Saturday, April 19, 2014

Prejudice (#atozchallenge)

Sam, at three months.
Thank you, Claudia Sanches, for the lovely photos!
I hate to think this Lessons In Life From Dogs series might've given you the impression dogs are perfect, angelical beings, incapable of malice or dishonesty or other characteristically human nastiness. They are better than us, so much more in touch with themselves and their nature, so much more sincere and straightforward in their needs and desires. They have much to teach.

But they're far from perfect.

Take prejudice. I told you the story of Sam and the cow. (I'm sorry to bring it up again, but it's such a great example. And I'm in love with Sam.) He's terrified of this inanimate object, a fraction of his size, and which has never been party to any horrible or even mildly discomfiting experience. Sam's terror of this cow is not based on fact, on evidence of any kind.

It's prejudice.

I wish I spoke Dog so he could tell me on what grounds he discriminates against this cow. Is it racial? Color-based? I know she's somewhat gaudy, but--really? Or is it religion? (Cows are, after all, vegetarians.) Is it because the cow came from Holland? I know Sam is somewhat (haha--"somewhat," she says) xenophobic, but--again, really?

Maybe it's the cow's lowered head. Dogs--and wolves--do that just before sprinting after prey. It may be obvious to you and me that this cow is merely reaching down to graze, but Sam--because his experience is limited to dogs--doesn't see it that way.

Can't see it that way. Because of prejudice.

Is this ringing any bells? Because it sure is for me. I'm fervently anti-religion, and when I find out that someone is religious, there's an audible clunk as I slide them into the Disappointment slot in my mental archive. If someone likes Pink Floyd, on the other hand, they have an automatic pass into my Wow People slot. Accountants are boring, graphic designers are fun. Argentinian wine is excellent, Californian not so much. And rosé is for wannabes who can't handle their alcohol.

Do I have grounds for this continuous, if (until now) under-the-surface, distinctions? Of course I do--the same way Sam has clear and real reasons to fear that cow. And if there's no factual evidence to support my claim, no actual experience, I can always fall back on it's instinct.

But instinct isn't prejudice. Instinct relies--demands, even--an opening of the senses in order to gauge everything: sight, smell, feel, sound. What does it remind me of? Where have I seen something similar before? And is this new situation similar enough to warrant fear (or aggression or--gasp--rejection)?

Prejudice is judgment before the facts. Instinct is judgment through the facts.

In dogs, training gets rid of prejudice. The reason we train is precisely to get rid of a dog's prejudices: barking at the mailman, chasing cars. Counter-conditioning the response. I wonder if it would work for humans. Traveling, exposure to different cultures, different mindsets, different people. Is it really that simple?

And if it is, then why does prejudice still exist?

~ * ~

Thanks for the visit, and happy (Easter) A-to-Z-ing!


  1. Excellent article.
    I had a dog in Dubai, an Alsatian that had been abandoned and decided to come and live with us. Superbly friendly, biddable, loyal, everything you could ask of a large dog. Except that he hated Indians and Pakistanis. Not all of them, though; only those wearing loose-fitting, wide-bottomed trousers. I think it was more to do with the trousers, than the race of the wearers. On another occasion, I was working with an elderly, trained Red-tailed Hawk. She was a very aggressive bird, and a bit of a handful. If, whilst I had her on my fist, I spoke with a woman, she would become very agitated. There was only one woman of my acquaintance that I could speak to with safety, but she had a rather deep voice and was, shall we say, in touch with her masculine side.
    Most prejudices, I believe to be just another fear reaction. I have a friend who looks, well, dangerous. He is probably one of the most gentle men I know but, if I saw him in the street (and didn't know him), I would probably cross the road to avoid him. Why? Simply because life doesn't always give us the time to get to know people, to decide whether they pose a threat - we have to rely on a mix of instinct, experience, stereotyping and appearance. I suppose we could group those under the single word prejudice.

    1. You've hit it, Keith--prejudice is "just another fear reaction". YES! Like I said in the N post about fears, they might be unreasonable to us, but that doesn't mean they're unreasonable to the one feeling them. So the core here is to learn to deal with the fear--not eliminate it, at least not immediately, or completely--in a way that is positive for everyone involved. Your crossing-the-street example is perfect: you feel fear, so you take steps to avoid a potential escalation. You *don't* pull out a gun and shoot him :D

      Thanks for joining the conversation! I love your comments.

  2. Replies
    1. Thank *you* for the comment and the appreciation :)

  3. Guilie: I'm really loving your blog. Each post is a fantastic lesson in empathy. Thanks for finding me on the A to Z Challenge! I adore my two dogs - one a little bit more than the other, but I won't say which is which in case they read your blog when I'm not watching.

    1. Haha--your dogs already know which of them you love more :D The best part is they don't care--and I find that wonderful. Dogs are the epitome of generosity.

      I'm so glad we found each other, Susan!

  4. Prejudice can be eliminated or greatly reduced by traveling, exposure to different cultures, different mindsets, different people.

    for example, I had neighbours, friends and schoolmates of various religions, so I have absolutely no problem in respecting religious beliefs that are different from mine. However, I know people who have had almost no exposure to people of religions other than their own; these people are generally quite prejudiced against 'others'. To borrow words from another post of yours, exposure converts "Them vs. Us" into "Them and Us".


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