Everyone wants to battle prejudice. To label people by their group, to stereotype an individual by who they look like or false ideas about their group is a horrendous crime. However, sociology teaches us that this is not a crime that we can just point at and jeer, but rather it is a sin within our own hearts. There is not a single person who has ever lived who has not made a determination of another’s personality, goals or vices based solely on one’s looks, one’s accent, one’s clothes or the people one is friendly with. Labeling on insufficient evidence is hardwired within us, and we will all stumble because we assume that our current experience with a person is based on a previous experience or story of an experience with someone we put in their same category. To confront a bigot, all we have to do is talk to the mirror.
It is for this reason that many Western societies have targeted certain areas of prejudice. We have laws against some forms of racism and sexism. We decry homophobia and religious bigotry. And so we should. Because to limit one’s rights or ability to survive due to one’s beliefs, one’s sex, one’s race or one’s sexual orientation is wrong. Every adult, without exception, should be allowed to make their own decisions about how to meet their needs, as long as it does not harm another. If one person has the money for an apartment, then all who can afford it and not harm others should get the same apartment. If one person can sit in a bar to drink, then all should be allowed. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. died for.
There is far to go in these focuses. Yes, an African American has been elected president, but fifty percent of all abortions in the United States are on African American fetuses. Yes, women are now able to succeed in almost any occupation men used to hold a monopoly on, but the second most popular entertainment application on an iPhone is iGirl—where an endowed cyber-woman can be manipulated by her male “master”. Most people have the freedom to worship as they please, but any Muslim appointed to a high government position will soon have to resign because of false allegations that they have associated with terrorist groups. With prejudice, the work is never done.
With as much work as must be done on the bigotry that has been targeted, there is a problem with speaking of racism, or sexism or whatever other focus one has. For every prejudice our society focuses on and tries to wipe out, a hundred are ignored and five more are created. Yes, our society has made great strides in sexism, but assumptions are publicly made daily about the poor who receive welfare—that they are lazy, are cheating the system, are taking advantage of the government. Racism has changed and in some ways gone underground, but social workers can manipulate and control the lives of the mentally ill because the mentally ill have been deemed unable to care for themselves, even when they are not under a court-ordered commitment. People are allowed to worship as they please, but people who have pot for their own use are thrown into prison, although they have harmed no one—not even themselves.
The list of prejudices go on and on—the homeless are treated like criminals for not having a place to sleep, an immigrant is treated like an idiot for having an accent, someone who criticizes democracy or capitalism is held at arm’s length, distrusted, a person over 80 is treated as unable to make their own life decisions. Why is this? Not because we haven’t been taught about tolerance. Simply because our teaching of tolerance has been limited to only a few categories. Thus, we who are white males feel guilty at just glancing at a young black man, but we can openly speak hatred against the same man if we find out he is homeless and speaks with an African accent.
The issue is not racism, or sexism or any other ism of limited scope. Our prejudice is against those who are unlike ourselves—of any other culture that is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. When one person or a group of people make a values decision that is different than one we would make—whether or not it would hurt another—that person is wrong and potentially dangerous. The different are not allowed to rule the society, because they will not uphold the cultural standards, whatever they may be. No matter how we try to attack bigotry, as long as we limit it to just a few issues, we will always fall behind our own unknown prejudices. I believe that our problem is not racism or homophobia—rather it is monoculturalism. The limitation of the “acceptable life” to only a few choices.
Our problem is not simply a lack of education. Certainly Americans would be more tolerant if they learned more about cultures, religions, and a variety of cultural mores and habits. But knowledge is not the answer to a monocultural outlook. The prejudice against women persisted because there was a mutual agreement between the sexes to not interfere with each other’s way of life, mores and areas of influence. Only when they began to live as equals, interfering with each other’s lives was there the beginning of understanding and a breaking down of the wall of sexism. The prejudice against African Americans persisted (and will continue to persist) as long as there is separation in neighborhoods, schools and cultural blocks. Only when there is a free and equal mixing between races will understanding and true hope come about.
I believe that the answer to monoculturalism is living in other cultures, being humble in a situation apart from that which we grew up. When I visited India, after living my whole life in Southern California, I was confronted and ashamed by some of the things I did which was acceptable in my own society. I learned that not only were different races, religions and languages acceptable, but so were different ways of thought. When I began to live among the poor, I learned that there was much that I had an instant revulsion to—dumpster diving, for one—that was not only acceptable, but actually a moral benefit to society.
Only if we live humbly among different cultures will we learn to accept other cultures. Only if we are forced to confront our prejudices face to face with those who we appreciate but run in the face of our prejudices will we change.