Thursday, September 16, 2010

On the Nature of Prejudice

The recent discussion about potential Koran burnings scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of 9/11 got me thinking: First, it reminded me that some people are very skilled at coming up with stunts to get publicity for themselves or their causes, but then also about how we, as a society, continue to generalize about and demonize certain groups of people, such as Muslims, according to the actions of a single (or, in this case, 19) individuals.

I found this a particularly stunning example of what a short distance we, as a society, has evolved since the abolishment of slavery, for example, 150 years ago or the Jim Crow laws that were still on the books in certain states as recently as 45 years ago. This point stood out particularly because the news about renewed hostility toward muslims came out while I was editing a certain section of my grandfather’s book

If you recall, anti-Semitism was the official government policy in Russia and its occupied territories in the early 1900s, and plenty of enmity was directed against the Jews (and not just in the form of discrimination, but in active, and brutal pogroms). Yet despite his experiences, I never detected in my grandfather’s words any hostility towards Russians, Poles, Ukrainians or any other ethnic group as a people. In fact, upon the death of one acquaintance, Semyon, he noted that “. . . In all the months of our acquaintance until th[e] moment [of his death], I had never heard him say a bad word against either the Jews or the Czar.” He held up Semyon in contrast to numerous other soldiers who had been schooled in violence and indoctrinated in chauvinism, and expressed their attitudes toward Jews unabashedly. Which suggests that such attitudes were so endemic that my grandfather fully expected and anticipated to be the target of  resentment and blame, and was surprised by its absence.

Considering the intimate nature of the thoughts and feelings that my grandfather expressed so openly in his diaries (possibly because he didn’t live long enough to edit out those sentiments), I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him let loose, on occasion, with some unkind words about certain groups of people who tormented him. But he focused his anger exclusively on the one individual most responsible for the deplorable conditions in the army and in the country as a whole – the Czar (which led to yet another death sentence, but you probably could have guessed that).

As the daughter of someone who had escaped from Germany during the rise of Nazism, one might expect me to have heard nothing but negative stories about all Germans while I was growing up. Yet my father remembered his years in Germany with great fondness – the nanny who had a picture of Hitler on her wall, the schoolteacher who wore a swastika armband and required the students to salute Hitler, but still treated the Jews in the class as equals of everyone else. (This open-minded attitude toward Germans got my father into trouble when he spoke, many years ago, to a group of Holocaust survivors, understandably a crowd that did not care to hear about ordinary Germans’ redeeming qualities).
When we find ourselves considering an isolated part of something as representative of the whole, we should remember, as Mark Twain noted, “All generalizations are false – including this one.”

Discussion: As open-minded as I try to be, I know there are situations in which I fall victim to the same type of thinking. I generally think that "all politicians are liars" because in order to get elected, a candidate needs to tell the public what it wants to hear, which usually isn't the truth. Where, in your experience, do you see such deductive reasoning arise?

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