On tolerance and prejudices

April 2, 2008 | By | 10 Replies More

How many people are truly and genuinely openminded, displaying a natural all encompassing understanding for any behavioral trait or characteristics that deviates from the norm? Raise your hands, I’m curious who you are.

I hear people muse about the social injustice in our society, they are outraged that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, but they are still unable to show any kind of basic understanding that some people have less money to spend than they do. They have never bothered to get to know or befriend people from lower social classes.

I hear people criticize racists and homophobes. Dare to express any kind of discomfort and you will experience their holy anger at your narrowmindedness. “How can you…???” is their prefered way to start their I-am-holier-than-thou-attacks. I wonder how many of them really do have gays or people from other races as friends.

They place a lot of expectation and pressure on other people while rarely being able to fulfill their own in moral drenched demands.

I think this world would be a better place if people were allowed to admit that they are not perfect, that they have prejudices and are hesitant regarding things that might disturb their little peaceful world. Do I think prejudices are good, something to strive for? No, I think that to a certain degree some are quite human though, which is not the same as condoning oppression, violence or hatred. By not being allowed to admit unease and discomfort, people do not have the opportunity to openly discuss and maybe find a way to overcome them. The constant criticism of the good-doers must create defensiveness or is there anybody here who feels comfortable when he gets told that he is a latent racist/misogynist/homophobe/whatever-despicable-being-that-has-ever-walked-the-earth? Get lectured every day that you’re supposed to like something, that you are a bad person if you don’t, and in a short time you will hate it, whatever it may be.

I’m going to take Mike as an example (not sure if you like that, but I remember your post quite vividly). He made a post about this animal sacrifying priest who lived next door. His attempts to communicate and resolve his problem with his neighbor were greeted with threats and insults. Was the priest the one who wondered if his behavior was appropriate and who tried to make amends? No, it was Mike who was brooding whether he had been truly fair and whether he had not been led by some hidden prejudices. He wanted to be a tolerant and fair person, but I also saw something else in it – the fear of being someone with latent racist tendencies. Why is that? I think the priest was an idiot, taking advantage of the fact that he was facing someone who placed a lot of importance on decent behavior. Being Asian and a member of a minority it is way easier for me to say something negative about this dude than for a white guy, because I ran less risk to be called a racist and nobody expects me to question me and my goodness constantly. Not that I have never been called a racist.

I once wrote an email to a friend of mine telling him that I hated Arabs, that I even hated their children. Yup, I did. His reaction was, “How can you…??? You are so…! Blablabla…” You wonder about the reason why I wrote this? I was an intern at that time in Egypt, I felt overwhelmed by the poverty, the different culture and I started to have even more trust issues than I already carry with me due to the many scammers I met there. Simply put, I felt often stressed during this time. Now, one day, during Ramadan, a friend and I went to this big Khan-al-Khalili bazaar. It’s the biggest bazaar in Cairo and during Ramadan the meeting point for people. This place is crowded on normal days and during Ramadan it gets claustrophobic. I don’t know the reason why, but my friend decided to take a walk straight through the crowd, I was hesitant about it, but decided to follow her. It was a really bad idea… I think local women wouldn’t have done this as they’re more educated about the consequences of moving in crammed places. What happened was that we got trapped in this huge crowd barely able to move forward while all the time guys were passing by and feeling us up. My friend is more relaxed about such things, she didn’t like it, but was still able to deal with it more or less, but I was digusted and getting anxious and hysterical more and more. We finally managed to get out of the crowd, but at that point I was also extremely angry; my friend had trouble holding me back from beating the last guy I was able to get a hold of. It was not a nice thing to say about Egyptians, it was not the most mature way to behave, I was upset and it was a gross overgeneralization, but only someone with a moral superiority complex would take it seriously and start a lecture on tolerance. Or maybe he truly worried that I would go on a global crusade to eradicate all Arabs. Yep, caught in the act, I’m the mastermind behind the Iraq war.

I also admit that I never had much contact with homosexuals when I was younger, I thought it was something weird, something strange, gossip material, but not witchhuntworthy though. In the last couple of years I had the chance to meet some gay guys and the weirdness went away. Some are nice, some are not. They’re people like everybody else. Or let’s quote Erich:

Speaking of sex, I do realize how I myself have changed with regard to my attitude toward gays. When I moved into my urban neighborhood 20 years ago, I knew very few gay people and I didn’t know any of them well. In fact, I remember feeling a bit awkward around two gay neighbors when I first moved in. Fast forward 20 years. Today, I rarely think it to be a significant fact that someone is gay or not. What brought about the change were the numerous occasions where I talked with, shared meals with and worked with people who happened to be gay (as opposed to “gay people”). Somewhere, the fact that someone was gay became very small my radar. I didn’t realize I was changing in this regard over the decades, but I do now, given my focus on the issue.

