For myself, earth-bound and fettered to the scene of my activities, I confess that I do feel the differences of mankind, national and individual…I am, in plainer words, a bundle of prejudice – made up of likings and disliking’s – the veriest thrall to sympathies, apathies, antipathies.
Flicking through todays offerings by the ‘free’ press in the world’s two great democracies – #Australia and #Russia – I was taken by just how close these two seemingly different societies really are. The Sydney Morning Herald had as one of its lead stories Finance Minister Penny Wong’s outburst at the Christian lobby over the issue of gay marriage, something I don’t have an issue with! Similar stories were carried in most other media outlets. Captivatingly, The Moscow Times on 21 May ran a story Kremlin Faces Barbs From All Sides on Human Rights which seemed to a grab all of human rights issues in Russia, and there are many. The issue that caught my eye though was to do with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (“LGBT”) rights.
Minority rights are always in the spotlight in Australia and Russia. With that said, #LGBT rights have recently come to the fore in both countries, and for much the same reason – Christian conservative values opposing social progress. In Russia, #LGBT rights rose to prominence after the Duma gave preliminary approval in January this year to a bill that would effectively prohibit gay rights demonstrations or other public displays of support for sexual minorities. Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland of the Council of Europe, the continent’s oldest human rights organization raised the issue of gay rights during a recent meeting with Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who has overseen a government-backed campaign to reassert conservative (read Christian for conservative) values in Russia.
St. Petersburg, Arkhangelsk and several other cities have approved laws banning homosexual propaganda in recent months, arguing that gay rights marches and other public expressions of support for gays are harmful to children and contradict traditional Russian values.
While back on the farm, Australia that is, we have Finance Minister Penny Wong accusing the ultra-conservative Australian Christian Lobby (“ACL”) of ”peddling prejudice” and engaging in ”bigotry that has no place in a modern Australia”. The ACL counted by claiming that by allowing same-sex marriage there were consequences such as same-sex education in schools, and technologically created babies through IVF. Senator Wong, who is in a same-sex relationship herself and has a daughter, said the #ACL was speaking nonsense, on this point. Senator Wong and I can agree.
The issue of marriage equality, has inflamed tensions on both sides of the political divide, and has further isolated Prime Minister Gillard’s forceful opposition to allowing same sex unions, and in the process has lifted pressure on Tony Abbott to allow Coalition MPs a conscience vote.
The word prejudice, derived from the Latin noun praejudicium, has, like many words, undergone a change of meaning since classical times. There are three stages to this transformation:
- To the Romans, praejudicium meant a precedent – a judgement based on previous decisions and experience.
- Later, the term, in English, acquired the meaning of a judgement formed before due examination and consideration of the facts – a premature or hasty judgement.
- Finally the term acquired its current emotional flavour of favourableness or unfavourableness that accompanies such a prior or unsupported judgement.
Perhaps the briefest of all definitions of prejudice is thinking ill of others without sufficient warrant. This crisp phrasing contains the two essential ingredients of all definitions – reference to unfound judgement and to a feeling-tone. It is however, too brief for complete clarity.
In the first place, it refers only to negative prejudice. People can be prejudiced in favour of others; they may think well of them without sufficient warrant. Indeed the Oxford dictionary defines bias, a word closely associated with prejudice as inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair.
While it is important to bear in mind that biases may be pro as well as con, it is none the less true that ethnic as well as sexual prejudice is mostly negative. The phrase “thinking ill of others” is obviously an elliptical expression that must be understood to include feelings of scorn or dislike, of fear and aversion, as well as various forms of antipathetic conduct such as talking against people, discriminating against them, or attacking them with violence.
Similarly, we need to expand the phrase “without sufficient warrant.” A judgment is unwarranted whenever it lacks a basis in fact. My foster father used to describe prejudice as “being down on something you’re not up on.”
