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Judging By Externals

At the beginning of every new semester, I do a very simple exercise in my social science classes. The first part is easy. I list six words on the board and ask students to write ...

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At the beginning of every new semester, I do a very simple exercise in my social science classes. The first part is easy. I list six words on the board and ask students to write the first word or phrase that comes to mind. I then ask them to share their list with the class. The diversity of the lists is always amazing.

We talk at great length about what shaped their responses. Word associations, mood, and cultural slang words to name a few influences. I ask how many students believe they are not prejudice. Initially, it is usually 50/50. Then I ask how many thought I was referring to race prejudice or something negative. Again a 50/50 split.

As a reference point, I state we are all prejudice. Our prejudices are negative or positive based on our actions. However, the major point I want to make is that we need to be conscious of the filters that color how we see the world.

The next activity is the sinking ship. I ask students to use their imaginations. They are on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic. The captain says they have to abandon the ship. There is only one lifeboat for each group. If the group has five members, there are only four seats. Someone must be left behind.

The rules are clear. No one can volunteer to be left behind. The captain does not go down with the ship or pick the person that remains. The students must design a mechanism to select the unlucky soul who must remain.

Each participant must take on a character other than who they are. They must lobby for a seat on the lifeboat.

This semester of coeds really went to town. Their characters ran the gamut of age, career, power and opportunity.

As the exercise played out, the level of frustration continued to escalate. Each group found it hard to select someone. They all did pick someone because that was the assignment.

When the exercise was complete, each group presented their process. There were five groups. Three groups voted and picked the person who was "least useful" to the community. In their conversation, each group identified people of education, position and power as the most important and most valuable to keep around.

Those who were expendable were those who had no higher education, poor finances and no position of power and respect within the community.

The other two groups drew straws. The person with the shortest straw was expendable. They too talked about power, influence and valued careers. However, they also focused on how it is not our right as humans to make those life and death choices for other people.

Once the exercise was completed, I asked for their feedback. Many of them began to realize that they put a lot of value and insight on the level of a person's education and the profession they embrace. They began to identify the subtle prejudices that we often carry which are based on distorted qualities and twisted values.

How do we value a person? Is it based on the content and quality of his character and integrity? Or is it based on superficial looks, job placement, education and other shallow superficialities?

The consensus of this class was that too often we make judgments and assessments that are wrong. They are based on erroneous information that has little or nothing to do with the quality of a human being's life.

Hate and discrimination are subtly present and on the rise. They wear many different faces and take on many different forms.

As adults, how often do you judge by externals? If a young man or woman has a lot of visible tattoos, it is a social impediment. Body piercing also tends to put the pierced person in a negative light.

Some people judge others by the clothes they wear, the length of their hair, the people they hang out with or the music they listen to.

While all of those choices may be social indicators, it is dangerous to make judgments about a person's character and integrity based on these rather shallow variables.

Some of us also tend to be judgmental if a young person has been to jail, been to rehab, comes from a broken family or lives in a group home.

These social circumstances seem to carry a social stigma that causes some adults to dismiss these young people as useless human beings not worth knowing.

Too often, it takes a painful, personal experience to force some of us adults to re-think some of our judgments and narrow minded points of view.

Sometimes we need to have a son with a serious addiction to realize that good kids have problems with drugs. Or maybe your good daughter who was a great student gets involved with a boy who was dealing drugs and she got busted and went to jail.

Your young adult son is very successful, but his well-educated partner is dishonest. She has HIV and passes it on to him.

JC comes from a very abusive North Shore home. His Dad was a very successful, well-educated college graduate. To the outside world, they were the perfect family. Unbeknownst to others, this Dad was violent and abusive. He beat his wife unmercifully and because his eldest son tried to protect her, he beat him as well.

The Mom finally broke the cycle after she was hospitalized. She had a breakdown. The older son got out because he attacked his father and his father had him arrested.

It was determined that he should not return home. He lived for the rest of his high school and college years in a local community residence. He excelled. He played football, wrestled and was involved in the performing arts. In simple terms, he was an all around decent young man. He went to college on a four-year scholarship to a prestigious university in Washington, D.C.

Right before graduation, he was playing his guitar with a group of senior friends. He was wearing a t-shirt from the place where he lived. A favorite teacher came by to say hi, saw the t-shirt and asked him where he got it. JC said proudly, "I live there." The teacher said, "I'm sorry. I didn't know. You didn't seem the type."

JC was devastated. He asked his teacher what type of person lives outside his house. The teacher was embarrassed and apologized for hurting JC's feelings.

Today JC is the Director of Development for a large not-for-profit agency in the Midwest. His abusive father died. His family, years ago, was restored largely through JC's efforts.

Too often we do judge by externals and misinformation. We cheat ourselves from connecting with people who could really bless our lives.