Contemplating Prejudice in English

The short essay Contemplating Prejudice and the corresponding illustrations are taken from the first volume of the Atlas of Prejudice by Yanko Tsvetkov. The article is also available in Russian. The English edition of the book can be purchased on Amazon from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, India and other stores.

Atlas of Prejudice: Contemplating Prejudice

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Before the Italian poet Girolamo Fracastoro inven­ted the word syphilis during the Renaissance, people referred to the famous disease using a variety of other names. The Italians, the Germans and the Polish called it the French disease, while the French named it the Italian disease. The Dutch insisted it was the Spanish disease. On the other side of the continent, the Russians were convinced it was the Polish disease. The Ottoman Turks to the South weren’t as pedantic and simply called it Christian disease.

I bet Treponema pallidum, the bacterium that causes syphilis, cannot distinguish the ethnicity of the organisms it invades. A far more reasonable explanation for the peculiar names can be found in the political rivalries of the day. France was the main enemy of the Holy Roman Empire, a gigantic conglomerate that historically united countless small principalities in Germany and Italy. To the North, the Netherlands rebelled against Spanish rule, while Poland was Russia’s main rival in Eastern Europe. As for the Ottoman Empire, it considered the rest of the continent a pastiche of states run by infidels with questionable morals. Political propaganda is definitely not a modern invention and ethnic rivalries have always been a fertile ground for all kind of rampant stereotyping.

The notion of the foreigner as an incarnation of evil has always been the gravitational center around which the common tribal identity accreted and solidified. As tribal societies developed, these attitudes were encoded in their traditions and religious rituals. The first proto-wars had one defined objective: capturing and killing the enemy’s shaman, the person who was chosen by his superstitious brothers and sisters to be in charge of communicating with the mysterious forces of the Universe.

Those who claim that prostitution is the oldest profession forget that shamanism predated it with at least a couple of centuries. The shaman wasn’t simply a local freelance charlatan who excelled in taking advantage of his ignorant relatives. Such a depiction would be an insult to the herculean responsibility those individuals carried on their shoulders.

Shamans were in charge of making sense of the entire perceivable world. They were expected to explain why the Sun appeared on the horizon each day, why was there water falling from the sky, why did asses itch if you didn’t wipe them properly, why did the bees feast on flowers and all kind of other whys, each more awkward than the other.

No wonder the stereotypical depiction of the shaman is a man who smokes. After several questions of this sort, everybody would need an immediate chill-out.

The shamans paved the way for the first politicians, who finally mastered the art of putting the blame for all kind of disasters on neighboring tribes and their vicious gods, justifying potential wars with claims of cultural superiority. Thus blatantly egotistic military campaigns could be disguised as altruistic missions to civilize wild barbarians long before the time of George W Bush.

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The Ancient Greeks considered their own civilization the pinnacle of human progress and reduced everybody else to mere observers. Their elitism was obviously not tamed by the contact with other advanced societies, like the Phoenician, from which they borrowed their alphabet, or the Egyptian, from which they learned how to build temples that could withstand earthquakes for centuries.

If cultural arrogance is possible even when there are viable arguments against it, imagine the situation in the Far East, where the Ancient Chinese Empire coagulated with geometrical precision around its geographical center without any significant foreign competition. There was no Mediterranean Sea to split the land in two distinctive parts, or countless tiny islands on which fringe thinkers could find a refuge and preach disobedience to frustrated teenagers. The Emperor was firmly in the middle of the material and spiritual world. His eye was all-seeing, his power absolute and his status no less than that of a god. If the Divine Majesty sneezed, the whole of China caught a cold, simply by protocol.

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This perfect political geometry didn’t need elaborate stories to explain the origin of the barbarians along its borders. While the Ancient Greeks used mythology, the Ancient Chinese resorted to prose. They simply spoke of Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western barbarians.

A similar merge of the spiritual and geographical centers can be seen on most European medieval maps that survive to this day. Given the historical complexity of Europe, they are enchantingly picturesque. Transcending the trivial purpose of navigation, works of art like the 13th Century Hereford and Ebstorf maps unite mythology, religion, geography and history into a proto-encyclopedic collage, which center is firmly placed in Jerusalem and its top tightly fastened on the heavenly throne of Jesus.

In the space between them one can find the most exquisite selection of stereotypes, prejudices and frivolous hallucinations that the human mind is capable of, all of them carefully illustrated and annotated. The Christian world view with its holy places is intertwined with Ancient Greek concepts according to which the extremes of the Earth are populated by mutants whose physical peculiarities are a direct result of the harsh weather conditions in which they spend their lives.

Perhaps now is the best time to notice that just like medieval people, the Ancient Greeks weren’t big fans of fact-checking.

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The Far East is home to the Bigfoot tribe, whose members, quite logically, use their single enlarged foot as a parasol against the harsh sunlight, thus greatly reducing the chances of developing melanoma. Africa is inhabited by cyclops and four-eyed people, probably coming from an ancient lab specialized in eye transplantations. The sons of Cain roam the frozen Siberian wasteland, trapped there by Alexander the Great, biding their time and dreaming of future massacres.

But one of the most interesting places is Northern Scandinavia, the land of the dog-heads. The existence of this strange race of humans with canine heads was highly hypothetical but nevertheless presented a palpable theological problem because medieval scholars were split in their opinions about whether or not these creatures had a soul and thus were eligible for salvation if converted to Christianity.

