Spotlight on prejudice

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Spotlight on prejudice

The word ‘prejudice’ derives from the Latin word pre-judicium. Literally it means ‘pre-judgment’. In Rome, laws were different for the upper class, the patricians, and for the lower class, the plebeians. The ‘pre-judgment’ was a judicial examination, held prior to the real trial, to determine first the social status of would-be litigants. Often it meant that, in fact, long before the actual trial, the outcome was established by the ‘prejudice’.

K.YOUNG, Handbook of Social Psychology, London 1946, p.502.

Defining “prejudice”

Today’s meaning of prejudice comes close to this. Without examining a person on his or her own merit, we have already adopted a negative attitude that implies a judgment. A prejudice is a mixture of beliefs and feelings that predisposes people to respond negatively to members of a particular group.

* ‘Prejudice is an emotional, rigid attitude. It leads one to select certain facts for emphasis, blinding one to other facts. It causes one to look on all members of a ‘group’ as if they were alike’.

G.E.SIMPSON and J.M.YINGER, Racial and Cultural Minorities. An Analysis of Prejudice and Discrimination, New York 1972, p. 24.

* ‘Prejudice is an avertive or hostile attitude towards a person who belongs to a group, simply because he or she belongs to that group, and is therefore presumed to have the objectionable qualities ascribed to that group. It is an antipathy based on a faulty and inflexible generalisation.’

G.ALLPORT, The Nature of Prejudice, Boston 1954, pp. 8-10.

* ‘Social prejudice is a negative, hostile, rigid and emotional attitude towards a person simply because he or she is perceived to belong to a group, and is presumed to possess the negative qualities ascribed to the group as a result of selective, obsolete or faulty evidence.’3

M.MACGREIL, Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland, Dublin 1977, p. 9.

Origins of Prejudice

A lot of research has been done on the origins of prejudice. How does it arise? To summarise the rather complex conclusions of social and psychological studies, we should distinguish between the root cause and additional causes.

The root cause must probably be sought in the need of every group of people, whether a family, a class, a religious community or nation, to protect its own way of life and interests. Once a degree of power, prestige or wealth has been captured, the group resists newcomers who claim access to such goods and values.

A hostile attitude, implying the inferior position of the challengers, helps to retain one’s privileged status. Prejudice is therefore employed consciously or unconsciously to help a group win or maintain a larger share of life’s goods and values.

The process can be seen in report after report of the hundreds of minority groups all over the world whose presence is experienced as a threat to dominant populations; see World Minorities, vols 1-3, ed. G. ASHWORTH, Old Woking 1977-1980. See also the studies about the origin of the caste system in India, such as: F.G.BAILEY, Caste and the Economic Frontier, Manchester 1957; L.DUMONT, Homo Hierarchicus, Chicago 1980.

Many secondary causes then come into play, reinforcing the prejudice. These are: personality traits of authoritarian leaders; the responses of the victims of the prejudice; the coining of abusive terms; the acceptance of discriminatory practices, and so on.

Once a prejudice has been established, it tends to grow and gather momentum. Social scientists speak of ‘the vicious circle’ of prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice brings on conflict, which brings on more prejudice.

An Example: Greeks and “barbarians”

The Greek city states developed a very high culture. The arts flourished: architecture, sculpture, painting, music and literature. Greek politicians shaped new institutions. Greek philosophers formulated fascinating theories about the nature of human existence. As if this was not enough, Greek military power dominated the Middle East for at least three centuries. For the Greeks all this justified a sense of racial superiority.

People who were not Greek were called barbaroi, ‘barbarians’. The word barbaros derives from child speech. An infant who only begins to speak, stutters and says silly things like ‘bah-bah’ (=‘barbar’). A foreigner’s language sounds like that, a fact which native Greeks found amusing. Barbaros, ‘stutterer’, thus became equivalent to ‘foreigner’.

This original meaning can still be traced in Greek literature; see HOMER, Iliad 2,867; HERODOTUS, History 2,158; AESCHYLOS, Agamemnon 2013; PLATO, Protagoras 341C; and STRABO, Geography 14,28.

It is in this sense that Paul uses the word ‘barbarian’ when he discusses the prayer of speaking in tongues. People who strongly feel the presence of God may just utter sounds, as charismatics still do today when they ‘pray in tongues’. Such prayer should not be exaggerated, Paul says, because it lacks the element of meaning. ‘If I do not know the meaning of a language, I shall be a barbarian to the speaker and the speaker a barbarian to me.’ ( 1 Corinthians 14,11).

However, ‘barbarian’ had also acquired other connotations. The Greeks maintained: ‘Whoever is not a Greek is a barbarian’. When they spoke of ‘the Greeks and the barbarians’, they meant the whole human race. Implied in the expression, even if not always fully expressed, was the sense that humankind consisted of the cultured Greek and the uncivilised barbarians. Paul, too, employs the term in this sense.

POLYBIUS, The Histories 5,33,5; PLINY, Natural History 29,7; see also the classic by J.JÜTHNER, Hellenen und Barbaren, Berlin 1923.

