If prejudice is the child of ignorance, hatred is frequently its grandchild.
PREJUDICE may have a number of causes. Nevertheless, two well-documented factors are:
(1) the desire to look for a scapegoat, and
(2) resentment caused by a history of injustice.
When a disaster occurs, people often search for someone to blame. When prominent people repeat an accusation against a minority group often enough, it becomes accepted and a prejudice is born. To cite a common example, during economic downturns in Western lands, immigrant workers are frequently blamed for unemployment—even though they often take jobs that most local people refuse to do. But not all prejudice stems from the search for a scapegoat. It may also be grounded in history. “It is not too much to say that the slave trade built the intellectual edifice of racism and cultural contempt for black people,” notes the report UNESCO Against Racism. Slave traders tried to justify their disgraceful trafficking of human beings by claiming that Africans were inferior. This unfounded prejudice, which was later extended to include other colonized peoples, still lingers.
The Cultivation of Ignorance
The heart of a toddler does not harbor prejudice. On the contrary, researchers note that a child will often readily play with a child of a different race. By the age of 10 or 11, however, he may reject people of another tribe, race, or religion. During his formative years, he acquires a collection of viewpoints that may last a lifetime.
How are these lessons learned? A child picks up negative attitudes—both spoken and unspoken—first from his parents and then from his friends or teachers. Later the neighbors, newspaper, radio, or television might further influence him. Although he likely knows little or nothing about the groups he dislikes, by the time he becomes an adult, he has concluded that they are inferior and untrustworthy. He may even hate them.
With increased travel and commerce, contact between different cultures and ethnic groups has grown in many countries. Nevertheless, the person who has developed a strong prejudice usually clings to his preconceived notions. He may insist on stereotyping thousands or even millions of people, assuming that they all share certain bad qualities. Any negative experience, even if it involves just one person from that group, serves to reinforce his prejudice. Positive experiences, on the other hand, are usually disregarded as exceptions to the rule.
Although most people condemn prejudice in principle, few escape its clutches. In fact, many who are deeply prejudiced would insist that they are not. Others say it does not matter, especially if people keep their prejudices to themselves. Yet, prejudice does matter because it hurts people and divides them. If prejudice is the child of ignorance, hatred is frequently its grandchild. Author Charles Caleb Colton (1780?-1832) pointed out: “We hate some people because we do not know them; and we will not know them because we hate them.” Nevertheless, if prejudice can be learned, it can also be unlearned. How?
In his book The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon W. Allport states that “on the average, Church members seem to be more prejudiced than nonmembers.” This is not surprising, for religion has often been the cause of prejudice rather than its remedy. For example, clerics incited anti-Semitism for centuries. According to A History of Christianity, Hitler once remarked: “As for the Jews, I am just carrying on with the same policy which the Catholic church had adopted for 1500 years.” During the atrocities in the Balkans, Orthodox and Catholic teachings seemed incapable of producing tolerance and respect toward neighbors who professed another religion.
Likewise, in Rwanda, church members slaughtered fellow believers. The National Catholic Reporter pointed out that the fighting there involved “a real and true genocide for which, unfortunately, even Catholics are responsible.”
The Catholic Church itself has recognized its record of intolerance. In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II asked forgiveness for “deviations of the past” at a public Mass in Rome. During the ceremony, “religious intolerance and injustice towards Jews, women, indigenous peoples, immigrants, the poor and the unborn” were specifically mentioned.
Starting in the 11th century with the Crusades, Jews became the unpopular minority in Europe. When the bubonic plague swept through the Continent, killing about a quarter of the population in just a few years, the Jews were an easy target for blame, since they were already hated by many. “The plague gave this hatred an excuse, and the hatred gave people’s fear of the plague a focus,” writes Jeanette Farrell in her book Invisible Enemies.
Eventually, a Jewish man in the south of France “confessed” under TORTURE that Jews had caused the epidemic by poisoning the wells. Of course, his confession was false, but the information was heralded as truth. Soon entire Jewish communities were slaughtered in Spain, France, and Germany. It seems no one paid attention to the real culprits—the rats. And few people noticed that Jews died of the plague just like everyone else!
Once the fire of prejudice is set ablaze, it can smolder for centuries. In the mid-20th century, Adolf Hitler fanned the flames of anti-Semitism by blaming the Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I. At the end of World War II, Rudolf Hoess—the Nazi commander of the Auschwitz concentration camp—admitted: “Our military and ideological training took for granted that we had to protect Germany from the Jews.” In order to “protect Germany,” Hoess supervised the extermination of some 2,000,000 people, most of them Jews.
Sadly, as further decades have passed, atrocities have not ended. In 1994, for example, tribal hatred erupted in East Africa between the Tutsi and Hutu, leaving at least half a million people dead. “There were no sanctuaries,” reported Time magazine. “Blood flowed down the aisles of churches where many sought refuge. . . . The fighting was hand to hand, intimate and unspeakable, a kind of bloodlust that left those who managed to escape it hollow eyed and mute.” Even children were not spared the horrifying violence. “Rwanda is a tiny place,” commented one citizen. “But we have all the hatred in the world.”
Conflicts surrounding the breakup of the former Yugoslavia led to the death of over 200,000 people. Neighbors who had lived together peacefully for years killed one another. Thousands of women were raped, and millions of people were forcibly expelled from their homes under the brutal policy of ethnic cleansing.
While most prejudice does not lead to murder, it invariably divides people and fosters resentment. In spite of globalization, racism and racial discrimination “seem to be gaining ground in most parts of the world,” notes a recent UNESCO report....
The Watchtower, The Bible