Words are interesting things. Sometimes they become so familiar we take them at face value and rarely stop to think about what they really mean.
Take the word ‘prejudice’ for example. We all have a pretty good idea what it means – a ‘preconceived idea,’ according to the dictionary. But examine its roots for a moment – the word comes from ‘judgement’ – to pre judge something or somebody. To leap to judgement before all the evidence is in.
So, we might see someone wearing certain clothes or walking in a particular way, maybe they have a specific colour of hair – or skin – and we make assumptions. Whenever we do that, it is prejudice, pure and simple. If we assume that all men are like this or all women do that, it is naked prejudice. And also, of course, both wrong and stupid. It simply isn’t true that all men are the same, or all women – not unless you are going to ignore personality, character, humanity and reduce them to basic definitions around body parts.
Equally, to assume that everybody with a certain appearance will also have a particular character, is to fail to see past that surface characteristic. It is to see a skin tone and look no deeper, no longer. To leap to an assumption based on one factor alone.
Racism is a blatant example. There are subtler prejudices at work in all of us and they can be devilishly hard to spot, to fight and to root out. It might be that someone’s accent makes them sound snobbish, elitist, thinking they are above everyone else. Maybe that’s what they are like. But possibly, it’s our reaction to their accent and our prejudices that are leading us astray, and doing them harm – or at the very least a disservice – into the bargain.
“real life is not a courtroom drama”
How to avoid all pre-judging? It’s tricky, because there’s never a time when all the evidence is in – real life is not a courtroom drama. We don’t get to know all the facts about a person, even if we’ve known them a lifetime. We are never in a position to make a fair judgement of other people. The only safe thing to do is to fight against the instinct to judge, this knee-jerk reaction which we do instinctively and without questioning its validity or purpose.
The urge to judge, to stick other people with a label, to define and therefore limit them, to demean them… it does not come from the better parts of ourselves. It harms us as well as the other person. If we can spot ourselves doing it – in the small things as well as the large – then we have taken an important step towards fighting prejudice both within ourselves and in the wider world.