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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

On Prejudice and Understanding

What is it about so many people that prevents them from acknowledging a shared humanity with others—that disables their capacity for empathy? To say it is mere bigotry doesn’t really help us to understand what is going on here. The question is ‘why is there bigotry’? Why do hatred and intolerance persist against persons or groups whose only offense is that they are somehow different? Moreover, why is it that those who we perceive as different from ‘us’ are then considered to be inferior, unpleasant, or repulsive? Is it because we feel threatened by ‘them’, or because we simply lack intelligence, understanding, or a moral center?

Some have argued that in the age of so-called ‘social’ media our world has become more asocial, insular and intolerant—more prone to extremism and prejudice, and less open to open dialogue with those who hold different views.

No doubt being in the midst of a pandemic when people are confined and warned to limit contact with others may also contribute to a certain intolerance and tribalism. However, I am going to suggest here that our prejudices are not thoroughly negative or incapacitating but in some sense constitutive of human understanding—they are where we always begin, though not where we should necessarily end.

Prejudicial perspectives and hateful feelings towards others can take many different forms: I may be discriminated against because I am of a different race, or have a different skin colour; my ethnicity, gender, nationality, or class may be held against me; I may be detested because I have different core religious beliefs or radical political affiliations; I may not be considered part of a favoured group because I am an ex-con, not educated, too young or old, too short, tall, disabled or disfigured.

In all of these cases, the reason I discriminate is primarily because I have been indoctrinated by culture, parents, friends, siblings and habituated to think, prior to my actual experiencing, that this person or this group does not belong or is in some sense to be thought of as inferior. The rigidity of discriminatory distinctions is sedimented and enforced by years, even generations of stereotyping, and learned individual and collective values and beliefs that affirm one group’s moral superiority over those considered to be ‘outsiders’.

Understanding bigotry and prejudice is further complicated by the reality that the experience of prejudice does not necessarily make us more tolerant or empathetic towards others who experience ongoing discrimination. Thus, for example, French-speaking Quebecois have been historically discriminated against by English-speaking Canadians. Yet their experience of being discriminated against has not generated in them much tolerance for Indigenous peoples in Quebec who surely have a more authentic claim to ‘distinctive status’. Likewise, the experience of historical and present antisemitism against Jewish people has not inspired much empathy towards Palestinians among Jews living in Israel. There is also within-group prejudice. For example, I may be a Bolivian, Mexican or Cuban, yet prejudiced against darker-skinned or indigenous Bolivians, Mexicans or Cubans; I may be a white Canadian and yet utterly despise and discriminate against other white Canadians that are of a different class or hold political views completely at odds with my own.

In each case, discrimination thrives when abstract generalizations prevail over lived experience—they (Mexicans, Jews, Gays, Women, Muslims, the lower classes) are seen as “all the same”. Prejudice begins to break down when we discover, through the experience of meeting face to face and talking to people over the course of time, that they are not, in fact, “all the same”. Rather, we begin to grasp that each of these persons is a distinct, unique, and irreplaceable individual who cannot be captured, nor should they be wholly judged, based upon the pre-judgmental framework we have been taught to exclusively identify them with.

We are helped along in this when we are able to develop a capacity to imagine ourselves in their world or situation; when we attempt to understand and think through how they experience and respond to the world around them. It can be a very challenging experience for the simple reason that opening up to others will often force us to critically examine the rigidity of our OWN thinking and even our own identity. We are, each of us, embedded in a particular history. We have particular preferences, privileges, and prejudices, that make us feel more at home within the narrow confines of roles and identities that are given to us, or that we uncritically give to ourselves.

What enables us to critically step outside of these roles and identities is the initial recognition that we ourselves hold prejudicial views about other persons or groups and are often fearful of risking a different understanding of who WE are. In a very real sense, prejudice is where we always already begin. Our prejudices are our original or first take on things, the condition of possibility for all future understanding. They are initially handed down to us from our parents, culture, teachers, and friends.

However, the recognition of prejudice AS prejudice is something that can only happen when we understand the extent to which our own opinions ideas, and convictions may imprison us. And this can only happen when we take the time to talk and listen to people from many different walks of life and when we expose ourselves to all kinds of different works of literature, to works of art, to different places, languages, and cultures. In opening ourselves to a wider world, the partiality of our own particular perspectives becomes glaringly evident. We also begin to understand that the initial identity we see ourselves belonging to is not so fixed in stone after all. It is rather more like an ongoing project that is constantly being rethought and realigned as we interact with the world and learn more about ourselves and those different from us.

I began in philosophy with beliefs and vague opinions that were largely untested and often shockingly naïve. Yet I, and every other student, inevitably had to conclude that there were better interpretations, more convincing arguments, or more sophisticated modes of understanding. Did we discover this because there is one and only one absolute truth? By no means!

What happens, more often than not, is that our opinions and ways of understanding are demolished or shattered not by the truth, but by our own impatient initial grasp of things. As we move through a variety of different possible interpretations and understandings over time we began to grasp that our former views were much narrower than we initially thought. We begin to see that a critical (or, if you will, emancipatory) understanding happens when we gather the courage to expose and question our own stubbornly held prejudices and assumptions. We are able to do this because there always exists a multiplicity of authoritative traditions, texts, and teachers whom we can learn from, and with whom we can participate in the practice of understanding.

We can miss meanings, we can be blind to the truth of what is put before us, and we can be plainly wrong about things. But, importantly, what is gained in the ongoing effort to understand through the experience of being with and talking to others is a clue to acknowledging both our many prejudices and our human finitude—and in that acknowledgment, we make the first step towards grasping our common humanity and overcoming our debilitating prejudicial perspectives.

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