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EBS29: Prejudice Can Be Cured

Eric Butterworth Speaks: Essays on Abundant Living #29

Delivered by Eric Butterworth on May 28, 1975

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The original meaning of “prejudice” was pre-conceived opinion without knowledge. Contemporary usage of the word connotes destructive, limited opinion, or what one could call “emotional thinking”. It is being positive about something negative without good reason—a lazy man’s substitute for thinking. Asking one of her young pupils for a definition, a Sunday school teacher was told that it meant deciding that some guy is a stinker before you even meet him. A small Jewish boy, forbidden by his rabbi from using a Presbyterian gym and swimming pool, attempted to explain to the minister by stammering, “Ain’t religion hell?”

Prejudice is usually associated with religious or racial intolerance, but it has a much broader application worth considering. A little child who is fearful of policemen is prejudiced; he has been taught that policemen will arrest you and put you in jail, and this colors his feelings for years to come. Many of us are prejudiced against certain foods; we may have an aversion to avocados or fish or whatever without having ever tasted them. Frequently, when we bring ourselves to try them, we find them delicious.

Since no one is born with prejudice against anything or anyone, it follows that these feelings are unwittingly passed on by parents and other adults. In some respects, the passing down of meanings from one generation to another is time-saving, for without this there could be no progress. However, we inherit not only the wisdom of the ages but also the misconceptions and distortions. A university professor in the social sciences no less was heard to remark that he never got over the feeling of surprise when someone he liked and admired turned out to be a Republican—the emotional conditioning remained despite his logical thinking to the contrary.

It is vital that we analyze our own tendencies toward emotional thinking. During World War II we thought in terms of sneaky Japanese and arrogant Germans, and this has carried over into emotionally sustained attitudes toward politcal and ethnic and political groupings today. Actually, it is closer to the truth to say that there are greater differences within religions than between them, and the same is true of all groupings subject to prejudice.

To love at first sight or hate at first sight, and then interpret succeeding events as proof of our initial judgment is backwards thinking. Love at first sight is dangerous because we have associated something with the person and therefore expect too much. Of course, the same is true of hate prejudices. I offer this statement: If I knew you and you knew me, we would love one another regardless of who I am or who you are. You simply cannot hate a person you really know, but you can’t really get to know a person whom you view only through a haze of prejudice. Hitler was German, but so was Goethe. Mussolini was Italian, but so was Michelangelo. The great, significant differences between people are not racial, they are individual. You will find far less difference between a Chinese gentleman and an American gentleman than you will find between an American gentleman and an American bum.

Every race counts itself superior because it knows itself better than it knows the other races. Everyone is apt to be down on that which he is not up on—this is the defense mechanism spawned by ignorance. Yet the so-called superior races offer proof of their superiority without any backing whatsoever in the social sciences. These assertions are simply rationalizations of the human inclination not to allow oneself to be bested.

A modern trend is toward groupism; it amounts to a compulsion to do everything in chorus: group plan insurance, group dynamics, team efforts, group pride, union solidarity, etc. There is much good in this, but it can unconsciously build walls of separation. We begin to think of others in terms of the group to which they belong instead of their individual character. Because of this tendency, I have serious doubts about parochial school systems. This can only lead to comparing the worth of one group with another group, instead of thinking of Joe Brown as an individual child of God with his own contribution to make. By thinking of Joe Brown as a Catholic, or a Mason, or a Black, we restrict our relationship with him to our preconceived notions of the group to which he belongs.

Each person is a person, and we must so treat him. I like to restate the Golden Rule in this way: I will treat others as I would like to be treated; I will treat them as individuals, as people, as children of God. I will take time to get to know them, to respect their ways, their limitations, even as I expect others to have patience with my own weaknesses.

I was once seated at a sidewalk cafe in the south of France when I noticed a seemingly well bred lady dining and gracefully sipping her wine. But, when she took out a big black cigar and smoked it, I was thoroughly disenchanted. I forced myself to question why I had reacted this way, isolated my prejudice, and thereafter learned that it was quite accepted in this region for ladies to smoke cigars. I had been emotionally conditioned to disapprove, and no matter how much discipline and love I had exerted through the years, the prejudice surfaced nevertheless.

Remember Cain’s question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In recent years we have answered this in the affirmative as can be seen by our many social welfare programs. The flaw here is that we have administered benefits, yet retained prejudice toward anyone who takes advantage of them. The overriding problem of contemporary social action is that one group is trying to work for the other group instead of working with the other group. We give money and service, we write checks and do volunteer work, but do we give brotherhood?

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” I say, “Absolutely not.” I have no right to be anyone’s keeper, and to attempt this only leads to the loss of dignity and pride and therefore much resentment. Rather, I say, “I am my brother’s brother!” We have been too ready to dole out benefits, but less ready to think what we would want and how we would act if we were in the other person’s position. So, we do what we think is good for him or her, instead of working from a relationship of love and understanding.

Take time to get to know people as they really are. Meet everyone in the spirit of Namaskar: “I salute the divinity in you, I behold the Christ in you, I see the good in you and expect only good from you.” We must all do our part toward independence from groupism. We must all be alert to cancel out in our thinking the references to Joe Brown the Jew, or the New Yorker, or the Right Winger, or the Italian. Such identifications are usually quite irrelevant and tend to create misleading evaluations.

The most important thing to remember is that each of us is a unique individualization of God...not just you, but everyone! God is everywhere and God the good is in everyone. Approach others with the attitude that “You are in my life so you are a channel of God’s good to me and I will not let you go except you bless me and I bless you.”

Overcoming prejudice begins within you and within me. It is getting a sense of security so that we do not require scapegoats, and never need to make others feel inferior so that we can feel superior. Accept every person for what he is, and accept yourself as a channel for the expression of the infinite love of God.

© 1975, by Eric Butterworth

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