Monday, 1 December 2008

Without prejudice

I know there are some people out there who are looking forward to a neat, historical account of my trek through the jungle, revealing some of the interesting tit-bits I learnt about Matthew Scott's kidnapping, and probably telling various amusing and disgusting stories about snakes, spiders and mosquitoes. But those people will have to wait (for a few days anyway).

Instead, you can chew on this, a half-baked, half-arsed treatise-cum-rant on a subject that has been floating around my head without reaching any neat conclusions, which, if you ask me, is what blogging really should be about anyway:


Travelling on your own teaches you a few things about the world and a lot of things about yourself. In the past couple of weeks I have come to realize just how much I can enjoy my own company – it’s scary how long I can go without feeling the need to get away from the internal monologue – and I have reflected on one of my main dislikes in life – prejudice.

I think what started me off on my reflections on prejudice was when a top English bloke I went trekking with told me how pleasantly surprised by me he had been. He said he’d initially expected that I would not be good craic – but in the end we got on very well. I didn’t want to pry him on this subject any more than I did, but I was left wondering: what was the initial prejudice he had against me that made him assume I would be boring?

It might have been:
  1. the standard prejudice against middle-class southern English people (I have this prejudice myself. Posh twats.)
  2. or the standard prejudice against solo travelers. (I have this prejudice myself. Fucking wierdos.)
Even though I probably would make the same snap judgment about myself, if I were in someone else’s shoes (draw your own conclusions about how these prejudices of mine are against people like me), it really irritated me that he had initially made a negative judgment about me.

I think this is because there is one kind of prejudice that no human being can stand. Like everyone, I have my own hierarchy of which prejudices are least acceptable (for me it goes – in reverse order of acceptability – racial, then national, then religious, then class. For some, I’m sure class will come first. Other racially sensitive souls might look the other way on a bit of religious bigotry etc etc.) but there is one kind of prejudice that is absolutely the worst and least acceptable of all: prejudice against me.

This is very relevant to being in Latin America for an extended period of time. The resentment towards gringos can be staggering at times – making unprecedented levels of rudeness quite standard. Of course, not everyone is like that, and some people are just arseholes: they are rude to everyone. But at times it does get me down that I am being treated badly because of how my racial ancestors from a country to the north of here have tended to abuse and look down on the peoples of this continent and culture.

It does annoy me – but I don’t want to get on my high-horse about it. I’m as susceptible to prejudice as anyone else. (Cf my two prejudices above, which morph into a blind bigotry when I overhear middle-class southern English solo-travellers…. “What? How dare he intrude on my trip!? He can’t possibly be appreciating this continent as much as I am! Oh, thank God, he can hardly speak Spanish. I’m better than him… It’s OK.”) Anyone who pretends to be above prejudice is undoubtedly an even bigger wanker than the many millions of decent human beings who happen to have the nasty habit of routinely judging people on the spot, based on what their religious/racial/national antecedents did 50/250/2000 years ago.

I’ll always remember the period around late 2006, when The Observer columnist Nick Cohen (pictured) used to have attached to his masthead the tagline “Without prejudice”. This was such a ludicrous, grotesquely pretentious conceit that I enjoyed having a mental argument against Mr Cohen every week when picking up the main section of The O. Of course, he saw sense after just a few weeks and removed his tagline – much to my disappointment.

Anyway, I’m continuing to travel, continuing to broaden my mind and continuing to meet new people, some of whom are undermining my own prejudices about solo-travelers, Spaniards etc, whilst some small kernels of prejudice remain… the fight is never over.


Richard Smith said...

I'm very glad to hear from you and to read you thinking such interesting thoughts. I don't see why it's scary to enjoy being your own for so long. That seems to me a good thing and a gift. If you can't stand your own company (as some, even many, can't) then how can others enjoy being with you? Feeling good in your own skin is very important.
I agree with you on prejudice--both that it's bad an unavoidable. But what about discrimination? Unaccompanied by prejudice (which it usually isn't) that's a good thing. We must all discriminate--make intelligent choices--to avoid being overwhelmed.

Peter Harris said...

Where do you stand on the fat?

James Smith said...

I am prejudiced against the fat, and I probably discriminate a bit too. It's wrong but I can't help it.

I think you're right about discrimination. It's prejudice's avoidable by-product. Also, "discrimination" is always negative, whereas "prejudice" can actually work positively in some cases. Personally, I am more or less a pro-semite, in that I tend to assume, before Jewish people open their mouths, that they will be more intelligent, analytical and amusing than the average person. I don't think this is very healthy, mind you, as it still means ethnically pigeon-holing people, but it isn't as bad as discriminating on those same grounds.