A word can go out of style. Words we use to describe important new ideas are associated with their moment in time and lose their power, becoming quaint as society builds on those ideas and grows past them. Women everywhere live in relationship to some form of gender-based oppression. It can be different for each individual woman, but practically all women have some experience of being treated unequally to men. Many of us hope for the world to become a place where women are liberated from that oppression. But if I use the term "Women's Liberation" to describe that, suddenly I am connected to an earlier time which, in hindsight, is characterized by some degree of naiveté about the issues that society needs to overcome to create true equity for women.
One word that seems to have become quaint to us is the word "prejudice." We seem to have forgotten prejudice's destructive power. Prejudice is an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason. Prejudice against others is (as I learned in first grade) "judging before knowing." It's judging people without having any real experience of them. I was taught that prejudice is both an inaccurate way of understanding the world and morally wrong.
This is not the all too human habit of having unconscious biases toward people who are different than we are, though that also can lead to a great deal of suffering. This is the blatant belief in the inferiority or evil of people based on their membership in a particular identity group.
Prejudice takes many forms. A shocking number of people in the US think that all or most Muslims are terrorists. The physical reality is that if only 1 percent of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world chose to cause physical harm to the US, that would be 16 million fighters. The total number of combat personnel in the entire US military, including reserves, is only about one seventh of that, 2.3 million combat and non-combat combined. Not only would we not stand a chance against the attack of 16 million suicide prepped, bloodthirsty jihadists, but they wouldn't have to commit acts of terrorism in the first place. Terrorism is an asymmetrical means of engagement, a way for a vastly smaller, weaker group of people to attack a much larger and more powerful one. The goal of terrorism is to induce terror in the target society making it more defensive, authoritarian, and closed. As that society tries to exert more control it alienates an ever growing proportion of its population. It effectively destroys itself. If 1% of the Muslim population of the world wanted to destroy the U.S., they could simply invade. Still, many people use their inaccurate belief that a large percentage of people of the Muslim faith seek to do the U.S. harm as a reason to close our borders to people in need if they happen to be Muslim, despite the fact that, statistically, a USAmerican is considerably more likely to die in a lightning strike than than terrorist attack.
We see prejudice in the calls for a wall along the U.S./Mexico border. One of the most important arguments in favor of this is the belief that undocumented immigrants from that part of the world engage in a high rate of criminality when in fact the crime rate is much lower for immigrants than U.S. born people. These security-minded wall builders make what amounts to an emotional decision that illegal immigration is a primary threat to U.S. security.
We see prejudice in many responses to apparent cases of police brutality. A black man's death in police custody is video taped (trigger warning for racial violence) and many people would rather focus on his resistance to being handcuffed than his muffled cries of, "I can't breathe," and obvious distress, as if resisting arrest carried a death sentence. We find the idea that a large proportion of the black community experiences the police as a destructive force to be ludicrous. We haven't experienced it ourselves and we won't trust the experience of others. We're more offended when someone sees prejudice in our beliefs than we are by racism. We see the issue as being generated by the specific shortcomings of black people rather than the very human shortcomings of the system that is the product of both historical and present day prejudice. The logic of this belief escapes us: if we would rather believe in the inferiority of other groups than our own very human denial, then we are, by definition, racist.
For a time it seemed the U.S. would only make forward progress in the struggle against prejudice. The civil rights movement made it both illegal and socially unacceptable to be openly prejudiced, but The Southern Strategy, (trigger warning for racially offensive language used to make a point), mass incarceration, anti-"political correctness," and a host of other social mechanisms have allowed prejudice to persist and acted as incubators for a return to overt prejudice. We blame leaders for creating this situation, but we need to hold ourselves accountable for how effective these strategies have been on us. We choose our leaders, and we've chosen many who choose prejudice. Choosing prejudiced leaders is choosing prejudice.
Fear has driven us to a place where prejudice makes sense to us. The threat of terrorism is real, but it's only our reaction to it that makes it an existential threat: our own descent into irrational fear-motivated violence. Force is our answer to everything: force abroad, force at home. And when the target of our force pushes back, well, they should have submitted to force, this, often from the very people who resent being required by the ACA to have health insurance. "Force them but don't force us."
We call for unity, but only among the "right" people. It is a unity against the "others," not with them. Our definition of a "Great America" doesn't really exclude them if they act the way they're supposed to, but it would certainly be complete without them. We'd willingly deport even the very workers who are statistically likely to produce our food, whether on the farm or in the kitchen. "Go back to where you came from, but make me a sandwich first." We point the finger at "them." They're the problem. We do everything we can to gain an advantage: fudge our taxes, ask our friends to punch in for us, surf the web on the clock, pad our expense account, sneak a joint or a few lines on the sly, call out sick when we're really hung over, but it's those others who are stealing from us.
One word that hasn't gone out of style is "pride." We have more people in prison than any nation in history and we're proud of our freedom. The average wealth of a black family is 6 percent the average wealth a white family and we're proud of our equality. The party of Lincoln and the Southern Strategy garners 6 percent of the black vote and the support of white supremacists and we're proud of our heritage. The U.S. spends as much on its military as the next seven nations combined and we're proud of our strength.
Our pride has become the kind that masks fear rather than the pride that celebrates what's honorable. We think our pride is justified simply because we are us. We're proud of what is ours simply because it is ours. We esteem ourselves without taking estimable action and disparage others without actually knowing them.
The ugliest parts of both our history and our present most often stem from unexamined, confident prejudice. Name it when you see it.