‘I have a duty to both Greeks and barbarians’, Paul would say, ‘ to the educated and to the ignorant.’ (Romans 1,14)

The New English Bible translates: ‘Greek and non-Greek, learned and simple’; Today’s English Version: ‘all peoples, the civilised and the savage, the educated and the ignorant’. The uncivilised natives of Malta are called ‘barbarians’ in Acts 28,2.4.

Other negative connotations inherent in the term ‘barbarian’ can be gauged from the way it describes perversion and cruelty in the second book of Maccabees (125 BC):

  • ‘barbarian hordes’;
  • ‘a man who has the temper of a cruel tyrant and the rage of a barbarian wild beast’;
  • ‘Philip, by birth a Phrygian and in character more barbarian than the man who appointed him’;
  • ‘barbarian arrogance’;
  • ‘do not destroy so barbarously and savagely’.

2 Maccabees 2,22; 4,25; 5,22; 13,9; 15,2.

Romans had an inferiority complex about their ‘barbarian’ origins. The sons of the Roman upperclass families would travel to Greece to finish off their education. Their highest ambition was to compose poetry in Greek. Cicero complains about the snobs in Rome who would only read Greek literature and who refused to read anything written in their own language, Latin. Some people were so ashamed of their Italian origins, he tells us, that they wanted to be considered Greek.

CICERO, About the Highest Good and the Greatest Evil 1, 4-10.

No wonder that Cicero expressed his anger at the negative judgment implied in being called a ‘barbarian’. ‘Romans are not barbarians’, he declared. Many Hellenists who were not Greeks by race, but who had adopted Greek culture, will have taken a similar stand. They looked on themselves as ‘Greeks’. Others fought the bigotry head on.

CICERO, About the Republic, 1,37, par 68. It is sometimes said that ‘barbarian’ was not so negative because non-Greeks applied the term to themselves; see JOSEPHUS, Antiquitates 1,7,1; JUSTIN, Apology 1,46. However, this proves little. In colonial countries people might rank themselves as ‘tribals’, ‘Indians’, ‘natives’, without thereby agreeing to any bias implied.

Lucian of Samosata who hailed from Syria, states that philosophy and truth are on the side of the many ‘barbarians from Soli, Cyprus, Babylon or Stagyra’ who possess a good character and proclaim sound teaching.

LUCIAN, ‘Fishing for Phonies’; Satirical Sketches, ed. P.TURNER, Harmondsworth 1961, p.176.

A century later Clement of Alexandria adduces a similar argument: ‘Barbarians have been inventors not only of philosophy, but of almost any art. The Egyptians, no less than the Chaldeans, were the first to introduce to humankind the knowledge of astrology.’ (CLEMENT, Stromata 1,16,74.) The distinction between Greek and barbarian was obnoxious (Colossians 3,11) .


Rationalisation is a key element in prejudice.

There is a big difference between reason and rationalisation. We may have good reasons for our attitudes and actions. But at times we fool ourselves. We do not want to admit that our real motives are irrational. So we invent spurious reasons. This is called ‘rationalisation’: namely the provision of plausible reasons to explain to ourselves or to others behaviour for which our real motives are different and which are either unknown or unconscious.

Let us look again at the example of Greek prejudice against non-Greeks: the “barbarians”. Ordinary Greeks might justify their prejudice against foreigners with the following rationalisations:

  • ‘You can never trust these barbarians.’
  • ‘It is their own fault that they have made so little progress.’
  • ‘They can’t think straight because their language is crooked.’
  • ‘All their achievements are based on brute force, not on power of mind.’

Greeks might believe these were valid reasons based on fact; whereas they had never been proved. Greeks might remain unaware of the actual motive for their hostility to foreigners: namely the fear that the latter might upset the established order, or, at some stage, take over.

The use of Stereotypes

This brings me to another element of prejudice: the formation of stereotypes. By this we mean that human groups are characterised in terms of a few fairly crude traits or common attributes. These characterizations freeze in time so that it is difficult to change them.

Children learn stereotypes even before they can think for themselves. Stereotypes become embedded in songs, in jokes, in literature.

‘Intergroup Behaviour’, in Introducing Social Psychology, ed. H.TAJFEL and C.FRASER, Harmondsworth 1978, pp. 423-445.

The stereotype of a ‘barbarian’ for a Greek was: a foreigner; speaks a funny language; is probably uncivilised, ignorant and savage; cannot be trusted. Stereotypes are ‘unscientific and hence unreliable generalisations that people make about other people either as persons or groups’.

E.S.BOGARDUS, ‘Stereotypes versus Sociotypes’, Sociology and Social Research 34 (1950) p.287.

To give another example, in the United States, these are the stereotypes with which college students describe various groups:

Irish: ‘quick-tempered, very religious, extremely nationalistic, tradition-loving’;

Jews: ‘shrewd, industrious, intelligent, ambitious, aggressive, materialistic’;

Negroes: ‘lazy, ostentatious, happy-go-lucky, very religious, pleasure-loving’;

Americans: ‘industrious, intelligent, ambitious, pleasure- loving’.

From J.W.VANDER ZANDEN, American Minority Relations, New York 1972, p.22.

Prejudice, rationalisation and stereotyping function together in the social myths that undershore the power structures in society.

This document was excerpted from: John Wijngaards, I Have no Favourites, Paulist Press, Mahwah 1995, pgs. 77-86.

John Wijngaards

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