No, really, he is. I absolutely detest walking him these days as he growls aggressively at big, black dogs (and occasionally dark brown ones too). Small dogs seem to be immune – perhaps size really does matter after all – but anyway, I digress. My dog, called Digby, is not remotely confrontational in any other way. He is a Golden Retriever, one of the breeds most commonly known for being docile and calm. And he generally lives up to this stereotype as he isn’t bothered by the postman, has never snapped at a person, and doesn’t blink an eyelid on the frequent occasions I (accidentally) step on his tail whilst balancing a pile of dirty dishes.
Nevertheless, Digby absolutely hates all medium-sized black dogs. It all started when one particular black Labrador in our local park would leap on Digby’s back and aggressively try to dry-hump him. I have no idea why this dog had such passionate urges towards my dog or why he felt the need to thrust so hard that poor Digby’s back would buckle and he’d hurt his back legs every-time the event occurred. (Those with Golden Retriever’s will know how precious is it to keep this particular breed’s back legs in full working order for as long as physically possible. Digby is currently 7 and already has a pretty bad limp in his back left leg). Anyway, Digby, being a wimp, usually just whimpered and cowered from this Labrador’s advances, but one day, perhaps sick of it all, he growled and the Lab backed off straight away. Worrying that this one dog knows more about no-means-no than most male humans.
“Well done, Digby,” we’d said. “Good dog!”
We thought that we’d taught little Dig to stand up for himself a little, and nobody really saw it as much of an issue.
But dogs, whilst clever enough to recognise human emotions, still aren’t quite clever enough to understand exactly what they’re praised and punished for. And what Digby became conditioned to do, somehow, unbeknownst to us all, was be verbally aggressive to dogs of the opposite colour to himself.
Funny story, right? Harmless, really. But it got me thinking about opinions and politics and how we form the pre-conceptions we have. I spoke to a friend about the above issue, with my dog, and she had just attended a conference where the lead speaker had delivered a talk on prejudice in the workplace. This speaker had freely declared that we all have prejudices, and people who say they don’t are nothing but liars. He went so far as to share his own biases, and his opinions on who was the most deserving of help/attention in his doctor’s office – which were the complete mirror opposite of the opinions of my friend. This apparently formed the backbone of a discussion on how having a prejudice is not, in itself, a bad thing, as long as you recognise them as unfounded opinions, and do not allow these opinions to affect the equality of your judgements.
At the time, this made sense, and I felt as though I had reached a profound answer to the issue. But then, thinking about it by myself, later on in the evening, I realised that the speaker had actually contradicted himself. By not acting on our prejudices, by constricting them, we may as well simply not have them. There is no discernible difference between somebody who has no prejudice, and somebody who never speaks or shares a word of their prejudice. And, as we’ve already established, *everyone* has prejudice.
Keep with me, here.
One could argue that it goes against our nature to hold our judgements in. And Digby, being a dog, doesn’t understand the subtle nuances of social convention, and so, can’t help his actions. But this skirts the issue. I believe we could exist as a society without prejudice.
Keeping on the canine theme, I’ll share one of my prejudices with you, to further elaborate. I dislike boxers. Boxer dogs, not fight-y men (although I’m not overly keen on them either). Once, when I was about 6 or 7, a boxer dog jumped on me, plonking its paws on my shoulders and head to steady itself in its excitement. I was, understandably, scared. The dog’s owner did nothing to help and I ended up falling flat on my face as I couldn’t balance myself against the weight of the dog leaping up my back. To this day, I avoid boxers. I’ve never had the same thing happen to me since, nor has another Boxer wronged me in recent memory.
Now, if one HUMAN had jumped on me at 6 years old and caused me to hurt my face, I would not have projected this fear on all humans, thinking the worst of every single one. A dog is different to me, and I can label that difference. Dog. Human. I can use an even more specific label, if I wish. Dog. Boxer dog. Because the perpetrator is different to both myself and my environment (me being used to Golden Retrievers even then), I – falsely – attribute a bad feeling to this category of Boxer Dog. It is unlike myself and so it is bad. Racists do this all the time. Digby associates unwanted advances with black dogs. He must recognise this as different to himself as he is unfailingly kind to light-coloured dogs. I hate it, but I’m unable to reason with him rationally, and I’ve no idea how to cure it.
Humans, though, I can debate with. I reckon, after all this, the trick isn’t to avoid prejudices, it’s to not see differences as a barrier, or an unknown. To question everything, and never ascribe an individual’s views or actions to anybody other than themselves.
Maybe I’m talking shit. All I really want is to not have to lunge for the lead every-time I spot a dark-coloured dog in the distance, and not to accidentally utter the sentence: ‘Sorry, my dog doesn’t like black dogs’ again and worry about my impending lynching by proxy.
All I want is for everybody and everything to love each other. Is that really too much to ask?!?