Henry David Thoreau, American poet, philosopher, and historian gained fame in his book called “Walden,” named after a pond up in Connecticut that he sat by for some two years as he reflected upon simple living in natural surroundings. In his writing on the duty of civil disobedience Thoreau said, “It is never too late to give up your prejudices.”
The English word “prejudice” comes from a Latin term that simply means to “pre-judge.” In other words, without any facts, thoughts, or reasons, a person has already made up their mind that something is favorable or unfavorable according to their preconceived opinion on the subject. That means their mind is not open to any new information or advice that may conflict with their decision to either be for or against something.
King Solomon must have had some individuals like this in his realm because he warns that if you try and reason with such a fool, you will only be making a fool of yourself.1 Prejudice is not a learned reaction, it is part of those attitudes that were instilled in us from our infancy by our parents, friends, teachers, mentor’s, favorite celebrities, etc. Since we did not feel qualified to make up our own minds, we accepted what other people thought who were more informed, intelligent, and mature than we were. So it really isn’t our opinion, it’s their’s until we make as our own.
Prejudice deals primarily with other people as they are judged by us based on such things as race, religion, gender, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, level of education, deformities, age, and so on. It is not “what we know” about them that contaminates our thinking, but “what we don’t know” about them. In an effort to make sense out of the world around us, we form mental categories based on how our society is organized. It’s not so much what something is, but what something represents.
Prejudices are not easily overcome. The smaller the world we live in the better we can control our circumstances. There is an old saying attributed to William Turner in his 1545 work called The Rescuing of Romish Fox. We know this saying today as, “Birds of a feather will flock together.” We are much more comfortable around people just like us. So it seems obvious, that any effort to confront our prejudices must begin with widening our circle of friends and acquaintances. Prejudices just don’t go away, they must be challenged.
Whether we know it or not, our prejudices are often tools that we use to keep up our self-esteem. If you don’t have a college education, one way to keep that from making you feel inadequate or lacking in intelligence is to attack those who have completed college as being too smart for their own good or braggers who don’t really know what they are talking about. Getting a good education doesn’t mean all you have to do is go to school. We can learn on the job, at home, by reading, in order to find out more about something we know little about, even if it’s out of curiosity.
If any change is going to come, it requires that we be open and accept ourselves for who and what we are. Often you may hear someone make a judgmental statement, and then follow it up with, “That’s just my personal opinion.” This can be said while confessing that their personal opinion has all the earmarks of being faulty or even dead wrong. Or it can also be said as a challenge for someone to give you a better opinion – if there is such a thing. It is far better to indicate that your opinion is based on what you know, but that you are open to hearing more.
Prejudice always seems to involve “us” versus “them.” We don’t want to be in the minority or part of those called losers. We want to count for something so we state our opinion and then stick to it. But that doesn’t mean we are unwilling to learn, grow, and mature. Yes, we can state our opinion but then be ready to have it challenged. That doesn’t mean we are wrong, only mistaken. If we do not deal with our unconscious prejudices it will lead to discrimination. We were not put here on earth with the idea of always being at war with one another. As far as I know, I’ve never seen puppies playing with one another, rolling over, and having a good time, but only sticking with those puppies of the same colored fur, same size ears, nose, etc. If they can do it, why can’t we humans?
The Bible has a lot to say about dealing with prejudice. The prophet Samuel was still dealing with hurt feelings over the people of Israel rejecting his leadership for that of a king. So when the king they selected fell out of favor with God, and God sent Samuel out to find a replacement, it was obvious that Samuel may have already had in mind the type of person he would look for. But God told Samuel not to judge that person by the way they look on the outside or how tall they are because that’s not what God was looking for. That’s not how God judges a person’s worth.2
Again, King Solomon advised his subjects that if a person already had an answer before they hear the question, they only make themselves look foolish and embarrassed.3 And by the time Jesus came, such prejudice was still growing. In fact, our Lord was invited to a dinner at the house of the local tax official because Jesus had invited him to come and follow Him. It wasn’t the dinner that upset the elite class in town, it was the clientele that showed up. They included other tax collectors, people of disrepute who were of low standing in town. The religious leaders got word of the dinner, and when they came to see what was going on, they went over to Jesus’ disciples and complained that this man they called the Messiah, was eating and drinking with sinners. When Jesus heard that they were saying, He sent back this message: “People who are well, do not need a doctor. Only those who are sick need a doctor. I have not come to call good people. I have come to call sinners to be sorry for their sins and to turn from them.”4
So it is no wonder that the Apostle James warned against prejudice. He wrote to his friends and told them that as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, they must never treat people in different ways according to their outward appearance. Suppose a rich man wearing a gold ring and fine clothes comes to your meeting, and a poor man in ragged clothes also comes. If you show more respect to the well-dressed man and say to him, “Have this best seat here,” but say to the poor man, “Go stand over there, or sit here on the floor by my feet,” then you are guilty of creating distinctions among yourselves and of making judgments based on faulty motives.5
I agree with Thoreau’s statement that it’s never too late to give up our prejudices. However, I would add that it will be too late to give them up when they have resulted in the loss of friends, family, neighbors, and even family members. By that time, giving up the prejudice will come too late to save any of these relationships. So be willing to examine them now and make the necessary changes so that you will become known as someone who doesn’t pre-judge, who listens in order to understand, someone a person can talk openly to. It’s hard to go wrong with that kind of reputation. – Dr. Robert R Seyda
1 Proverbs 26:4
2 1 Samuel 16:7
3 Proverbs 18:13
4 Luke 5:31
5 James 2:1-4