Feelings of uneasiness when confronted with something that you’re not used to are normal. Yes, it is. Most of us currently live in societies that are safe, but our ancestors had to survive in hostile environments – seems logical to assume that a state of wariness and attention is more normal and has been wired into our brain, doesn’t it? Some people are more adventurous and open than others, but I believe the majority of people is just not.

I resent these self-proclaimed protectors of higher ethics who guilt trip people for perceived crimes against humanity. They push the good people into a perpetual state of intense self-scrutiny at best or create a repressive environment where things develop their own dynamic and fester in secret at worst.

We have honor killings of women among immigrants, but people are afraid to criticize it openly, because, beware if you say something that might hurt some patriarch’s feeling, you run risk to get called a racist. Well, it’s just some foreign women who get butchered, why bother. Or just some young girls who get kidnapped and married to someone twice or three times their age – it’s a tradition, don’t you dare to criticize this. Why assume that these young women have rights like any other citizen here. I don’t think the perpetrators of these actions are evil per se, more likely they are just adhering to what they have been taught by their parents, by peers, by society and they do what they think is expected of them, nevertheless they do things that violate laws and they should not get a free pass because they are foreigners. They know pretty damn well what the laws are.

Another example, our multicultural liberal politicians are unable to admit that minorities are underrepresented in higher institutions of education. Be nice, don’t say anything that might sound as if you are discriminating against a minority. Well, as nobody admits it voluntarily, we had to wait for PISA to find out that in Germany many children of immigrants are underperforming in schools and the situation is worse here than in other countries.

Traditional immigrant societies like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, for example, show significantly better results than Germany. Second-generation 15-year-olds with an immigrant background in Canada, for example, have scored 111 points more on average than their counterparts in Germany.

For example, immigrant students whose families come from Turkey tend to perform poorly in many countries, but they do significantly worse in Germany (405 score points) than they do in Switzerland (436 score points).

There are reason for this, but as nobody addressed this problem, nobody looked for the explanations behind it and worked on finding a solution. How can you resolve something if you are not allowed to admit that there is a problem? We have on the one hand people who are truly racist and couldn’t care less or would use this kind of information to pursue a truly discriminatory policy and on the other hand those who are too afraid to say anything and thus enable a continuation of unjust and problematic situations.

Those who have genuinely pure motives or have occasional pangs of uneasiness should not feel the need to fear repression or criticism from the morally superior. We all do and say stupid things, we all have our petty prejudices, sometimes we are not nice, but that’s how human beings are and there’s no need to judge and attach a moral label to every mistake that happens.


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Category: Culture, Whimsy

About the Author ()

I studied Horticulture, so officially I'm an agricultural engineer, but I'm doing something completely different at the moment. I want to get back into this field though. "Projektleiterin" is German and means project leader. My mom sometimes calls me like this for fun, because as a kid I used to start many many knitting projects very enthusiastically and then had trouble finishing them. On my knitting blog you can see proof that I'm now a much better person than I used to be. :D It may sound funny to those who don't knit, but while knitting is certainly a creative and pleasurable activity, it also teaches you perseverance and discipline. I'm also an extreme sucker for compliments on my knitting, so don't hold back! :D I'm never really sure what to tell people when they ask me where I'm from. Usually I say, "I grew up in Germany, but originally I'm from Asia." I think I'm quite conservative at heart, but liberal by choice. Oh, and be a bit forgiving if you read my posts - English is not my native language.

Comments (10)

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  1. Greensatya says:

    Wonderful post !! We need more debates like this on racism and other prejudices. Unfortunately, many debates try to trivialise this issue. I remember an award winning movie list year "Crash", which effectively tried to trivialise the issue or racism. It depicted that no one is racist, it is circumstances that make them racist. I disagree to it, many people by their upbringing or otherwise, are full of prejudices.

    Sadly, I don't think that racism will ever be obliterated.

  2. I don't know why this is such a hard thing to parse. Tolerance must be reciprocal to be valid. Sorry, but relying on your sense of cultural tolerance to refrain from telling someone he or she is an asshole due to a cultural factor (Arab men feeling free to feel-up Western women because, to them, Western women forego respect by being immodest) is no basis for mutual understanding or the establishment of civil conduct based on tolerance.

    But to tell someone he or she has just behaved badly is not the same as proclaiming that all people of a given group are "like that" simply because they're part of that group. If the dominant group behavior is intolerable, that's still no call to make it personal and directed at Type.

    This means we have to think about each instance. People like categories, it makes it easier to function, less confusing. Unfortunately, people should not be made to inhabit a category based in surface features.

