Prejudice and its Discontents

I recently traveled to Germany, a country where I spent six months of my life when I was in college in 1988. I had not been back since. Any trip to Germany inevitably raises the specter of Germany’s shocking and sickening past. My son Sam and I went to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, and as we wandered through the museum and saw fragments of faces and letters, snapshots of individual lives and families in particular contexts, the weight of the entirety of those murdered almost crushed me. I saw a brief film clip of one of the murdered families at the beach somewhere frolicking in their bathing suits long before the terror would fall upon them, and the particularity and singularity of their story multiplied exponentially in my imagination, and I felt that I could scarcely breathe.

Sam kept asking why it happened. Why did Hitler rise to power? Why did he hate the Jews and everyone else he targeted with such evil determination? Why would anyone imagine, let alone work hard to make a reality, such comprehensive evil? Why would so many people have collaborated in this terror? I tried to give some of the usual historical answers about the vulnerability of the Germans after the Great Depression, Hitler’s unusual charisma, the failure or the prolonged delay of the many good people to do anything to stop him, including our own country. But it still stood out as an unanswerable question.

I wondered out loud to Sam about what it might mean to live in a country where this was your more immediate past, where such violence and prejudice had reigned supreme in such a nightmare. How could you reconcile such a past with the prospects of building a happy future for oneself and for others? Of course, I caught myself up short, thinking that maybe I was wanting to make Germany into too much of an exception, since my own nation has its own history of deracination, forced removal and forced transplantation, and dehumanization of undesirables. By saying this, I don’t mean to equate all hatred. The fact is that all nations and all peoples have practiced and mastered in their own unique way the art of prejudice. What is clear is that prejudice is easier than having to confront the dizzying mystery that each and every person represents and that it relies on static and dehumanizing narratives about large swaths of people, ignoring at once the broad diversity of individual experience.

Because for Sam and for me, as often happens when visiting another country with another language, we found ourselves staring admiringly at the raw human intelligence it takes to speak a language. There is nothing like foreign travel to remind you of just how strange and mysterious it is to inherit a culture and language and to inhabit it so fluently that you scarcely notice it. My son, who is 11, was particularly stunned and humbled especially by the German spoken by a four-year old he encountered on a bus. But then he discovered, as we often do in travel, that this mystery works both ways, and that for others the comfort and ease with which we inhabit our language and way of being is similarly impressive. And you look to catch yourself in expressions, gestures, phrases that express a comfortable nativity with your way of life.

As we were getting ready to fly home, I watched as a German businessman stood in the aisle and chatted with someone he knew. I couldn’t hear his words distinctly but could only observe the fluidity of his tongue, the subtle intonations, and his body and facial expressions as he spoke passionately and in good humor. Of course, I didn’t know the first thing about him as a person, but as I watched this mundane but remarkable display of human communication, I thought of what a tremendous mystery an individual human being is and what a marvelous gift it is to be living, conscious, gesticulating, and feeling.

I know that this isn’t the most unusual of encounters but there is something about the strangeness of another culture that allows the exceptional nature of every human being to emerge from the flat order of ordinary reality that normally surrounds us in our own culture and language. We are scarcely aware of how marvelous we are and how easy it is to forget. And I suppose that whatever the reasons we do it, when we do forget this reason for amazement, it becomes possible to treat people as dispensable things rather than as human lives with human stories.

On the plane ride home, Sam and I sat next to a college-age man reading a text in Arabic. After a while, we struck up a conversation with him. He was classical guitarist from Iraq and had been living between Iraq and Salt Lake for the past three years. He seemed uncertain of his English, needing help with his Customs form, and somewhat unsure of what I was saying. I tried to slow down my English but I didn’t want to probe too much into his circumstances, lest he begin to feel what might seem like mistrust. And, at the risk of seeming overly and perhaps condescendingly warm, I expressed admiration for his language and culture and my hope that he found Utah to his liking. We nodded a goodbye to one another as we stood in separate lines at customs after we arrived.

I read on the plane a passage from the Brothers Karamazov, a book I have been rereading slowly over the past several months with the patience of a wine taster. I came across this passage about Alyosha’s reflections on the passing of his dear friend and mentor Zosima, who always taught that “He who loves men, loves their joy.” Alyosha experiences a kind of spiritual crescendo under a canopy of stars and throws himself to the earth:

He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages and ages. ‘Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears…’ rang in his soul. What was he weeping for? Oh, in his rapture he wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss, and ‘he was not ashamed of this ecstasy.’ He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything.”

I don’t think there is such a thing as a human heart that is without prejudice. But I also know that there is no joy in prejudice and that only through such experiences as Alyosha’s of the merciful and transformative love of God can we hope to see others in all their splendor and be healed of our narrow and insufficient judgments, including, of course, our judgments of ourselves.


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