Prejudice: We All Play a Role.
I often read about the ways we immobilize future generations: giving everyone a trophy, helicopter parenting, not letting kids fail or face adversity. All suggest modern norms in which adults debilitate young people by making their lives too easy. Having worked in many college settings I can attest to behaviors reported in these articles. I hold my share of anecdotes of parents who take over their college-age child’s advising session or students who voice demands beyond their rights. But for me the articles don’t sit well. Not because the content lacks merit; it is the manner in which they promote their concern and perpetuate another form of debilitation in society.
Prejudice means to pre-judge with a generalized negative, derogatory view. Historically, the term has been applied to people with less power, privilege, and protection, such as minorities protected from legal discrimination; but in reality, prejudice occurs within families and social networks every day. Most often it is used to garner support of a pejorative view and assign blame, such as my modern examples of “Entitled Youth” or “Helicopter Parents.”
At a micro-level these communicative tactics can take a heavy toll on personal relationships. The use of prejudice against a family member or peer is known to lead to interpersonal conflicts, unhealthy alignments, alienation, and relationship cutoffs. At the macro-level prejudice can be devastating to communities: promoting ignorance, negative stereotypes, mistreatment, and hostile, divisive relations between groups. But it doesn’t stop there. When we socialize young people through our prejudice we stunt their development. We block their abilities to learn how to suspend judgment, offer dignity and fairness, truthfully and critically investigate, and work through differences in caring, respectful, and responsible ways.
Blaming versus understanding.
A most damaging outcome of prejudice is victim blaming. Victim blaming occurs when we assign blame to a lesser empowered person. “Entitled children,” for example, have the least amount of power in creating their situation or changing it. Even at their worst, a child exhibiting entitlement behaviors is not a well-regulated or adjusted child; needing and deserving of much more than a pejorative label.
Prejudice also seeks to blame versus understand. When we shift our prejudice to the “Helicopter or Lawn Mower parents” for raising the “Entitled Generation” we continue to alienate with derogatory terms but we also promote ignorance. Reductionist labels are misleading. Social-cultural patterns are multifaceted and complex and there are many factors that contribute to a dramatic social-cultural shift, such as one in parenting practices. To reduce a paradigm shift to “cons” and ignore “pros” reflects bias. To hold one group (parents) responsible where there are multiple, contributing forces reflects ignorance.
Most importantly, prejudice dehumanizes. We can’t disavow name-calling, bullying or verbal and psychological abuse and at the same time emulate it. Voicing opinions or engaging in advocacy need not involve disparaging labels. In resorting to them we model hypocritical standards about our values against dehumanization or mistreatment.
How to counter prejudice.
The laws of the land ought to protect our freedoms of expression but the laws of social science will determine the state of our interpersonal affairs. Engendering prejudice is an effective strategy to win people to your side but it is highly ineffective for growing healthy families and communities. If we seek to mobilize future generations to uphold truth, fairness, dignity, and peaceful interactions at home, work, and in community; we must embrace different norms. Here are five simple rules to counter prejudice and replace it with skills that foster personal responsibility and relational maturity:
1. Suspend judgment. Even where we are well-informed on issues we must offer the benefit of the doubt and suspend judgment, particularly in individual cases or when we are not directly involved.
2. Critical investigation. Our critical thinking is limited to that which we are familiar and exposed. To pursue truth and understanding we must go beyond echo chambers.
3. Own our bias. Opinions are valuable because they are informed by personal knowledge and experience. The responsible way to share them is to acknowledge their true nature and limits versus to speak them as collective or universal truths.
4. Communicate with dignity and respect. Make no room for dehumanization. There are responsible ways to fight for causes and engage in advocacy. It’s one thing to call out singular actions or behaviors; it’s another to insult, mock, disparage, or malign a person or group.
5. Last, we ought to be honest and patient with others and ourselves. We are well-programmed to engage in these behaviors. We will mess up, make mistakes, and fall into old habits. It helps when we own our behaviors and offer grace and understanding as we learn new ways.
Science shows us that the way we communicate matters. We can give future generations the hope and skills to move beyond the adversarial relations destroying our communities if we remember that we are like first responders; supporting or limiting their capacity.
About the Author: Lamar Muro, PhD, LPC, is an Associate Professor of Counseling and Development at Texas Woman’s University and a Licensed Professional Counselor in Denton, Texas. She teaches, trains, and researches in the areas of counseling and human development, diversity and multicultural studies, and couples and family issues.
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