By Roshan Shah, New Age Islam
18 April 2016
Prejudice—we know it’s a bad thing and that we should refrain from it. But what exactly does the word ‘prejudice’ mean? It isn’t, as commonly thought, simply to have negative or bad thoughts about a person or a group of people. The word consists of two parts—‘pre’ (which means ‘before’) and ‘judge’. To be pre-judiced against someone is thus to pre-judge him, that is to stand in judgment on him, to come to a conclusion about him, even before you get to know him as thoroughly as you should in order to form a correct opinion about him.
Technically, prejudices can be both positive as well as negative. We can pre-judge someone as being very kind or friendly, for instance, before actually knowing him well enough to warrant such a conclusion. Likewise, we can prejudge a community as being very hospitable or charitable. Yet, most often our prejudices—of individuals as well as groups—are negative. The prejudices that we harbour work to dehumanize others in our eyes even as they help boost our own egos—individual as well as collective—reinforcing our desire to believe that we are better than or superior to them. That prejudice inhibits cordial relations—between individuals as well as groups—needs no explanation.
Prejudging others can play havoc with one’s life. This was brought home to me very dramatically the other day when I met Raja, a 60 year-old man who has been washing cars in our apartment complex for the last three decades.
“Your father was a very good man,” Raja said to me. “I still think of him, although it’s been maybe twenty years since he died. All these rich people who live in these apartments—hardly anyone gives me a tip, not even on festivals. But your father was very generous. Every month, he would give me a big baksheesh, over and above what I was paid to wash his car. He told me not to tell anyone about it. He wanted to keep it a secret. Maybe he didn’t want your mother to know, because otherwise she might have scolded him! He’d often take me in the car to his farm, and on the way we’d stop at a dhaaba and he would say, ‘Raja, eat what and as much as you want!’ No one treats me like that now. Your father was a really wonderful man!”
My father, a really wonderful man? For most of my life while my father had been alive I hadn’t thought of him that way at all. Starting in my early teens, I had developed a strong dislike for him, which, over the years, turned into visceral hate. I thought he was repulsive and wanted to have nothing whatsoever to do with him. I abhorred everything that he stood for. How I wanted to be the total opposite of how, who and what he was! I came to see him as without even a single redeeming feature.
There was nothing at all good in him, I was convinced. I thought of him as a crude, selfish and avaricious man, thoroughly materialistic and immoral. All he could think about was golf and beer, stocks, shares, parties and making merry. He had no concern at all for the poor. In contrast to him, I was loving, kind, generous, other-worldly, spiritual and very mindful of my ethics—so I wanted to believe.
Even two decades after my father’s death I continued to think of him that way—that is, if I thought of him at all. But that recent encounter with Raja compelled me to confront the image of my father that I had so sedulously cultivated over the years, an image that continued to torment me long after he had left this world. What Raja revealed about him that day—an aspect of himself that he wanted to be kept secret—jolted me. “A really wonderful man!” Raja had said. It was as if he was talking about someone totally unrelated to my father.
To know that my father had been compassionate towards the poor, and, more than that, that he wanted to have his compassion kept concealed, was a humbling experience. My father, I now came to realise, definitely wasn’t the person I had desperately wanted to think he was. There were, I now found out, good things in the man that I didn’t know about—and that I didn’t want to know about. Maybe there were even more good things about him than what Raja had revealed.
In my urge to hate the man and to justify this to myself, I had, all these many years, chosen not to see anything good in him at all. I had conveniently ignored all the many things that my father had done for me—playing his role in bringing me into this world, for instance, or meeting my basic needs and providing me with ample material comforts and opportunities for growth, without which I wouldn’t have been the person I now was. I continued to obsess about the things that I thought he had deprived me of, comparing him with the ideal father of my dreams and condemning him as a failure. I had wanted to see him as a monster, and so that is how he had appeared to me—as a man without anything good in him at all.
My image of my father actually said far more about myself than about him, I now realise. It was I who was insensitive, mean and hateful, unable to see good even when it was right in front of my eyes. I had cruelly pre-judged my father. I had come to a conclusion about him without caring to see him as he was in his totality—as someone with his share of all-too human weaknesses, but also with his all-too-human goodness too. Thinking of him as utterly contemptible provided me with the illusory sense of being utterly worthy.
What Raja said that day forced me to rethink all of this. My father wasn’t an angel, but he definitely wasn’t a devil either. He was, I now knew, certainly not as bad a man as I wanted to believe he was. Conversely, I definitely wasn’t as good as I wanted to imagine I was. Like everyone else, both of us, my father and I, were a mix of good and bad. It meant that I wasn’t as totally different from my father as I had all along longed to be. We had things in common that I had refused to acknowledge all these years.
Prejudice takes a heavy toll on relationships. It had destroyed my relationship with my father. Prejudice, I can vouch from my own experience, hurts the one who harbours it more than whom it is harboured against. This holds true at both the individual and collective levels. Prejudices can lead to wars within families as well as between communities and nations.
The crumbling of the image of my father that I cherished for almost forty years was a humbling experience. Freeing myself from the prejudice that I had deliberately cultivated was a major relief. The heavy burden of decades of hate and resentment that I had carried around, wanting to feel like a persecuted martyr, began to drop off. And now I’ve reached a point in my relationship with my late father when I can pray to God to forgive me for all the wrong that I have done to him and request God to bless him, wherever he may now be.
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