The most common, and, perhaps, the most serious of vices is prejudice. It is a thing imbibed with one's mother's milk, fortified by all one's youthful surroundings, and only broken through, if at all, by experience of the world and a deliberate mental effort.
Prejudice is, indeed, a vice in the most serious sense of the term. It is more damaging and corroding in its effects than most of the evil habits which are usually described by that term. It is destructive of judgment and devastating in its effect on the mentality because it is a symptom of a narrowness of outlook on the world. The man who can learn to outlive prejudice has broken through an iron ring which binds the mind. And yet we all come into the world of affairs in early youth with that ring surrounding our temples. We have subconscious prejudices even where we have no conscious ones. Family, tradition, early instruction and upbringing fasten on every man preconceptions which are hard to break.
I write out of my own experience. I was brought up as the son of a minister of the Church of Scotland, who left Edinburgh University as a young man to take up a ministry in Canada. The Presbyterian faith was, therefore, the one in which I was brought up in my boyhood, and I still feel in my inner being a prejudice, which I cannot defend in reason, against those doctrines which traverse the Westminster Confession of Faith. However much thought and experience have modified my views on religious questions, my tendency is to become the Church of Scotland militant if any other denomination challenges its views or organisation.
Such are the prepossessions which surround youth. They are formidable, whether they take the shape of religion or politics or class—and a fixed form of religious belief is probably the most operative of them all. It is quite possible that but for subconscious training of the mind inbred through the generations neither man nor society would have been able to survive. None the less, now that man has attained the stage of social reason, prejudice is rather a weakness than a strength.
The greatest prejudice in social life is that against persons—not against people known to one, for in that case it is dislike or indifference or even hatred, but against some individual not even known by sight.
A mentions B to C. "Oh!" says C. "I loathe that man." "But have you ever met him?" says A. "No, and I don't want to, but I know quite enough about him." "But what do you know against him?" "Well, I know that E told D, who told me, that he was black through and through, and a bad man." A few weeks afterwards C sits next B at dinner; finds him an excellent sort of man to talk to and to do business with, and henceforward goes about chanting his praises. Thus is personal prejudice disproved by the actual fact. It is a curious freak of circumstance, not easily accounted for, that men who possess that fascination of personality which makes them firm friends and violent enemies are most liable to be adversely judged out of that lack of knowledge which is called prejudice.
There is another form of the error which is found in the business world. Men of affairs conceive quite irrational dislikes for certain types of securities or transactions. They are given, perhaps, an excellent offer, out of which they might make a considerable profit. They turn the matter down without further consideration. Their ostensible reason is that they are not accustomed to deal in that particular class of security. Their real reason for refusing is that they are the victims of their own environment, and that they have not the intellectual courage or force to break away from it even when every argument proves that it would be to their advantage to do so. Their intellects have become musclebound by habit or tradition.
The fourth and, perhaps, the most violent form of prejudice, outside the sphere of religion, may be found in politics. Men embrace certain political conceptions, and, though the whole world breaks into ruins, and is reconstructed around them, nothing will alter their original ideas. The Radical says that the Tory does not change his spots, and the Tory is convinced that a Radical is still a direct emanation of the evil one. In the middle of these conflicting antagonisms the real road to national peace, prosperity, and security is missed by those who prefer prejudice to the lessons which reality teaches. The most infamous case of all to the unbending partisan is that of a man who has so far outlived the prejudices of party as to be able to criticise one side without joining another.
The advantage of prejudice is the preservation of tradition; its disadvantage is the inability which it brings to an individual or to a nation to adapt life to the change of circumstance. It is, therefore, at once both the vice of youth and of age. Youth is prejudiced by upbringing; age is prejudiced because it cannot adapt itself to the circumstances of a changing world. But both youth and age can fight by the power of the human will against the tendencies which steep them in their own prepossessions Youth can say: "I will forget that I was brought up to be a Scotsman and a Presbyterian, and so prejudiced against all Roman Catholics or Jews; the world is open to me, I will form my own convictions and judge men and religion on their merits." The subconscious self will still operate, but its extravagances will be checked by reason and will.
Age can say to itself: "It is true that all that has happened in the past is part of my experience, and therefore of me. I have formed certain conclusions from what I have observed, but the data on which I have formed them are constantly changing. The moment that I cease to be able to accept and pass into my own experience new factors which my past would reject as unpleasant or untrue I have become stereotyped in prejudice and the truth of actuality is no longer in me, and when touch with the world is lost the only alternative is retirement or disaster." The more quickly youth breaks away from the prejudices of its surroundings, the more rapid will be its success. The harder that age fights against prepossessions, born of the past, which gather round to obstruct the free operation of its mind, the longer will be the period of a happy, successful, and active life.
Prejudice is a mixture of pride and egotism, and no prejudiced man, therefore, will be happy.
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