason and generalities too often hold up when challenged.

As a young child I lacked in prejudice. This lead me to accept a car ride with strangers, open our front door a time or two to people we didn’t know, and heed the invitation of a mentally unstable gentleman to, “Hey, come here for a second.” Thanks to God, and the stern reprimands of my parents, I eventually developed a little common sense prejudice. At times, this has made me feel like a horrible person. I have given money to panhandlers, but just as often turned down their request because I was suspicious of what they would do with the cash. I have given rides to stranded motorists, but zipped by others on the freeway. I have met folks that on first impression I viewed negatively but later came to find out my views were unjustified. I have also, despite positive initial impressions, had just the opposite experience more times than I wished. Prejudice is playing the odds, but it is not foolproof.

Rightful prejudice is rooted in judgment through reflection and critical thinking. When we judge, we form an opinion. Wise opinions are based upon education and experience extrapolated via the laws of statistics. Foolish opinions are grounded solely in emotion and ignore other factors. Wise people are rightly prejudiced; foolish people are naïve or in denial. Elected officials or community leaders who demonize the value of prejudice are devious and place our wellbeing in jeopardy. They endanger the public welfare by intentionally twisting circumstances, disregarding statistics, and enflaming irrational emotions. These officials play us for fools as they berate us to ignore what we know to be so. To finish the quote from Sir Francis Bacon:

For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research; sober things, because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride, lest his mind should seem to be occupied with things mean and transitory; things not commonly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless in short are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections colour and infect the understanding.  [Francis Bacon, “Novum Organum,” 1620]

There is one area where prejudice has absolutely no right to be. That place is within a court of law. The American justice system is founded on the principle that any and every single person who comes before the court is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That is why potential jurors are questioned as to their knowledge, views, and past experiences. The defendant is entitled to a jury of his or her peers. The jury must consist of individuals far removed from prejudice pertaining to the case that is being brought before it. The jury must begin, as it were, with a blank slate and only make a judgment once all the evidence has been carefully considered. In a courtroom, prejudice is disqualified.

However, we live in a real world, not a courtroom. In real life, lack of prejudice may lead to foolish choices that can have devastating consequences. But just as with all the dynamics of life, prejudice, too, must be balanced. It is just as foolish and self-defeating to ignore prejudice as it is to let it handicap us to the point of paranoia or paralysis. My grandmother turned every Halloween for her grandchildren into an episode of hysteria as she would suspiciously examine each piece of candy, looking for signs of razor blades and poison all the while repeating, “You can’t trust anything because people are so mean nowadays.” Trick or treat, indeed.

For the Christian, prejudice is tempered by the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Stereotypes are general, human beings are individuals, and Christ died for each and every one of us. In fact, Christ made a special point of reaching out to those whom His general society treated differently, such as the Samaritan woman at the well. However, He did have one significant advantage in that He could see into the individual’s heart and know their intentions. We mere mortals must rely upon wise and balanced prejudice.

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