The direction, in which modern civil society is moving, gives hope that it is possible to reconsider stereotypical views and eliminate such phenomenon as prejudice. This opinion is a way too optimistic, however, as it is deeply rooted in history and public opinion.
The positive trend, which can be observed at this stage, is that prejudice has ceased being a taboo and is analyzed and highlighted. In the current paper I intend to observe the main forms of prejudice such as gender, racial and sexual prejudice and to what extent they still define the way people think and act.
Before going any further, it is worth examining how the term “prejudice” is defined in The Columbia Encyclopedia: “unsubstantiated prejudgment of an individual or group, favorable or unfavorable in character, tending to action in a consonant direction... Some researchers attribute prejudice to deep-rooted "fear of the stranger," while others cite religious or nationalist chauvinism, and fear of economic competition. Most, however, agree that prejudice is learned and can be reduced when members of different communities work together toward the realization of a common goal or when groups intermarry. Since prejudice and discrimination each contribute to the origin and growth of the other, prejudice can be reduced by removing discrimination, and a change in discriminatory institutions usually leads to a change in attitudes” (38629) The above abstract makes a very important suggestion that within the realm of prejudice thought and action are closely interrelated, that’s why prejudice can be seen as a real challenge, if not danger, to democratic values of equality and human rights. So, let it be a working definition that prejudice is an unfair negative attitude toward a social group or a person perceived to be a member of that group.
Let us now focus on the main forms of prejudice, which are most wide-spread in modern society. One of the most burning phenomena, especially for the United States is the problem of racism. As Wikipedia states, “racism has historically been defined as the belief that race is the primary determinant of human capacities, that a certain race is inherently superior or inferior to others, and/or that individuals should be treated differently according to their racial designation. Sometimes racism means beliefs, practices, and institutions that discriminate against people based on their perceived or ascribed race” (Wikipedia) The phenomenon of racism overlaps to a large extent with that of nationalism, as the belief that your nation is superior in any way inevitably leads to the conclusions that some other nation ( or any other nation) is inferior. When we speak of racism the first association which emerges is with the white against the black racism, or the so-called white supremacy theory. However, it is also possible to speak of anti-Semitism and other similar nationalistic theories in the same context because they have a similar base underlying them all. Different types of racism and xenophobia are equally based on superficial stereotypes about the representatives of one or another race or nationality. They are believed to have been originated from the inherent fear and disgust of an ancient human before “the other”, who was seen as a source of danger to stability. However, in many cases religious aspects influenced the formation of some modern national attitudes, like it was with anti-Semitism. The tragic history of the Second World War show how racial prejudice can grow into anti-human movement and cause mass psychosis of one nation killing another one.
Another typical form of prejudice didn’t cause wars and blood like it was with racism. It had some other negative effects as it excluded women from being full-fledged members of society for centuries. It is all about gender discrimination or sexism, of course. “Sexism is discrimination against people based on their sex rather than their individual merits.” (Wikipedia). Sexism is conventionally viewed as being aimed at women; however, it would be a sign of sexism in itself to agree that it always so. In fact, it works both ways. Sociologists differentiate between two trends: hatred of men (misandry) or women (misogyny). It not always, however, that sexism takes such extreme forms. In most cases it is just reflected in prejudice proper that one of the sexes is superior of the other and that this difference should be reflected in society. Sexism finds its expression at different levels: job discrimination, language discrepancy, sexist jokes, advertising, which exploits sexual stereotypes and so on. The emergence of feminist movement was caused by the inequality between men and women, which existed for centuries and blocked woman’s potential confining her role to that of a housewife, fully dependent on her husband. A few decades of feminist movement shows a great progress, although it would be exaggeration to speak of the full elimination of sexism aimed at women. At the same time, however, many claim that feminism is a distortion of a normal nature of women, which led to their masculinization, on the one hand, and to the appearance of the term “reverse sexism” on the other. Anyway, the fight for the equal rights isn’t over yet, though sometimes a question arises whether to be equal to men means to be identical to them.
Sexism or gender discrimination is closely connected to the third form of prejudice which is called sexual prejudice. The term can be explained in the following way: “Broadly conceived, sexual prejudice refers to all negative attitudes based on sexual orientation, whether the target is homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. Given the current social organization of sexuality, however, such prejudice is almost always directed at people who engage in homosexual behavior or label themselves gay, lesbian, or bisexual”. The same phenomenon is often described by the terms “homophobia” and “heterosexism”, the former being a narrower version of sexual prejudice, focusing on the gay, whereas the latter having a connotation of ideological sort. It seems like homophobia was the last of the prejudices to evoke serious open oppression. Although some progress has been achieved and sexual orientation stopped to be as tabooed as it used to be, it is still a burning problem. The practice of “coming out” showed the attempt, often desperate, to challenge the public opinion. Some of the statistics about sexual prejudice, which were received over the last decade, are really ambiguous:
85% of teachers oppose integrating lesbian, gay and bisexual themes in their curricula. --"Making Schools Safe for Gay and Lesbian Youth: Report of the Massachusetts Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth," 1993.
A survey of 191 employers revealed that 18% would fire, 27% would refuse to hire and 26% would refuse to promote a person they perceived to be lesbian, gay or bisexual. --Schatz and O'Hanlan, "Anti-Gay Discrimination in Medicine: Results of a National Survey of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Physicians," San Francisco, 1994.
The vast majority of victims of anti-lesbian/gay violence - possibly more than 80% - never report the incident, often due to fear of being "outed." --New York Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project Annual Report, 1996. (Homophobia, Heterosexism, and Sexual Prejudice)
Although most of the statistics were obtained a decade ago and there is hope that there has been some progress in attitudes since, they show that sexual prejudice is the most deeply-rooted with modern society, for reasons of religious and psychological origin. To sum up, it is important to say that despite the fact that prejudice can acquire different forms, they have one thing in common: stereotypical concept that some group of people is superior in some way of another one. We have to realize, that in the modern society, where the values of equality and human rights are respected, discrimination is out of place. Tolerance and broad-mindedness should be the qualities of everyone who claims to be a civilized person.
Homophobia, Heterosexism, and Sexual Prejudice, 6 May, 2005
"Prejudice." The Columbia Encyclopedia . 6th ed. 2004.
Racism, 6 May, 2005, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racism
Sexism, 6 May, 2005 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexism