Criticism and Prejudice

Why can't I criticize some blacks without being called "racist"? . . . Why can't criticize Israel without being called an anti-Semite? . . .  Why can't I talk about the Mafia without being called anti-Italian? . . .   Why can't I tell a “Polish joke” without being called anti-Polish? . . .  Why, for that matter, can't I criticize the Catholic Church without being called an anti-Catholic?  Why can't anyone criticize or tell a joke about another person or group without being accused of racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual prejudice against him, her, or them?  After all, minority group members talk the same way about other members of their group and no one calls them bigots.

In truth there is a difference between criticism and prejudice, between constructive criticism and malicious attack.  Criticism isn't prejudice, though the latter always contains at least some criticism (and animosity).  The difference between malicious prejudice and objective criticism lies in the intent, content, frequency, and verifiability of what is said or written.

Leaving aside the outright bigots, most people reveal their prejudices by how they behave. To make a point, to win an argument or gain advantage in an election campaign, or in a burst of anger or a fit of intoxication, some people will reveal their prejudices by deliberately or instinctively confusing the particular with the general, substituting emotions and fiction for reason and facts.

More virulent prejudice enters in when anyone wants to hurt another person, group, or country, by resorting to lies, rumours, exaggerations, and/or violence.  In such activities, the prejudiced parties impute blame to all members of the attacked group, whether because of their race, religion, ethnicity, or sex.  They attempt to defend these actions, and refuse to test the reality of their judgements and passions, denying that the latter may possibly be unwarranted, invalid, or just plain bigoted.  This more virulent form of prejudice is sometimes exhibited in the repeated telling of outright lies, in the knowledge that if a lie is told often enough, people will believe it to be true. (Some Protestant demagogues still berate Catholics as un-American agents of the Pope, and some Christians for a long time accused contemporary Jews of guilt in the crucifixion of Jesus.)

People can also show their prejudices in a variety of other ways. Some are afflicted with "blind spot prejudice", wherein they totally deny any prejudice in themselves or their group, in order to maintain their self-esteem, advance their social agenda, garner contributions, or increase organizational numbers.

People who are inwardly uncomfortable, ambivalent, or fearful when among members of some group other than their own are said to harbour "aversive prejudice".  In race relations, a number of researchers have noted that when such people interact with blacks, they may have a feeling of uneasiness and anxiety or a desire to end contact with them.  In other words, “aversive racists” will avoid treating blacks in a manner that would seem obviously unfair, because they do not wish to appear as racially motivated, which would be inconsistent with their belief that they are not really prejudiced.

Such behaviour often contains some "projective prejudice", wherein people exaggerate their own biases and impute them to other people, groups, or countries—even though the latter may, in fact, have less prejudice or none at all.  To those with “projective prejudice”, other people are what they think them to be or want them to be, and not what they actually are.  Various psychological studies show that people who genuinely believe themselves prejudice-free can actually be biased—doing such things as hiring or voting for a white over a black, a Protestant over a Catholic or Jew—or vice versa—or employing a native-born American over a naturalized citizen.

Lastly, it should be said that some people are quite lacking in a sense of humour, or they are so thin-skinned that they consider as prejudiced anything that is said about them or their group that is not flattering.  They want to hear or read only that they and their group are respected, admired, and even loved, even though they themselves may not respect, admire, or love others.

It is sometimes difficult to blame such people, particularly when they and their ancestors were victimized for so long that it became a cultural custom. The more and longer that a minority group was discriminated against, the more likely its members are to fear signs of the reappearance of prejudice. That is why some minority members—one thinks of blacks, Jews, Catholics, Hispanics, and even women, who are not a minority—are sensitive to any inkling of insult and are quick to “yell” about racial, religious, ethnic, or sexual bigotry.

In short, not every critic of a person, group, or country is a bigot, though some are. Criticism and prejudice should not be confused.  Also, in criticizing past victims of bigotry, care should be taken to show awareness of the victims' pains and memories.  It is not necessarily "political correctness" to be empathetic to the victims of prejudice and their descendants.  After all, the Popes themselves have shown such empathy.