Where do biases come from? How do we develop a prejudice? Are we naturally predisposed to dislike certain people? No, this column is not a lecture on cognitive dissonance or people that hate. This is a reminiscence of very recent anecdotes that I have experienced and that were told to me.
When I think of this topic my mind instantly shifts to the musical South Pacific and the song sung by the character Lieutenant Cable, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” The song is preceded by a lyric saying that racism is “not born in you! It happens after you’re born…” The songs final stanza says it all: “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!”
The song got it mostly right – you can be taught, but you can be taught at any age.
I was never taught to hate anyone save for Nazis, but slowly I am developing not quite a hatred yet, but a disdain for certain people, my own people. Let’s start with an incident that occurred just last night. It was after Shabbat and we were approaching the last days of the chag. My wife needed some items to prepare for cooking and we decided to head on over to the local kosher market. Apparently about 200 other people had the same plan. The market temporarily ran out of shopping carts so a line developed while carts were brought up to the front of the store. As the carts were being delivered, store staff attempted an orderly distribution but the line rapidly broke apart and it became a free for all. My wife asked aloud if anyone believed in following directions. Given the reactions to her comment I warned her to please keep her mouth shut, I would like her to remain alive.
Exactly one week ago while driving my car another car driven by a coreligionist pulled out of a parked spot without looking and destroyed both the side of my vehicle and the front left of hers. She was apologetic. We began to trade information but she did not have all of hers. The police were called. She decided not to wait for the police to show and just took off. Perhaps it was erev chag and there was still some cooking and shopping that had to be done. I waited for the police to arrive. The officer who came just a few brief moments later is someone I know. He is a kind man who likes working in the community and has been assigned to this precinct for what I would estimate to be a good ten or more years. His first question was the most obvious – “Where is the other car?” I told him that she did not want to wait. His reaction was very telling, remember he carries no obvious prejudice and has been involved in community policing for at least a decade. He said “What is with y’…” he caught himself “with these people? This is the third accident that I was called to today. You think that people would know that there are rules that have to be followed. They seem to think that they can make their own rules.You can’t leave an accident just like you aren’t allowed to triple park or make U-turns over a double line.”
And there it was! As I write this I recall many more incidents. Professionally, in my office there are those who have unpaid bills despite the fact that they can more than afford to pay. The excuses they make for not paying, assuming you can reach these individuals, are always creative. Most often, however, they just ignore bills, phone calls and collection letters. Then there is the manufacturer who told me that he will no longer sell to “you people” because he has been stiffed so many times that he thinks that there may be some merit to the idea that Jews are cheap.
You know what? They are not wrong. I am one of those “you people.” I will some day confront the selfishness, arrogance or simple mindedness that underlies this behavior but even when I do I have a greater responsibility. I am one of those people. “You people” is my people but they should not and truly do not represent who we are. It is incumbent upon me, and all of us to make it clear that “you people” is but a small minority of us and they do not represent us. We are just as embarrassed and upset by their behavior as everyone else is. And, we will act in ways that offer a more enhanced image of us.