It’s not easy to define how much ‘fact’ is required to justify a judgment. A prejudiced person will almost certainly claim that s/he has sufficient warrant for his/her views. S/he will tell of bitter experiences s/he has had with refugees, Aborigines or homosexuals. But, in most cases, it’s evident that his/her facts are scanty and strained. S/he resorts to selective sorting of his/her own few memories, mixes them up with hearsay, and over generalizes. Sounds a lot like Patriarch Kirill and the ACL – doesn’t it? No one can possibly know all refugees, Aborigines or homosexuals, though I guess with respect to the last group people like Patriarch Kirill and the members of the ACL will be relying on the so called “good book” for guidance! Putting the content of the “good book” aside for a moment, any negative judgement of these groups as a whole is, strictly speaking, an instance of thinking ill without sufficient warrant.
Often, the ill-thinker has no firsthand experience on which to base his/her judgement. I wonder how many people living in Sydney or Melbourne have actually met an Aborigine, or how many members of the #ACL have actually met an #LGBT person? For those who have, I suspect the actual number would be small. Ordinarily, prejudice manifests itself in dealing with individual members of a rejected group. The prejudiced person pays little attention to individual differences and overlooks the important fact that one Aboriginal or refugee or homosexual person is not necessarily representative of every Aborigine, refugee or #LGBT person.
So common is this process of stereotyping that we might define prejudice as:
an aversive or hostile attitude toward a person who belongs to a group, simply because s/he belongs to that group, and is therefore presumed to have the ‘objectionable’ qualities ascribed to that group.
This definition stresses the fact that while ethnic or sexual orientation prejudice in daily life is ordinarily a matter of dealing with individual people it also entails an unwarranted idea concerning a group as a whole.
Returning to the question of “sufficient warrant,” it must be granted that few if any human judgements are based on absolute certainty. We can be reasonably, but not absolutely, sure that the sun will rise tomorrow, and that death and taxes will finally overtake us. The sufficient warrant for any judgement is always a matter of probabilities. Ordinarily our judgements of natural happenings are based on firmer or higher probabilities than our judgements of people. Only rarely do our categorical judgements of nations or ethnic groups have a foundation in high probability.
Take for example the case of convicted criminals; our antagonism is not a matter of prejudice, for the evidence of their antisocial conduct, if their trial has been free and fair, has been conclusive. But soon the line becomes hard to draw. How about an ex-convict? It is notoriously difficult for an ex-convict to obtain meaningful employment where s/he can be self-supporting and self-respecting. Employers are naturally suspicious when then find out about a prospective employee’s past misdeeds; but often they are more suspicious than the facts warrant. If they looked further they might find evidence that the person who stands before them is genuinely reformed, or even that s/he was unjustly accused in the first place. To shut the door merely because a person has a criminal record has some probability in its favour, for many prisoners are never reformed; but there is also an element of unwarranted prejudgement involved. We have here a true borderline instance.
We can never hope to draw a hard and fast line between “sufficient” and “insufficient” warrant. For this reason we cannot always be sure whether we are dealing with a case of prejudice or non-prejudice. Yet no one will deny that often we form judgements on the basis of scant, even non-existent, probabilities.
Prejudice and #LGBT rights
While the unwarranted judgements of Patriarch Kirill and the ACL continue to hold sway in Russia and Australia, a bill to legalise gay marriage in Britain has passed a crucial hurdle in parliament, despite efforts by the majority of politicians from Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative party to wreck the plans.
Members of the House of Commons on Tuesday voted by 366 to 161 in favour of the same sex marriage bill, which will now go to the House of Lords, where it is likely to face strong opposition from the 26 bishops holding seats in the assembly, for consideration.
Just how divisive is the issue of gay marriage that Prime Minister Cameron was forced to make a deal with the opposition Labour party to pass the bill as many members of his own party had looked to prevent it from passing. Whatever happened to a person’s right to live their life without fear of violence or unwarranted intrusions?
Personally I would prefer as a neighbour a #LGBT couple than a self-righteous member of the ACL who seemingly spend their lives in campaigns of unwarranted prejudice against those who don’t fit neatly into their jaundiced view of the world, a view allegedly formed from a supposedly interment acquaintance with the arcane knowledge that can only found in the good book – what utter BS!