Thursday, January 28, 2010

Prejudice and Opinion

'Well, Americans are stupid and racist.'

This opinion, presented as a fact was one of the most striking responses I received today when people heard that I had actually lived for nine months in the United States of America. Not only was this comment made spontaneously and entirely off-hand, almost an involuntary reaction, in fact (and yet with an alarming veneer of confidence), but it elicited knowledgeable and amenable nods and murmurs all round that showed unquestioning acceptance of this very vague view.

Having been fortunate enough to have travelled to, and lived for some time in the country, I could speak somewhat from experience when I challenged the speaker. Now, I understand fully that  for the majority of my nine months there, I was at Deerfield  Academy, whose selectivity  meant the people I met were singularly outstanding and almost without fail intelligently open minded. This, of course, was far from a cross section or microcosm of the USA at large, but that was enough to give me a leg to stand on when - without realising it - I began to defend America. Indeed, before I went to the United States, I took  quite a dim view of the country - it was expected. After all, my only sources of information were the news and popular opinion, which reported at length on the follies of America and the mistakes and shortcomings of the then president, George W Bush. Nobody really liked him, which reflected negatively on his country who were blamed for voting him into power at least once. American media is also to blame; American television and movies that propagate through most of the world present a largely unflattering view of American people and culture. Two wars, of which at least one had doubtful motives, and both of which were largely unpopular in the world did not help America's case. Still, I travelled there with a fairly open mind - I am thankfully slow to judge - willing to see for myself what the controversial country was about.

When I left nine months later, I was not exactly a patriotic Amurikan, but I had developed a respect for America, dismissed some preconceptions and learned new (and sometimes shocking or downright disturbing things) for myself. I had experienced a slender slice of America, and - as with any experience - found positives and negatives partout. The consumerism of America is fascinating and ghastly, and American marketing is appalling. Scenes of unimaginable beauty abound too, both artificial and natural. The peculiar American cultures and traditions, like Halloween and Thanksgiving, and the enthusiasm with which they are celebrated, lend a charm and independence to it. I neither love nor hate America, and I certainly do not agree with the above statement. Stupidity and racism (and any other generic negativity for that matter) exist everywhere, and so it is redundant to point it out in so general a space as a country. 

I could list all the things that I found attractive and abhorrent, balance them on either side of a scale and pass a verdict on the country, but once again, I would be making an all-encompassing generalisation, which is ultimately a fallacy. So I'll skip that and get to the real issue, which was not so much the opinion as the attitude. There is a song that suggests that if everyone in the world knew everyone else personally, there would no longer be international conflict or tension. That kind of idealism is questionable, but it does strike a chord with me.
I do not claim to be without misconceptions or prejudices - no one truly is - but I like to think I attempt to recognise vague opinion and rethink before I speak or judge. When I questioned the speaker further, pressing them for the personal experience that had given them such fervour and conviction, they told me they had 'spent a week on holiday in America once, and yeah...'
There's the issue: if people are so ready to make generalizations, based on vague notions, stubborn preconceptions and popular opinion, then they are robbed of the opportunity to experience, think, learn and then form an educated and personally motivated opinion. These opinions may not be accurate, or what might be considered 'right' by others, but at least they are well founded in first-hand knowledge and experience, and can therefore be reasoned through and defended with certainty. 

This universal experience and clear-sight is also an ideal, as there is just not the time or resources to allow everyone to know everything and everyone, but if we are able to recognise unfounded or shaky views, opinions presented as fact, originating both from ourselves and others, and to challenge their sources, then we will have taken a step in the right direction.

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