Prior to more detailed reports returning with people like Christopher Columbus and other explorers of the oceans in the 15th century, it was common to suppose that any creatures discovered along the way would be filled with horrific traits. Poetry, folklore, religion, and just plain prejudice and racism, helped to lead the way for millions who were superstitious and mostly illiterate. They heard of Pygmies, who braided their long hair into clothing. Homer’s earlier writing of the Cyclopes convinced even those of later centuries that one-eyed monsters still existed. Antipodes (meaning “opposite footed”) supposedly lived at the bottom of the world and walked upside down. Even Shakespeare wrote of the Blemmyae – creatures whose heads grew beneath their shoulders – and the one-footed Sciopods, who used that great huge appendage as a parasol to protect them from the sun as they lay on their backs.
We smile knowingly at all this now, but in those earlier times people presumed that whoever populated distant lands must be monstrous – from the Latin monstrum, meaning “to warn.” They judged everything by what was familiar to them and their cultural, political and religious leaders were only too happy to accommodate such views because a people fearing such unknowns would surely look to their leaders for protection.
Imagine the shock and disappointment, then, when Columbus wrote back of his amazing discovery of the New World, but went on to describe the people as nothing like what had been prophesied:
“In these islands I have so far found no human monstrosities, as many expected. On the contrary, among all these peoples good looks are esteemed … Thus I have neither found monsters nor any report of any. They are no more malformed than the others … These Indians are very well built, of very handsome bodies and very fine faces.”
Similar stories emerged from the explorers who journeyed to every corner of the globe. In other words, the world wasn’t as alien as people were predisposed to believe – a reality that caused one of the explorers to conclude, “All mankind is one.”
Today, people from all these regions – the former monstrum – are represented by their countries at the United Nations, the Olympics, and other world bodies. They can work in HTML language, fight for peace, love their children, turn their Smartphones into little powerhouses, and are increasingly pursuing their PhDs. Women in these lands are at last getting their opportunity to lead their people into more peaceable futures, and the men are learning to accept – willingly or unwillingly – that without those women who hold up “half the sky” they are only bound to repeat historic failures.
This is humanity, crawling ever toward enlightenment and progress over a process that took millennia. Yet our penchant to form judgments on those things that are unfamiliar lives on through differing venues. It’s difficult for me to count the number of times I’ve been told that Africans are just too violent to help themselves, that most Muslims are terrorists, or that the aboriginal communities in this country will never amount to anything. Prejudice continues; it’s only the objects of derision that change.
Politics increasingly calls out to the petty in us. Conservatives are all rednecks; Liberals are immoral elitists; NDPers are secret socialists; Bloc members all hate Canada. It’s all ridiculously off-based, superficial, damaging – and wrong. Even worse, it demeans a supposedly refined people who have built a terrific country, despite some failures. As politics becomes less human and more rigid, it is inevitable that prejudice seeps back into the human condition. Unchecked, or unrecognized, it leads to a kind of stasis, where civil action or cooperation falls by the wayside because we are just too opinionated to move.
Our growth in humanity was supposed to be all about our ability to learn about what we didn’t understand, not judge it. Author Eckhart Tolle actually viewed our unwillingness to open up our minds as a kind of violence:
“Prejudice of any kind implies that you are identified with the thinking mind. It means you don’t see the other human being anymore, but only your own concept of that human being. To reduce the aliveness of another person to a mere concept is already a form of violence.”
We know enough about history to understand exactly where this has gotten us as a species. The moment we take on an abiding belief in the inferiority of others – individuals or groups – we undercut our ability as a nation to progress. Politics now is all about labeling, not cooperation, and the effects of this are all around us.
This is what makes partisanship so dangerous. It allows us to come to judgements quickly without actually doing the work to support those findings. A gut reaction is much more convenient than a mental process, and takes a lot less time. Opposition parties become idiots instead of people we must do business with for the national good.
If we want to change the world, we have to be in it. Hiding behind our parapets of prejudice will only lead to the decline of our civic structures – and civility itself. We must begin the process of moving out, back into our communities, and work towards a state of cooperation among opposing views. We must come to see that we can learn what we don’t know and that ignorance can be removed. But prejudice will destroy us as a community and as a nation. It’s time to stop fearing what we do not understand. Humanity can’t progress otherwise.