Prejudice — You’ve Got To Be Taught

Prejudice — You’ve Got To Be Taught

By Pete Haug

Last week my wife Jolie rescued a small black spider that seemed to be drowning in a sink full of water. The critter hung around for a couple of days before disappearing. This was a far cry from the early days of our marriage. When pregnant with our first child, Jolie revealed a deep fear of spiders. After we discussed and examined her fear, she concluded that, to avoid transmitting that fear – prejudicing our child — she would conceal her fear as our child grew. She did, her fear disappeared, and that child taught her children to be kind to spiders.

Prejudice is taught. Oscar Hammerstein II understood that, as reflected in his socially conscious librettos. His 1949 lyrics from South Pacific capture the essence of prejudice:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year,

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade, you’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate, you’ve got to be carefully taught!

That year, 1949, newspapers, magazines, and radio shaped our biases. Television had just begun. Our families shared values good and bad with their growing children. Families still do that, but more and more, electronic media perform the basic function of teaching our kids. In recent decades, tsunamis of opinions, sprinkled lightly with facts, have shaped our thoughts and opinions — and the opinions of our watching, listening children. From dawn to well beyond dusk, we zoom in and out of everything.

Good news doesn’t sell. Sensationalism, extremism, and the bizarre attract consumers and advertisers. Media often encourage consumers to choose sides – in effect, to hate. Few among those impersonal electronic influences discuss love. Lots of sex, but little love. So we watch unthinkingly. Our prejudices sprout and flourish — against women, people of color, the poor, the uneducated, and so on.

The good news is that more and more persons in positions of responsibility are recognizing the problem and working to correct it. Corporations are re-branding and re-imaging their products. Governments at all levels are at least discussing the problem, and many are acting on it. Mainstream media inform listeners, viewers, and readers that the problem is real.

The Golden Rule

It comes down to guidance common among religions: The Golden Rule. Although reiterated at different times in different languages throughout different regions, this guidance is essential for a peaceful world. Applying it starts with each of us. We can examine how we fulfill that ideal, starting with our own prejudices. Where do my personal prejudices lie — gender, race, religion, socio-economic class, educational level, spiders? Can we face our prejudices, then uproot them?

If we regard the founders of world religions as divine educators, the thread that links them becomes apparent. In a talk at Stanford in 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, son of Baha’u’llah, explained this concept: “Blessed souls—whether Moses, Jesus, Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Confucius or Muḥammad—were the cause of the illumination of the world of humanity.” He added, “Man must be just. We must set aside bias and prejudice. We must abandon the imitations of ancestors and forefathers. We ourselves must investigate reality and be fair in judgment.”

It’s our choice.

Society provides many educators – parents, teachers, friends, electronic media, and inhabitants of those media, from bona fide newscasters to conspiracy theorists. Whom will we choose to educate us, to direct the choices we make in our society?

Baha’is follow the latest manifestation of God, Baha’u’llah, who taught one God, one religion, and one human family. Within that family there must be justice, which includes recognizing equality of women and men.[v] There must also be justice and equity among the infinite varieties of color, customs, and abilities that define us; we are all children of God. Isn’t it time to recognize our oneness, embrace our diversity? Might we move beyond traditional compartmentalization, separations that force us to choose sides in endless zero-sum warfare between nation-states, genders, and cultures. Such separations produce no winners — only losers.

To purge our minds of prejudice, we must rely on ourselves. FāVS columns provide excellent dialogues on faith-based introspection, searching for ways to unite, to live in a society tottering toward self-destruction. Yet the answers are before us in the holy texts of all faiths. We need to agree on unifying principles, then apply them within our own lives. The divine educators have taught us. Whether we pass or fail is up to us.

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