What is Prejudice?
I received my first nasty personal message recently, which arose from a Facebook discussion initially inspired by the question “Can Fat Be Fabulous?” I believe the offending sentence, the one which tipped the writer of the nasty personal message over the edge, was when I called her opinion prejudiced. I was careful not to say SHE was prejudiced, but that her opinion was. It is possible I did not make explicitly clear the differentiation between the opinion and the person; after all I do not know how she perceived my comment. It got me thinking; how does one define a prejudice, and what does that mean for the individual?
For me, prejudice is any judgement made about a person based purely on arbitrary factors. For example, judging someone on the basis of their skin colour, the presumptions one may have about the ability of a person based on visible disabilities or by unseen invisible disabilities, their perceived sexuality, their perceived gender, their physical size, their religion; any arbitrary factor which does not in fact give any information which may be pertinent other than a physical or single fact.
We are all prejudiced. We all have prejudices about something; none of us is raised in a vacuum without influence. Unless we have our prejudices addressed, we will quite often be unaware of it. This may lead us to unintentional discriminatory behaviour. A recent example of this is the furore over comedian Ricky Gervais’ use of the word “mong” as an insult. He states he was unaware of the link between this word and the condition “Down Syndrome”, and has stopped using the word now he has become aware of the etymology of the word. Whether or not the public believe him is up to them, their own experiences and prejudices, the way in which the press reported it (from his Twitter account the apology and cessation of use appears to have been almost immediate, but from the general media one would not believe this to be the case – probably doesn’t sell enough papers without the reason for hating him being pushed upon the unsuspecting public). I do know that although he is some 10 years older than me, he was raised close to where I was raised and would have had similar experiences when younger. It is possible, therefore, he did not know the origin and meaning of the word.
However, I too for many years was unaware of the link between the two words. I too thought it merely meant a state of being when overly-relaxed due to the intake of intoxicants. I too had to be told of the etymology and was absolutely mortified upon discovering a word I had used was so offensive. I still feel guilt over that and always will, and rightly so. This guilt will stop me from ever using that term again, and I hate the fact I ever used the word in the first place. I cannot take back the word. All I can do is take responsibility for my use of it, never use it again, and when addressing someone who does use it explain how offensive and discriminatory it is.
I was discussing a science fiction programme with a friend recently. He stated that he had stopped watching one programme because they had tried to make it more female-friendly by adding more female characters (for a brief time there were actually more female characters than male, but it is usually quite balanced). This gave me pause for thought, and I was surprised at this statement from my friend who I perceive as one who does not hold many such prejudices. Statistically, the country which produces the programme does have slightly more females than males, so the programme was reflecting reality. Further, it is interesting that his reaction was that adding more female characters to a programme made it less interesting to him; why should the gender of a character have this effect? Science fiction, like most television not specifically designated “for women”, has more male characters in more authoritative positions than female characters (and this is quite apart from the lack of non-white characters, those with disabilities and those of non-heteronormative designation – unless they are aliens of course!). Science fiction is a genre which traditionally has addressed prejudice more than any other genre through allegory and example. Female science fiction fans such as myself don’t cease to watch programmes with more male characters, so why should addition of female characters cause a male viewer to turn off? Prejudice, unrealised, unintended, unaware. We all have prejudice within us. Without exception. We all need to address it, when we become aware of it, within ourselves and within others.
That’s all any of us can really do. In my “about me” section of this blog, I detail all the identification labels I may be perceived as belonging to, and those I broadly define myself by. This is because of prejudice, because although I am an ardent campaigner for equality I know I will have prejudices and will display discriminatory behaviours about which I have no idea. I rely on those around me to point these out. It is a very hard thing to have one’s faults pointed out. It hurts, especially when one tries so hard not to be prejudiced. But it is essential, and I thank people for helping me to overcome my prejudices. I’m not perfect, I never will be, nor will any of us. But all I can do is try. It is not about blame, it is about taking responsibility and being the change I want to effect in society.
If someone has their prejudices pointed out, and refuses to accept them, to work on their behaviours, and continues to discriminate against anyone for any arbitrary factor, that is the time for blame. That is the time to take action against such behaviours. At that point we as a society require legislation to deal with such discrimination. But it is so important to remember that the opinion, the discriminatory behaviour, is not the sum total of the person. By reducing a person to a single, or continued, discriminatory act or behaviour it makes it so much easier for them to ignore anyone who addresses that behaviour. No-one is defined by one attitude, by one act, by one incident. To do so dehumanises them in precisely the same way prejudicial behaviour dehumanises those who are being discriminated against. Prejudice cannot fight prejudice. Small steps to effect the big change can.
That’s why I believe I got the hate message (which was, as far as hate mail goes, quite benign). I did not communicate effectively, for which I take responsibility. But I do not apologise for addressing a prejudicial and discriminatory behaviour when I see it, and I hope when I display my prejudices, someone will be caring enough to address it with me.