PREJUDICE

What it is: A preconceived and unthinking attitude, opinion or judgement in favour of or, more often, hostile to something or someone.

What it means: Prejudices are not the same as the likes and dislikes most people feel. Prejudice can blind people to the truth about each other. Prejudice, which is by nature unjust, can lead to acts of injustice. Prejudice can cause conflict, often violent, especially when many people share the same hostile prejudice. A prejudiced view is always an over-simplified view, assuming that everyone in the victim group share the same stereotyped characteristics. A UK researcher into ethnic conflict said - even before the attack on New York on 9/11/01 - 'Muslims as a whole were and still are defined as barbaric, ignorant, closed-minded semi-citizens, or maddened terrorists and religious zealots'. Asylum seekers in the UK have been dismissed as 'criminals and freeloaders', often by people who have never met any or investigated the difficulties they face as migrants, let alone the conditions they fled from.  In the USA human rights workers have been worried about stricter laws imposed on Arab Americans since 9/11: 'Racism will grow: if the states discriminates against them, why shouldn't the mob?' If the leadership of a nation or community appears to sanction even a slight prejudice, people can feel that they have been permitted to demonstrate that prejudice themselves - and some may feel free to take the demonstration much further both in word and deed.

Think about it:
(1) Prejudice against appearance: 'I am a Russian-born American. I have olive skin, a black goatee and dark eyes. In Azerbaijan two police officers threw me to the ground, mistaking me for an Iranian terrorist. In Berlin, a group of angry men took me for an Indian immigrant out to scam the generous German welfare system, and followed me around, shouting. In a Czech town I was mistaken for an "Arabian" by a gang of local skinheads. Two days after 9/11, a man in a Manhattan bar asked me if I was a member of al-Quaida, and said "I don't like you, you're funny-looking".'

After 9/11 the USA and a number of European countries introduced new laws that have meant frequent arrests of people 'of Arab appearance'. Is it fair to judge people by their looks?

(2) Anti-Semitism: 'My father was still at school when he joined the Nazi Party. He was enchanted by what seemed to him its idealism, and by taking part in something big that transcended the individual. Later in their lives my parents became tense when they watched films about Nazism on TV. Once my father said, "That's not right! They show you the horrors, but they never talk about our ideals."  He still pursued Jews on TV: "Another one! They're everywhere!" I was always afraid of being thought of as an executioner like my father.'

Groups of Neo-Nazis prejudiced against Jews and other minorities still exist, though mostly illegally. Might debate and education do more than the law to discourage attitudes like these?

(3)  Prejudice against people of colour in the USA: 'One of racism's many manifestations is the collective wish that blacks were not alive - one can hear this expressed over and over on talk-radio programmes around the country any day: the wish that blacks would just go away and shut up and stop taking up so much time and food and air. Sometimes it's expressed as an actual death wish, but more often it comes out as a disappearance wish. But no less frightening to those of us on the receiving end. And when a black actually commits outlaw behaviour, the killing wish takes on a public, even joyous, legitimacy.'

This writer, a USA law professor, added that victims of prejudice mustn't hit back violently and thus become like their enemies. The important thing is to recognise any prejudices in oneself, and make sure that they don't influence what one does. (And that means refusing to join any prejudice-based groups.) Can you acknowledge your own prejudices? Have you been at the receiving end of prejudice, or know someone who has suffered from it and can say how it feels? How can prejudice be defused by single individuals? - and how should it be handled when it is the driving force of a whole group?