Freedictionary.com defines bigotry as “extreme intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one’s own“. Narrow-minded prejudice is yet another thing tearing apart the planet and our country. If you don’t believe me just spend a few minutes reading comments on the Foxnews, CNN, or MSNBC news websites (and if that doesn’t do it for you, spend some time on more extreme websites). Warning: Be prepared to jump in a hot shower and wish for a mind scrub because there are some folks using angry, abusive, bigoted language hiding behind those computer monitors!
Bigotry and prejudice lead us to think that anything defining us as “us” is superior and, ultimately, can result in a fear of or hatred for others. It makes us see the world in terms of Christian/Muslim/ Hindu/ Atheist/Buddhist/Bahai/Mormon/etc., native/immigrant, dark skin/light skin, first world/developing world, wealthy/poor, lazy/industrious, straight/LGBTQ, or communist/capitalist.
Here are three characteristics I believe tend to define many of our differences these days.
Anthropologists generally divide homo sapiens into four broad racial categories which are then further divided into numerous subcategories based on things like region of origin, hair texture, skin color, and more. Regardless of our differences, however, all humans share more than 99% of genetic material. The darkest and lightest-skinned humans are genetically almost exactly the same, so race is an artificially created defining characteristic.
AN ASIDE: On the drive back from dinner in the home of Mississippi friends many years ago our four year old son asked from his car seat if Christy and Christopher were his cousins. The fact that Christy and Christopher were African American never crossed his mind. Children do not see differences; they are taught.
Counting the number of different religions on the planet is not possible, but at least eighty are documented (though I tend to think those claiming “Jedi Knights” might have been having fun with the surveyors). If we also count religious beliefs that are specific to indigenous groups and what might be referred to as “new religions” that are constantly popping up, the number must be in the hundreds or thousands. The top five are Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism. Surely there is agreement among the adherents of each of these. Right? Not so much.
- Buddhism is divided into Theravada, Mahayana, Tantric, Zen, and Pure Land sects (terminology varies somewhat depending on region).
- Islam is divided into Wahhabi, Kharijites, Sunni, Shi’ites, Ghulat, and Sufi sects.
- In 2012 a Christian seminary estimated that there were 43,000 denominations of Christianity that agree or disagree on such things as the trinity, heaven, hell, the authority of scripture, predestination, and much more.
- Judaism is divided into conservative, orthodox, reform, reconstructionist, and other denominations.
- Hinduism includes Saivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism, Tantrism, and non-denominational sects.
So any blanket statements or assumptions we make about Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc. are by nature false.
It is sometimes easy for those of us who do OK financially to assume that personal choices cause folks to be poor, and this is certainly the case with some people who are unwilling to put forth the effort to succeed. However, in today’s economy education is closely related to economic status, and educational success is most closely tied to family background. It is easy, therefore, to understand how this becomes self-perpetuating. If education is not valued or promoted by a family and that attitude is passed on to children, then it becomes increasingly difficult for these families to rise from their status. Like most of you who are reading this blog, I had great, hard-working parents who valued education and encouraged me all along the way (sometimes more successfully than others). Many children don’t have that support and are often caught in a cycle over which they have little control. As with race and religion, therefore, socioeconomic status is an unfair characteristic for division.
I am in no way claiming to be above all this. People who say, for example, that they do not notice someone’s race are probably not being completely honest. When I meet someone I notice gender, race, height, demeanor, tattoos, clothing styles, hair style, and more. I think everyone does. The issue is what we do with that information. We can generally assume that if we meet a woman wearing a hijab she is Muslim, but does that prompt us to feel a certain way about her? If we see a young black man with his pants hanging low is “punk” or “thug” the first word that runs through our mind? If we see a well-dressed middle-aged white man does that make us feel more secure? If we see a teenage girl who is pregnant do we immediately judge her?
How do we overcome, or at least diminish, our bigotry? Mark Twain said “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I agree. When I was nineteen years old two of my buddies and I spent several weeks camping in 26 different states, and that was eye-opening and mind expanding for this Mississippi kid. To date I have visited 46 American states and about fifteen countries (and will visit many more before I die), and the thing that always strikes me is that people are the same wherever I go. Most are kind, generous, and fun-loving, and a few are jerks (I had a fun shouting match with a cabby once in Italy. Too bad he didn’t speak English and my Italian is awful). People are people. All our bodies are made from the same star dust (and I’m not going all hippie on you). This is a truth I could have never understood prior to traveling.
I do understand that most people don’t have the opportunity or inclination to travel as much as do my wife and I, but there are other ways to become familiar with people of other races, cultures, socioeconomic groups, and religions, and to reexamine our prejudices.
- When I was very young our youth group from Verona Methodist Church was taken to a Jewish Synagogue in Tupelo where we met the Rabbi and learned about the history of Judaism. This was a valuable experience and exposed me to a different religion and culture. I recommend it.
- Eating in ethnic restaurants and getting to know the folks working there helps break down barriers.
- Reading books about other people, religions, etc. can help us understand our common struggles.
- Questioning our personal biases and determining how they were developed. When we catch ourselves thinking something like “teenagers are lazy” or “blonds are not very smart” or “he’s Mexican so I’ll bet he is here illegally”, stop and question the validity of that thought and its source.
- Simply nodding, smiling, and saying hello to people we meet on the streets regardless of their appearance usually invites a similar greeting.
- Heck, watching travel shows helps.
So here is my argument. Recognizing and evaluating people’s differences is learned. Since this is learned it can be unlearned. I believe that certain conversations, circumstances, influences, and other life experiences create bigotry and, conversely, those can also be used to begin breaking it down. And from personal experience I know that unlearning negative information accumulated over time is possible because I did so with algebra.