Tuesday, June 1, 2010

On the poison of prejudice

A few months ago I had a very disappointing encounter that also turned out to be a highly ironic incident. Several days earlier I had heard about a particular person with special talents and gifts, a sharp intellect and especially an ability to motivate and influence people. I was therefore keen to meet him. I expected a warm and welcoming person, someone open to the signs and possibilities of new acquaintance and friendship. But when we actually got to meet one another, I found almost the opposite.

When we were introduced I could not help noticing that he was extremely wary and guarded, all the while avoiding to look at me directly. At first I mistook his cautiousness for a nervous shyness – given the fact that I was older and that he did not know me. However, when we eventually sat down to discuss some issues, his initial reticence turned into open animosity. He made it clear that he was sceptical of my viewpoints (which he could hardly have gained first hand as we had not had time to share much); he was not keen to engage. In fact, when he eventually talked, he suggested that I was compromising what to him was the truth and was misleading the group to which we both belonged. You can imagine my surprise, having come to the meeting with such different expectations.

Of course I was perplexed and disturbed. Nevertheless, remaining composed, I tried to work out where things had gone wrong. It was only later that it dawned on me that this was something not completely unusual in interpersonal encounters which I had not experienced for a long time. It was one of those unhappy occurrences when a person hears about someone’s ideas and then, often without even having seen or met personally, he decides beforehand that he doesn’t like the other. It shows in a seemingly unwarranted agitation and unwillingness to start any honest exchange where each will hear the other. We have all had the experience of hearing or reading stories, rumours perhaps, which do not appeal to us, so that we ignore, slight or even completely write off another person or group. This kind of negative conditioning can cause one to reproach people blindly or to engage with them distancingly without really listening and with all one’s proverbial weapons and defenses out, ready for the attack. Such a behavioural pattern has been named the poison of prejudice.

The history of Jacob and his uncle Laban shows that even in biblical times precious relationships could be infected and damaged by the poison of prejudice. In Genesis 31 we read of Jacob’s disappointment when he noticed that as if overnight, his uncle’s face had changed – he no longer carried the same expression of friendliness as he had the previous day and the day before that.
Prejudice can harm personal relationships, which is bad enough; but worse is when this becomes a societal attitude. Recently in Rwanda one group’s prejudices were allowed to determine their view of the other so that they started to talk of their neighbours as “cockroaches”. This is what fuelled the terrible genocide which is still fresh in African memory. The danger of prejudice, no matter whether it has a personal, provincial, racist or cultural flavour, is that it can be nurtured for many years, until a day when a seemingly insignificant event sparks confrontation. Then differences become deep rifts or even battle zones. We need constantly to guard against such destructive prejudices that have the potential to poison faith communities, churches as well as other societal structures.

Carel Anthonissen