Wednesday, February 6, 2008



Ignorance Is the Enemy

Our world is made up of what some call a melting pot – a mixture of many different races, religions, and cultures. In the midst of these groups are further subdivisions – gender, age, education, social status, etc. All these groupings are but a few of the categories that divide us as people - categories that serve to pit us against each other every day of our lives. They remind us that we’re different.

As human beings, we are all different. This should be cause for celebration. We all want to feel like we’re special, after all. But although we are all different, we each also share many common traits with other individuals with whom we have no known association – physical, spiritual, intellectual, etc. While it’s true that we long to be special, we also want to feel like we fit in. This is the paradox of human beings. We long to be unique - but we want to be the same as everyone else.

The familiarity we enjoy being a part of a group with similar characteristics brings us comfort – makes us feel safe. We feel we belong with these people – we understand them because they’re just like us. This is the reason that different nationalities tended to settle in different neighborhoods within the same city when they came to this country in the first place – why different races seemed to find their own unique areas of town to call their own. The more we know about those who surround us, and the more we feel that they are just like us, the safer we feel. This is our ‘safety net’.

We need to come to the realization that we need people who are different than us to arrive at a better balance. The young can gain wisdom from their elders. The minority community can share their experiences during years of oppression with those who have never fallen victim. Members of different religions can discover the common beliefs of their faiths rather than concentrating on the differences. We can truly learn more from people who are different, than we can learn from people who share the same characteristics as us.

There are those, however, who carry the ‘safety net’ concept to an entirely different level. Some of these people regard anyone who is different as the enemy. They want nothing to do with the people they consider unlike themselves. They don’t understand these people’s language, their customs, or their ways of life. These ‘safety net’ people allow their own ignorance to dictate their existence – and thus, the existence of others. Ignorance breeds misunderstanding. Misunderstanding breeds fear. Fear breeds contempt. Contempt breeds hatred - which ultimately triggers violence.

This cycle has been repeated over and over again throughout the course of human history; and it’s bound to be repeated in the future. Our ignorance and our paranoia guarantee it. We can, however, stop this cycle in our own lives. The way to accomplish this is through open-minded education, communication, and experience. Once we understand another human being as an individual, we realize that for all our differences we also share a number of common traits. The recognition of this common ground breeds understanding. Understanding breeds security. Security breeds comfort. Comfort breeds acceptance – which ultimately leads to harmony.

All of us are guilty of some level of prejudice, of bigotry, of bias. We can’t help it, we have been taught this behavior by past generations. It’s our obligation to future generations to eliminate passing it forward. Unfortunately, it’s now the accepted state of our world. Not the ‘politically correct’ world (the world that doesn’t offend anyone at all -that world doesn’t really exist anywhere yet); but rather the real world (the one in which we live). Every group of individuals has a predisposed bias favoring their own group(s) and opposing any group that is different. This type of favoritism is understandable, even commendable, when it relates to family, but it shouldn’t be carried forward to the treatment of one stranger over another.

No single race, gender or religious group has the market cornered on discrimination. We need to accept the fact that we’re only as good as our own character – our own actions. We are not better (or worse) than someone else merely because we’re part of a group. Being a man, or black, or Jewish, or a senior citizen, doesn’t make a person better than someone who’s not.

Being firefighters and police officers, I believe we have a unique opportunity to witness the character (or lack thereof), of people from all walks of life. We serve, and encounter, every ethnic and economic group in our community, many of them during their darkest hours. We can witness first hand that pain and fear make no distinction regarding race, religion or sex – or social or economic standing. There was a movie released this past year titled CRASH. This movie dealt with prejudice and discrimination from many different sources. It, in my opinion, accurately portrayed people’s preconceived biases as one of society’s most common traits!

Ignorance of history dooms us to repeat it. Ignorance about our neighbor influences us to distrust him. Ignorance of our enemies leads us to war. Sometimes our leaders play on our ignorance to direct us in the path they’ve chosen. There are many documented cases where this has happened to nations – the present war in Iraq is a perfect example of this. President Bush and his administration played on our fears and our lack of understanding of the possible link between Osama Bin Laden and Sadam Hussein to garner support for his personal vendetta.

Fortunately for us, the tide seems to be turning – even if ever so slowly. Information is always the key to such changes. The abundance of information readily available to individuals has never been so great as it is at the present time – with 24-hour news channels and the internet being available in virtually every home in America. The young people of the 21st century seem to be much more open minded toward different cultures than previous generations. We can all remember a time (not so long ago) when interfaith marriages or interracial dating were a big deal. Most of the kids today don’t even see these things as unusual, and this is a good thing. Soon America, and the rest of the world, will be a true melting pot.

This interaction between people with different backgrounds spreads understanding of other customs and practices – other points of view. Equal treatment of all people in everyday situations is the key to making this mistrust of each other disappear. This means equal hiring practices, equal enforcement or our laws, and equal opportunity in all aspects of our society. We all seem to forget that our individual actions are as important as the actions of our elected officials – we all can make a difference. After all, public policy will always reflect what the general public demands – even if it seems to change at a snail’s pace. This is especially true at the local level, so don’t be discouraged – let your opinion be heard by your local legislators. Let them know what they’re doing right, as well as what they’re doing wrong.

Let’s all take an active role in eliminating ignorance in our own community – and in our own household.

Stay safe!