The hysterical grandeur of this freak show is as amusing as it is bitterly discouraging. Indulging in made-up stories as an act of escapism is one thing. Knowing people actually believed in them is a night­mare you can never escape from.

If snap judgments are so dangerous in our highly technological world, could we get rid of prejudices altogether? One might be tempted to accept them as an inevitability, as an inherent human flaw. Then again, the list of things which were originally considered inevitable but later proven to be circumstantial is longer than our DNA. Whatever seems universal and fundamental today may be exposed as superficial tomorrow.

The fathers of Athenian democracy considered slavery so fundamental to society that they couldn’t imagine one without it. Yet here we are, conveniently trying to avoid this fact every time we praise Ancient Greece for being the birthplace of Western civilization. Ideological hygiene at its best!

I obviously don’t have all the answers but neither do those who claim the human mind can be forever restrained by its contemporary shortcomings. If anything, the initiative for a change may be in the field of psychology, instead of history.

History is a strange creature. It has the amazing ability to blind us with our own reflection when we peek over its deep mysterious waters. Many of us drown in it just like the mythological Narcissus, whose infatuation with his own beauty was stronger than his survival instincts. Those who don’t know history may be bound to repeat it. But even people who know it may follow the same fate if they interpret it exclusively in their own favor.

Inevitability aside, in the end, all it takes to be less prejudiced is to exercise our brains a little bit more often. If we refuse to accept the prêt-a-penser ideas which are constantly regurgitated in endless PR campaigns and advertising agencies, and take responsibility for our own choices, we will not only minimize our snap judgments but ultimately improve our way of life.

In an interconnected global society, where information flows faster than thoughts, prejudices can turn out to be just a side effect of intellectual laziness.

4 comments on “Contemplating Prejudice in English

  • China had Turk and Tibetan competition pretty much since people bothered to write it down – likely before. Source: A History of China by Wolfram Eberhard.

    • Perhaps it depends on what one considers “competition”. The First Chinese Emperor lived around 3rd Century BC, at a time when people certainly had the habit of maintaining written historical records. This is a whole millennium before the first Tibetan Empire, which formed in the 7th Century AD. The first significant Turkic empire was formed in the 6th Century AD, which is 900 years later. Of course that doesn’t mean that Tibetan and Turkic people were absolutely insignificant before they formed powerful states but to say that they had influence on China’s internal institutions, which is what I am discussing in this article, would be an exaggeration.

      • I know those are … controversial, and perhaps should’ve quoted from the start, but, from the book:

        “The Shang culture still lacked certain things that were to become typical of “Chinese” civilization. The family system was not yet the strong patriarchal system of the later Chinese. The religion, too, in spite of certain other influences, was still a religion of agrarian fertility. And although Shang society was strongly stratified and showed some tendencies to develop a feudal system, feudalism was still very primitive. Although the Shang script was the precursor of later Chinese script, it seemed to have contained many words which later disappeared, and we are not sure whether Shang language was the same as the language of Chou time. With the Chou period, however, we enter a period in which everything which was later regarded as typically “Chinese” began to emerge.”

        “An analysis of their tribal composition at the time of the conquest seems to indicate that the ruling house of the Chou was related to the Turkish group, and that the population consisted mainly of Turks and Tibetans.”

        “Their eastward migration, however, brought them within the zone of the Shang culture, by which they were strongly influenced, so that the Chou culture lost more and more of its original character and increasingly resembled the Shang culture.” (So no assertion that Chinese culture is a Turkic/Tibetan transplant.)

        “Thus was the Chou dynasty founded, and with it we begin the actual history of China. The Chou brought to the Shang culture strong elements of Turkish and also Tibetan culture, which were needed for the release of such forces as could create a new empire and maintain it through thousands of years as a cultural and, generally, also a political unit.”

        “The conquerors brought with them, for their own purposes to begin with, their rigid patriarchate in the family system and their cult of Heaven (t’ien), in which the worship of sun and stars took the principal place; a religion most closely related to that of the Turkish peoples and derived from them. Some of the Shang popular deities, however, were admitted into the official Heaven-worship. Popular deities became “feudal lords” under the Heaven-god. The Shang conceptions of the soul were also admitted into the Chou religion: the human body housed two souls, the personality-soul and the life-soul. Death meant the separation of the souls from the body, the life-soul also slowly dying. The personality-soul, however, could move about freely and lived as long as there were people who remembered it and kept it from hunger by means of sacrifices. The Chou systematized this idea and made it into the ancestor-worship that has endured down to the present time.”

        So – assuming you give the above any credit – the level of competition (at the Shang period, when the (proto-)Chinese seem to have started writing) was enough for the Turks and Tibetans to … win, and greatly influence Chinese culture.

        • Controversial or not, I find those quotes very interesting, so thanks for sharing them!

          However, in this article I am simply describing the consolidation of the Chinese empire under its so-called First Emperor, which happened (I think I already mentioned that) around 250 BC. Not a millennium after or a millennium before but exactly in this very historical period. My point is that at the time this consolidation happened this emperor was perceived, at least by his own subjects, as the supreme ruler of the world. Hence the satirical map you see above, which pokes fun at such ludicrous claim. That’s all and I don’t understand why should we go into details about what influenced Chinese culture before or after and where that influence came from. Although this subject is extremely important in its own right for people studying Chinese history, it doesn’t have anything to do either with the prejudice I am satirizing, or with the main theme of my book.

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