Lots of definitions of prejudice around, but a look at the origin of the word provides the simplest explanation: praeiudicium (Latin) meaning prior judgement.
Not one of us is without prejudice: we make prior judgements every day based on our experiences. We cannot see everything afresh every time. When we are prejudiced about which apples we prefer, how we like our tea, which is the simplest way to get to work or which well is likely to contain water, that’s just us using our life experiences to make decisions. It’s pretty normal.
A broader definition, in the Cambridge Dictionary, defines prejudice as follows: an unfair and unreasonable opinion or feeling, especially when formed without enough thought or knowledge. And that definition gets to the heart of what I actually want to talk about.
Having spent a large portion of my adult life in South Africa under Apartheid I am no stranger to unreasonable opinions or feelings.
I am no stranger to casual racism.
I am no stranger to hearing sentences which begin with ‘They are all’ or ‘All – insert racist epithet – are lazy or dishonest or stupid or greedy … or similar’.
I am no stranger to people who assume you share their views without bothering to ask you first.
I am no stranger to the violence, the hatred and the grotesque oppression that has been the consequence of prior judgement and naked racism. The consequence of a mentality which puts us and them into separate but not equal categories.
I am no stranger to lazy thinking. And lazy talk. And self righteous anger.
I am no stranger to hypocrisy.
Which brings me to prejudice against travellers in Ireland. As far as I can see, as a blow-in to Ireland (a country I have grown to love, I feel privileged to be living here), this is a form of prejudice which somehow has gained respectability. I do not speak here of everyone in Ireland, we are not all the one. I know many settled people who would not share these views.
I do however speak of those wh0 have this prejudice and somehow manage to insert it into everyday conversation in a way they would not were the people they were speaking of a different colour to them or of a different sexual persuasion.
This has come to the fore recently in Kilkenny, the city I have made my home, as a consequence of a number of high profile cases of abused animals which has led to an outpouring of hatred directed towards all travellers. I have read comments online calling travellers ‘the scum of the earth’. I have read comments stating that they should all be shot. Other comments suggesting that all travellers should be drowned at birth; that they should not be allowed children let alone animals. These comments sicken me. Adults sitting at home typing these words into their gadgets, with no thought whatsoever about the people they direct their loathing towards.
I would like them to emerge from the safety of their little online world and come and say these things to the families they do not know. I was talking to a woman this week, a mother holding the hand of her toddler, who said to me had I seen that some woman was saying on Facebook that she should not be allowed to have children. And worse, that the children should be drowned at birth. She also said to me, nothing’s new Paula, it’s the way it is. I wonder what the person who wrote those words would say if she were to meet this mother, or her husband or her children; children who go to school in the city knowing that the parents of their classmates think this way?
Prejudice takes hold when it is not gainsayed. When it is not refuted. When it is not rejected. That’s all I’m doing here. Gainsaying it. Nothing makes it right.
I am not saying, in any which way, that any one group of people has right on their side – we are all humans and (apologies to Life of Brian) we are all individuals. We need to be judged as such – according to our actions. It is how most judicial systems work (however flawed) – someone commits a crime, sometimes they are caught, sometimes they are tried and sometimes they are convicted. On the basis of their actions. However the passing of judgement against entire communities brings to mind recent history – in Europe, in Africa, in America, in Australia. History we would surely prefer not to be repeated?
And as to the question of the abuse of animals – which led to a protest last week. Anyone who knows me would know I am against the abuse of animals. In all cases. Against the way in which animals are factory farmed to be eaten; in the way in which greyhounds and thoroughbreds are used till they are ‘no use’; in the way in which chickens are farmed; pigs are farmed; puppies are farmed to provide Christmas presents; lambs are slaughtered; mares are kept pregnant (and stationary) to provide women with hormones to keep them young; in the way the slaughter houses work; in the way in which circus animals are trained; lobsters are boiled alive; in the way in which we in Ireland export hundreds of thousands of live animals to be killed elsewhere; in the ways that animals are tested so that the makeup people use doesn’t hurt their eyes. So many ways, the list has scarcely begun.
There is a lot to be protesting about in relation to cruelty to animals – not one iota of doubt about that. But the recent protests did bring me to a phrase I heard this week (in reference to another protest) – beware selective outrage. We can all learn from that.