    One thing that does get my goat along these lines is how the rhetoric of "cultural sensitivity" is always directed at Us. Americans, implicitly, have no culture, and because we are who we are we must be made to feel guilty for our cultural insensitivity. But when we are similarly violated—treating women as property, I think, is bad thing, and we (at least verbally) claim it so, which makes it a cultural ideal—and told we should be more sensitive, my reaction is mixed. Often, I'm inclined to agree, but just as often I'm inclined to say "What about our culture, asshole? Your behavior is insulting to our culture."

    Intolerance of boorish behavior is not a bad thing. Boorish behavior based on tradition or culture is still boorish behavior, and I see no reason not to label it so. While we may have many things to apologize for, it is nevertheless true that we are taken advantage of by people who maybe ought to think about changing their boorish behavior.

  3. Ben says:

    How can you say that? 😉

    I am somewhat racist. And a tad sexist. And used to be quite homophobic (had often used the term "gay" or "fag" in a derogatory way, and even now by habit or to be "cool" around my friends). And the thing where I think all old people are bad drivers, i have a really bad case of that. 😛

    I'm not proud of my prejudice. But what can I do except strive to be conscious of my personal stereotypes and try to treat people more fairly as a result of this (painful) knowledge about myself?

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    A couple of points to make.


    In Germany, Turkish migrant workers and immigrants are afforded thet same status as Mexican migrant workers and immigrants in the US. Many Turkish workers in Germany only speak Turkish, and do not mix with the German population, and the Germans usually don't speak Turkish. Many in the German working class see the Turks as taking jobs for Germans, while German employers claim that the Turks will do the jobs that Germans don't want.


    I have always tried to be open minded about people, and judge each person on their individual merits (or lack thereof). Will Rogers once said

    "I never met a man I didn't Like." Actually, Will would then explain that after he became familiar with someone he might not like him, but at the moment he first met the man, he liked him.

  5. Vicki Baker says:

    It's not the sensitivity, it's the inequity. Germany, like a lot of Western European countries, wanted a cheap labor supply without having to assimilate a bunch of foreigners. So they created a class of guest-workers who had no legal means of assimilation into German society. This was the case until 2000, when the law changed, and now there is some kind of citizenship track for guest workers.

    Up until that time, you could be a third-generation turkish-german with no hope of citizenship, whereas ethnic Germans from the so-called Ostgebiete, the former German colonies in Eastern Europe, were granted automatic right of West German citizenship even if these so-called ethnic Germans spoke no German and had no other point of contact with modern German culture.

    I am sure the residue of this second-class status is contributes to the low performance in schools. As to why German politicians are unable to address this openly, I couldn't say.

    I have to say that as someone who has worked a great deal with immigrants to the United States, of all classes and backgrounds, that I have experienced a great deal more friendliness, hospitality, and real willingness to work through cultural difference on the part of "new Americans" than I have seen the average US-born American willing to exert. Also a whole heck of a lot more respect for education and educators.

  6. Vicki Baker says:

    Btw, Projektleiterin, I agree with you that a real commitment to justice involves letting go of self-righteousness.

  7. Erika Price says:

    I remember thinking as a child that racism had finally become extinct, that we had risen up as free and equal fellow humans and obliterated the old beast. I've heard other people in my age group express this, too. Slowly, though, prejudice seeped into all our lives- parents acknowledged racial differences, friends used race as an identifier, and we noticed how different popular media forms separated along racial lines. Then one day my next door neighbor who happened to be black, but who wasn't my "black neighbor", started to have only black friends.

    By middle school there were lunch room tables where only black kids sat, and likewise tables voluntarily designated to whites. And by now, many of my once shiny-eyed unprejudiced peers espouse racial, sexual, and other stereotypes on a regular basis. We've learned the cultural shorthand. We've become just like the generations before us. And when I remember the old delusion that racism had died, it makes me quite sad.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    Proj: provocative piece.

    In my view, humans simply must prejudge because that is how we are wired. Whether we like it or not, we categorize what we see. We either do it consciously or we do it only unconsciously. That is the nature of our connectionist brains. If we are only exposed to a few examples of a “type,” we over-generalize, making coarse cartoons of that type. The next time we run into a person with XYZ characteristics, our brains/bodies experience a cascade of thoughts and emotions based upon our prior experience with people having those characteristics.

    If the first two dogs we ever petted both tried to bite us, we’d become wary of all dogs. If the only African-Americans a person is exposed to are the criminals he or she saw being arrested on the local news, this causes that person to think of all African-Americans in a terribly unfair light.

    Think of running across some guy wearing a KKK outfit. Would you approach him and see if you could strike up a relationship based on a blank slate approach? No way (I assume). His outfit would trigger a powerful flow of emotions, no matter what kind of guy he actually is. Maybe he’s actually just an actor or a psychology student and he isn’t overtly racist at all. Maybe he’s just stirring up people as a stunt. The KKK outfit is powerful stimulus, however, and primes us to assume that he will act in accordance with the sort of character typically displayed by others who have worn such an outfit.

