Prejudice squanders human gifts

Friday, March 31, 2017 - Updated: 8:00 am

QUESTION: In a sermon I heard recently, the priest enumerated some sins that we should be working on during Lent. In that list was prejudice, and the priest expounded on it at some length. I happen to be a person who learns by experience. From what I have seen and heard in life, I form opinions. I think those opinions have value for my decision-making about people and events. The sermon as I heard it said I am dead wrong. Who is right?

ANSWER: Actually, prejudice can be either positive or negative. If I believe that the Pittsburgh area is the best place on earth to live but have never visited any other city, I am prejudiced in favor of Pittsburgh. If I denounce a particular film because I don’t like the title, although I have not seen the film, I am prejudiced against the movie.

What both kinds of prejudice have in common is that they are based upon limited experience. In fact, the word prejudice is derived from a Latin word (prejudicare) meaning to prejudge (before sufficient evidence is provided).

Even experience teaches us that our learning is selective at best. We choose what events are significant and which ones teach us important lessons. Who of us hasn’t experienced, through painful events, that “honesty is the best policy?” But has that lesson become a consistent part of our outlook on life?

An additional difficulty with prejudice is that it presumes the world to be exactly as we see it. A prejudiced person rarely stops to consider that everything enters our minds through the filter of our unique experience. This does not make experience worthless, it simply makes it limited. Just because I have never experienced the pain of a broken bone, does that mean that I can say that fractures don’t hurt?

Not surprisingly, serious effects of prejudice are found in the person holding such feelings. Frequently, prejudice disposes us to direct attention from personal problems (which we can solve) to the people who supposedly cause them. Often called scapegoating, this phenomenon results in us blaming others for the ills in our own lives (without admitting our own part in them).

Obviously, prejudice also affects its victims. Too often, such things as meaningful employment and social and political positions are denied to people not because of an absence of talent but because of prejudice. It is the cause of a terrible waste of human gifts and potential.

Perhaps the most unfortunate effect of prejudice is that it is communicable. While we would not think of exposing our children to serious disease, we expose them to prejudice by the way we speak of others as if our experience is absolutely true about every individual they will ever meet. Some say that prejudices will inevitably arise because of the vast array of people and the opinions they hold. This is not true because we know people who have widely different opinions and views and yet remain friends. Prejudice is not inevitable.

Prejudice is a terrible evil. Its most vicious form is that which is unspoken, subtle and almost invisible except to those whom it destroys. Prejudice is not what Jesus expects of his disciples.

Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.

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