UNIVERSAL DHARMA

Your Questions, My Answers ~ PREJUDICE AND DISCRIMINATION

QUESTION:

"Why is there so much prejudice in the world? Is there anything we can do about it?"

ANSWER:

This is a good question, one that concerns us all, and one that we can all benefit from thinking about.

We have all been victims of prejudice at one time or another, either of racial, religious, or sexual prejudice, prejudice because of our accent, the clothes we wear, and so on; it has so many forms, and has gone on for as long as people have been people, and since an end to it is hard to imagine, we had better get used to it and try to understand it.

Before we can tackle the problems facing us, we must identify their causes. Etymologically, the word prejudice means ‘before judgment’ (pre = before, judice = judgment or judging), or ‘judging before knowing all the facts involved’. It comes from incomplete or biased understanding; in other words, from our eternal foe: Ignorance. Due to our conditioning and the preferences that arise therefrom, we are all guilty of it at times; it is not just something outside of ourselves, something we see and condemn in others, but is present in us, too.

Prejudice is often confused with discrimination, and we hear people speak of ‘racial discrimination’ as something negative or bad. But discrimination is such a necessary and important part of our lives that we would be unable to function without it, and would die. Imagine being unable to distinguish —as this is what discrimination is: the ability to discern or distinguish things from each other, nothing else—between a red light and a green: there would be pile-ups, death and mutilation at every intersection! How would food taste (and taste itself is discrimination, is it not?), if we could not distinguish between salt and sugar? To clarify the difference between prejudice and discrimination is itself discrimination! It is a very important intellectual aspect. It also enables us to recognize the difference between good and bad, right and wrong, and so is responsible for our concepts of morality and immorality, which couldn’t exist without it. Morality consists of our ability to choose, and decide to refrain from doing certain things that are regarded as harmful, antisocial, or ‘bad’, and perform other deeds which are considered to be helpful, useful, or ‘good’. Animals live by instinct, instead of by choice, and so cannot be regarded as moral or immoral (we don’t consider dogs immoral because they don’t wear clothes, but would think otherwise about people if they went around naked). Humans, on a higher level, have the capacity to choose, and constantly have to make decisions. We all have the capacity to kill, steal, lie, cheat, destroy, etc., but our sense of discrimination helps us decide not to do such things, even when there might be immediate gains from doing them. So, it is only in the human realm that the concept of morality/immorality arises; the rest of Nature is amoral. (It should not be thought, however, that the mere not-doing of something negative constitutes morality; morality consists both of not-doing the negative, and of doing the positive. The Buddhist code of the Five Precepts covers only the negative aspect; other things cover the positive side).

No-one likes to be the victim of prejudice, and I say this from my own experience. Many years ago, I was attacked on an Istanbul street by a man who suddenly ran up to me and knocked me down. I’d never seen him before and had not done anything to antagonize him, so don’t know why he assaulted me; maybe he just didn’t like Westerners. Another time, in Basra, Iraq, I was surrounded on the road by a mob, pointing at me and asking if I were American or Jewish—and that was in 1970! It was rather a dangerous situation, as I was alone, and the people were unfriendly. Fortunately, some Italians who were working in a nearby oil refinery came along and ‘rescued’ me. During my numerous trips in India, I was refused accommodation in hotels several times, and I’m convinced it was because of the color of my skin. These are just some of the many times I have experienced racial prejudice; I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of it, and didn’t enjoy it, to say the least!

Not long ago, Apartheid (a Dutch word meaning ‘apart-hood’ or ‘separateness’) in South Africa was finally dismantled. Under this cruel system, the white, black and colored peoples were segregated in the belief—which the descendants of the Boers, or Dutch settlers of South Africa, claim was supported by the Bible—that the white race was chosen by God as naturally superior to the black and colored races. This belief or conviction is known as Racism, and is usually considered as something we are taught, learn, or adopt; it is widely regarded now as something undesirable, as something of the past that we should feel ashamed of and outgrow. But it is still very much alive in the world, and can probably be found in most if not all of us in some degree or other. Yes, we all have it, although we might be urbane about it. This does not mean that we would give way to it and express it outwardly, however, and many of us would feel horrified at the thought of doing so. It is just like being able to kill: all of us have this ability, but most of us restrain ourselves and do not kill. It might be likened to a dog that has the tendency to bark and snap at strangers; if it is kept on a leash, it can do no harm.

Does the color of one’s skin really make one better or worse than others whose skin is a different color? What is skin for, after all? Is it not to keep the outside out and the inside in, and nothing more? Anything other than that is just an idea. The Brahmins of India—even until today—consider themselves the highest of the four main castes of Hindu society merely because they were born into that particular caste. So, they did not like to hear the Buddha say that a person becomes high caste or low by his actions, and not by his birth. High caste people do not always behave in refined and cultured ways, and conversely, people born into the lower classes do not always behave coarsely. Life is not ready-made and predetermined for us, but is what we make of it; it is up to us.

