THE BLOG
06/30/2016 05:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2016

The Toxic Temptation Of Prejudice

A man was sitting in his plane seat, calmly scribbling notes on a pad while waiting for takeoff. The woman sitting next to him, who watched him writing some strange formulas she didn't understand, felt more and more uncomfortable with the man. Whether it was just his obscure notes, or the notes plus the fact the he had dark hair and a beard, she was concerned, and alerted the cabin crew that she might be sitting next to a possible terrorist. Minutes later, the captain of the plane approached the unsuspecting economist and asked him to leave the plane to speak to some men who appeared to be FBI agents. It turns out the gentleman was Guido Menzio, an Italian-born world famous economist at the University of Pennsylvania, and his notes were a math problem he had been working on.

Cases like this are more and more common. Fueled by the fear of terrorism, people eye their fellow travelers with great suspicion, especially if they appear to be Middle Eastern. Although the notion "better safe than sorry" is understandable, it also bears the risk for us to become more and more prejudice -- and paranoid.

We're living in a strange dichotomy. On the one hand, the parts of the world seem to move closer and closer together. Modern technology allows us to connect and interact instantaneously with almost anyone around the world. The media feeds us live updates on any global developments. And traveling to the most exotic place has become easier and more affordable. But also within our society, there appears to be a greater variety of different cultural influences and more freedom of self-expression and acceptance of the diversity of lifestyles.

On the other hand, political movements that base their ideology on fear and anger against those who don't share their same values and beliefs are rapidly picking up steam. And I'm not talking about only the religious fanatics of this world. Most Western nations observe a growing popularity of politicians who use divisiveness and "us against them" messages to fuel the frustration and worry of those who already feel disenfranchised by the establishment. The latest examples are the unlikely rise of Donald Trump and the decision of the British people to leave the European Union. Part of the allure of both was the message of having to protect the country from foreigners, whether they are Mexicans or the legions of immigrants who are desperately fleeing a war-zone to find someplace where they can exist in peace.

As a result, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia are on the rise. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 61 percent of those surveyed said that the 2016 US presidential election has had increased the level of hatred and prejudice in country.

I believe that the majority of people still like to see themselves as tolerant and open-minded. To them, being called prejudiced would be an insult. However, we need to be aware that, in general, our minds are tempted to being prejudiced for several reasons:

1. To quickly make sense of reality
We're constantly bombarded with stereotyping messages that depict Muslims as terrorists, African-Americans as gang members, Mexicans as drug dealers, gay men as effeminate fashionistas, lesbians as butch men-haters... Just the mere exposure to these stereotypes creates a slippery slope toward becoming prejudiced. Our mind, which uses subconscious filters to make sense out of the world, employs these stereotypes to quickly judge and discern people who are different from us. It feels less overwhelming to, for example, put others into a labelled box than to recognize their complete individuality and uniqueness. As the author E.B. White said: "Prejudice is a great time saver. You can form opinions without having to get the facts."

2. To give us a false sense of control and safety
We fear that which we don't understand and avoid that which we're afraid of. Preconceived notions about those who think, believe, and live differently from us can be a self-protective pattern. To keep the country safe, refugees are seen as potential terrorists. To avoid God's punishment, homosexuals are labelled evil sinners. To preserve jobs, Mexicans are perceived as illegal immigrants. The segregation of a group of people to preserve the "tribe" is a very basic protective mechanism that has been terribly abused throughout history by most nations. My German ancestors have been guilty of the most atrocious form of prejudice. The dehumanization of Jews and its horrific consequences during the holocaust are a part of history that no country should ever forget.

3. To provide us with a sense of superiority and power
Researchers have found that prejudice is often driven by emotions such as disgust, pity, pride, and envy. To make us feel better about ourselves, we're making fun of or looking down on those, who appear "weaker" or "weirder" than we feel we are. We feel a sense of righteousness when we label homeless people as lazy addicts, who could turn their lives around if they just wanted to work. We take some solace in judging refugees as potential risks to our safety, rather than having compassion and empathy for their incredible hardship.

The world has many challenges to deal with -- climate change, future energy and water shortages, inequality of financial resources. It will take a concerted effort on the part of the entire global community to resolve these problems, which is why we need to find a way to come together, learn from each other and celebrate and honor our differences. Prejudice is a temptation we can't afford. Or to quote Maya Angelou: "Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible."

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