    I believe that many characteristics are capable of bringing along these automatic emotional/connectionist reactions too. I have often been pleasantly surprised in my interactions with young men dressed up in what appeared to be gang clothes.

    The cure for race or homophobia is relatively simple (to take two common examples). The cure involves taking the time to get to know lots of individuals from “troublesome” categories. Once you have actually spent quality time with more than a few black (or gays or whatever), you’ll notice that there are profound differences among the individuals. When you next see a black (or gay), then, your brain/body won’t present you with strong automatic reactions based on an ill-informed cartoon. Instead, you’ll automatically feel the need to look for more fine-grained clues as to who this new black (or gay) person really is, if you want to know that person.

    I don’t think that having a well-disciplined intellect is enough to cure stereotypes. You can intellectualize the problem of racism all day, but you might still be racist. Based on interactions I’ve often had with them, I suspect that many of the people who are the most intellectually conscious of the issue of racism are nonetheless the most racist. They talk talk talk about it and think think think about race, but they are still uncomfortable being around people of another “race.” Or am I over-generalizing here?!

    My prototype non-racist is someone who spends lots of time with many people of lots of colors and features until those colors and features cease to trigger automatic reactions. That’s how it is with “white” people who spend most of their time with other “whites.” If asked, what are “white” people like, they would shrug and not even understand the question (unless they are having some fun concocting parody. See http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.wordpress.com/

    I’ll end with an anecdote. One of my grandmothers was quite wary of African-Americans, at least earlier in her life. As she grew older, more and more African Americans moved into her neighborhood. Later in her life, we heard that a new neighbor moved in. My grandma described the new neighbor in some detail to our family. Imagine our surprise, when meeting the new neighbor, that we found out she was African American. But my grandma hadn’t mentioned her “race” to us. “Race” ceased to have the kind of meaning to my grandmother that it had earlier in her life, due to exposure to a wide variety of African-American folks.

    My two cents.

  9. I just finished reading "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell, in which he mentioned the Implicit Association Test (IAT). I thought that it sounded familiar and indeed Erika had done a quite informative post about this test here. The gist is, the IAT allows to find out attitudes on an unconscious level, the ones that form by watching movies, reading books and newspapers, listening to people we know, etc. Gladwell's results mortified him as they showed a "moderate automatic preference for whites." And he is half-black. He does not consider himself to be a racist or a self-hating black person, but the explanation seems to be that human beings are fighting on two fronts, the conscious one and the unconscious one. We may take the deliberate decision not to be racist, but unconsciously we do take up the bias that we encounter in everyday life. His suggestion to change this problem is to expose oneself consciously to minorities and let the new impressions alter your unconscious bias.

    I saw one commenter on Erika's post mention his dislike for political correctness. It reminded me of a similar comment I made to my moralizer friend. Once again he freaked out before I was able to explain it and even after I did he didn't want to accept it (I am so evil *yawn*). I like the right kind of political correctness. I do not want to hear people make offensive jokes about blacks, chinks, fat people, disabled people, etc., but I'm also against this kind of sugarysweet political correctness that oppresses any kind of negative criticism even when it's justified. I'm not always sure what people mean when they say they don't like political correctness, but maybe some are feeling the same way as I do.

    Vicki is right about the situation of the Turkish immigrants. They often get criticized for not adapting to the German culture, but at the same time there were not that many programs to help with their integration. The conservative politicians just didn't care and the liberals were too entranced with their idea of harmonic multicultural co-existence. Integration may also have been neglected because Germany for a long time did not consider herself to be an immigration country such as the US.

    And saying that Turkish immigrants take the jobs away that Germans want is the same as saying that Mexican immigrants take the jobs away that Americans want. How many Americans are out in the fields and how many Mexicans are sitting in an office?

    And Mark, my point was not that my comment about Arabs was correct or justified. I don't believe though that it was necessary for my friend to berate me. By the way, I'm living in an area with mostly Turkish people, a friend of mine jokingly called it "Little Istanbul." When I told my friend (maybe I should say ex-friend, because I refuse to have contact with him as long as he doesn't know what appropriate behavior means) about it, he got worked up all over this and criticized me for wanting to move to the "redlight district." He doesn't seem to like the fact that there are two sexshops in the street where I live and the idea of me living an area with all these low-class immigrants.

  10. Tim Hogan says:

    Teach our children that all people have worth, as much as they are worth. Expose our kids to others, constantly. My kids don't see their friends as black, brown or yellow, they are just friends.

    My daughter "found out" that one of our favorite adult friends was gay, and said; "I didn't know that about him." I asked if it were any different for her now that she knew, she scrunched up her nose and said; "No! I love him."

    I strive to be as good a person as my daughter.

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