We sometimes hear people say that all races are the same and equal, but this is just too simplistic, and contributes nothing to the resolution of problems that arise from racial differences. If a white Australian or American goes to Japan, for example, and needs directions, he might say to someone: "Excuse me, do you speak English?" Or if I get a letter written in Chinese, and have no-one to translate it for me, I must try to find someone who looks like Chinese to help me; I would not go up to someone with blonde hair and ask them if they could translate it for me, would I? This means nothing less than racial discrimination; I recognize differences, and there is nothing at all wrong with it at this particular time; it is neither good not bad, but natural. We might, in the far-off future, reach a stage where everyone speaks the same language, so there would be no need to ask anyone to translate (this would solve many problems, but not all; other problems would remain, and new problems would probably arise because of it).

Sometimes, people ask each other: "What kind of food would you like to eat—Indian, Chinese, Thai, Italian, Mexican, or maybe just MacDonald’s?" Imagine life without a variety of foods to choose from; it would be rather dull, would it not? We discriminate between different kinds of food, and in the same way, we discriminate between different races. Why? Because there are differences! There are differences such as skin color, language, customs, food, dress, beliefs, politics, etc. People are not photo copies of some primeval prototype! And is there anyone so perfect that he would like everyone else to be exactly like him? Yes, there are people who think like that, but that’s only because they’ve never really followed up their thoughts to picture what it would be like if everyone really were like them. How would you feel if everyone were an exact replica of yourself? Of what would your individuality—that thing we value so much—consist? You would be unable to recognize your parents, your wife/husband, your children, or your friends. You would soon grow to hate the uniformity of it all, and wish we were all different again. Be thankful, therefore, for the diversity of life, and do not think of yourself as a model for the whole world. Try to see that the differences of others make you what you are: a unique and special individual, unlike anyone else who has ever lived or will live.

Much antagonism towards others who are different arises because people feel threatened by things that they know little or nothing about, and which therefore might be dangerous; this can be traced back to our primitive past, and there is a little Sufi story to illustrate people’s fear of the unknown: A traveler in the Land of Fools came to a village where he found the people in a state of great consternation. When he asked what had happened, they told him they had discovered monsters in one of their fields. Curious, the traveler asked the villagers to show him the monsters, and they agreed to do so, but only after much trepidation. Approaching the field very cautiously, the people pointed to the ‘monsters’, and the traveler laughed aloud, walked into the field, took out his knife, cut a slice of the largest watermelon, and ate it! The villagers watched in horror, and instead of thanking the stranger for delivering them from the ‘monsters’, they became more alarmed than ever. "This man who kills monsters may be a worse monster than they! He is dangerous, and if we let him stay here he might destroy us, too!" So, with sticks and stones, they attacked him, and drove him away.

We cannot change the whole world; we cannot banish the specter of prejudice in anyone but ourselves. We cannot make anyone understand, but we can try to understand, ourselves.

I recently read of a young Vietnamese in Melbourne who had worked hard and saved enough to buy an expensive sports car he’d long dreamed of owning. Before long, however, his pride-and-joy, parked outside the block of municipal flats where he lived, had its windows smashed, tires slashed, tape player and other things stolen, etc. This was very sad, of course, and no-one would condone it, but if he had been a bit more far-sighted and anticipated the effect that his car might have had upon others, standing in the parking lot beside their second- or third-hand cheaper models, it might not have happened; not surprisingly, they probably envied his car, but, unable to afford one like it themselves, might have felt the urge to damage or destroy it. In a way, the owner was being ostentatious. Would not a cheaper and less obvious car have served him just as well, and caused him less trouble? Some people are antagonistic enough already, without being taunted.

Prejudice will always exist in the world, and though we should take a stand against it, we can only do so by first confronting it in ourselves. This requires honesty, and an acceptance of the fact that our minds are not really our own, but have been built up, since our birth—and maybe earlier, at least nine months earlier—by our conditioning, without which, in some ways, we would not have been able to survive, but which has, in other ways, bent, twisted and stunted us psychologically. If we can understand our minds more, and see how prejudice has grown there—often not of our own planting, but like weeds in a garden—then we shall be better equipped to control it.

Having had the good fortune to travel widely, I have lived with many different kinds of people, and have seen things from different points of view. While this does not mean that I have become free of prejudice thereby, it has had the effect, I feel, of broadening my mind. And because—as mentioned earlier—I have experienced the unpleasantness of prejudice myself, I have a good reason not to express towards others any such prejudice that might be in my own mind.

So, you see, there is something we can do about it.

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