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
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.
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.
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.
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.