I am a believer that each of us struggles with some sort of prejudice. We may not acknowledge it or recognize it, but we are all tainted with different biases. When we speak of prejudice we often think of race first. But there are many other biases that affect us as well. They can be related to economics, political persuasions, sexual preferences and gender biases just to name a few. Each of these affect our thought processes toward other people and events. Those biases also shape our vocabulary and our relationship choices. We tend to associate with people that support our beliefs and share our same biases, even if those are subconscious choices.
Within those circles of similar people, certain language or vocabulary patterns seem to evolve. Often those comments are meant as humor and to entertain or make others laugh, but they are also comments that we would not say if someone of that persuasion were present. We may joke about a certain political party being communists or Nazis, using stereotypes to describe extremists. We may use slang referring to another race or group members of a gender together to describe a tendency among them such as, “All men are pigs”. The truth is no man is a pig. Some men may act inappropriately, but not all men. But the grouping of them together gets a laugh out of everyone.
When everyone in our circle believes or thinks as we do, there is rarely any pushback from those who are present. There is a lot of knee slapping and laughter that can often surround these types of conversations. Rarely is there any acknowledgement that someone could be offended by it because those people are rarely present. If we were to bore down into each person’s heart, we would probably find out that they desire to be much more inclusive than exclusive and really value other people in spite of differences. They often do not mean harm or have ill feelings toward those they speak of, but their language of bias or prejudice has become a normal part of their life.
So the question that I have posed to myself recently is this: if no one is present that is offended, is what we are saying offensive? If we make a racial joke but no one is present to be harmed, is the joke harmful? If we offer a slur toward a politician or political party and everyone present is of the same persuasion, what or who does it hurt? Everyone gets a good laugh. No harm, no foul, right? I am not sure. There actually may be several problems with it.
First, every time we emphasize a difference between us and other people, it tends to widen the gap instead of finding some path to relationship or reconciliation. It is difficult to have influence with people if we cannot find common ground for relationship. Even though we genuinely may not harbor ill will toward those against whom our comments are aimed, every emphasis on those things only works to reinforce our prejudices or biases that we should be attempting to out grow.
Second, each time those views are expressed and we get affirmation through laughter or words of reinforcement, it makes us less sensitive to the issues and problems that sincerely do bother others. It makes us insensitive to racial issues, socio economic problems, political divides and gender inequalities that actually do exist. It makes us less likely to change or attempt to understand someone else’s point of view.
As I was writing this, I overheard Steve Harvey in the background on television say, “more of us need to be concerned about the rest of us”. Just because someone is not present to be offended does not mean what we say or how we act is not offensive. We must learn what offensiveness is without someone telling us. We must be concerned about others even when they are not present. Our beliefs and behaviors are constantly being reinforced. Eventually those thoughts and behaviors will show up in places they are perceived to be offensive. It is much less painful to learn that without harming someone else or needing to be corrected by someone we have offended. Practice makes perfect. Private practice will reduce public pain. Our private conversations must reflect who we desire to be and what we desire for others to see.