The Four barriers – Prejudice, Authority, Distance and Denial are formidable obstacles in creating empathy. In this week column we are taking Prejudice to describe a little in detail.
We are prone to stereotyping, making snap judgements based on first impressions, and casually project our biases and preconceptions on to people while knowing very little about the reality of their lives. We make cliched associations, for instances that minors are ‘ uncluttered’, that hedge fund managers are arrogant and selfish, or that Jews are tight with their money – a prejudice that has survived over 500 years. We also frequently use collective labels that mask people’s individuality, like ‘ Yobs’, ‘ Toffs’, ‘Hoodies’, ‘fundamentalist’ , ‘Nerds’. These labels tend to denigrate others, placing them in a convenient box that makes it difficult to appreciate their humanity and uniqueness, or the personal stories behind their circumstances.
One result of such stereotyping is that we are so often mistaken in our judgements about others. Take this example from the Australian novelist Nikki Gemmell, recalling an encounter in a London car park.
We have all, I suspect, being guilty of a lack of empathy at some point. I have, I am not proud of it….. London, five years ago. Decembers 3 pm, sky glooming down. Running late, and cold. Grumpy? Oh yes. A muslim man walking towards me, bearded and robed. The papers were full of warnings that Al-Qaida was planning a Christmas terror campaign focussing on people travelling through festive season. Let us just say I was/nt feeling particularly ….open at that moment.My whole being was one huge fling; there may even have been a scowl.’ Would you like my parking ticket, Madam?” ‘ Pardon?’ ‘ I have got several hours left on it and I am going. Please. Have it. Well, stunned me with kindness. I looked right into that good man’s face, properly this time. Saw not a muslim but a fellow human being beaming nothing but compassion, friendliness.
Think to yourself how often you have been plain wrong about someone because you were looking at them through the distorting lens of prejudice and stereotype. I used to regularly see a disheveled homeless man who spent his days muttering crazily to himself and picking up cigarette butts – it never occurred to me that our lives might connect. But one day I spoke to him (His name was Allen Human) and found out he had studied philosophy at Oxford University, and we embarked on a friendship based on our mutual interest in Nitzsche, Marx and Pepperoni Pizza. It was a friendship that I had, for years, been walking straight past in ignorance.