“I’ve learnt that one should never overlook or underestimate others. Within every individual is an abundance of ideas, intelligence and talent. And, sometimes, people just need one opportunity, just one, to express and act upon them.”                                                         

                                              – VonDez Phipps, Journalist.

Often, our observations allow us to make certain conclusions. This is how we interact with and interpret our environment and survive. From observing the behaviour of clouds in the sky, the temperature of the air and moisture in the atmosphere we are able to determine the likelihood of rain. From observing what happens when fire touches something, we conclude that it will burn if it touches us.

Similarly, we observe persons and things in our immediate surroundings and make conclusions. We perhaps do not realise how often this occurs when one really stops to think about it, we do this perhaps hundreds of times a day. These conclusions range from the very basic and simple: a fire truck is wailing and racing down the street so there must be a fire; to the more complex: her husband is out-of-town and she still rushes home every evening…she’s probably having an affair!

Now, whatever the nature of the conclusion, we all make them; some of us to ourselves, others out loud. Some religious or moral extremists may tell you one can sin in thought as well as in deed. However, I think this comes from a failure to consider that in many cases, persons are behaving simply as they were socialized to behave. Their parents, teachers, peers and the media have all collectively constructed images associated with certain characters, and while these images may be valid in many cases, we simply forget that they are not solely or absolutely indicative of any particular propensity, character or behaviour. Other times, it is simple natural association.

For example, a man who is dressed in ragged clothes, hasn’t shaven in a while, smells to high heaven and is filthy as a pig would invariably be seen as a vagrant or beggar. Should we apologize for such a conclusion, when the truth is that many vagrants and beggars do look like this?

To be fair however, the problem doesn’t lie with conclusions such as these because they are based on some degree of legitimate logic. And although this does not negate the possibility of error (I go to school with people just like this!), one can easily justify their conclusions. The problem lies with conclusions that are borne out of reliance to some societal moral or behavioural construct that does not lend itself to flexibility or multiplicity. For instance, we automatically assume a woman dressed in a short skirt, wearing 6 inch heels and three different colors in her hair is a whore. Like the beggar, we conclude based on what we see. The difference, however, is that in the beggar’s case, there is a more solid  basis of justification: vagrants and beggars have no money, therefore no home, no job, no clothes, no visits to the barber. Therefore, appearance becomes an inevitable marker of their status. This is not the case with a scantily dressed woman. There is nothing that can justify her appearance as an inevitable marker of her character. Yet, this is how we proceed on a daily basis, making baseless assumptions simply because we can associate the image with what we’ve seen on television or what we’ve been told by our parents and peers.

Therefore, the problem is not that we come to conclusions about people immediately. The problem occurs when we conclude with no other evidence but societal constructs and singular imagery.

What about when we use these observations to respond to or treat the ones we’ve concluded on?

We’re all guilty of it. That same beggar is not coming into your house for a drink. Neither will that ‘whore’ be allowed to take your daughter shopping. Similarly, we tend to treat people we perceive to be ‘uneducated’ or ‘unintelligent’ a certain way. We, who have had access to formalized education up to a certain level develop a great pomposity and associate education with intelligence. We try our best to hide the truth from others as well as ourselves that education is only a marker of the amount of books one has been able to read and regurgitate on paper. The truth is that education is by no means an indicator of intelligence. We all must know at least one person who is educated, that is, they have achieved some degree of formal educational certification, yet you have a conversation with them and find they are dumb as a bag of hammers.  I’m reminded of one of my favorite Bob Marley quotes: “I am not an educated man. If I was educated I would have been a damn fool!” 

Therefore, the same way we assume that a person is intelligent because they are educated, we assume the are not intelligent if they are not. Because of this, we instinctively treat them as such. We do not expect rational ideas and or insightful opinions on important issues and automatically think to simplify not jut our language but the subject of conversation. In classrooms this person is expected to remain quiet and rarely ever given a chance to take part in activities that require the use of intellect, reasoning and logic. Anyone who’s been around a debating or quiz team can validate this. Why are we surprised when a person in a lower stream possesses a talent for music, art, debate or drama? Where do we get this notion that ‘uneducated’ persons are only good at sports and manual labour?

I chose to open with that quote from a friend of mine because I feel it articulates a lot of what I’ve been learning over the past few years, which is to never ever underestimate anyone. As I learn to keep a more open mind towards things I get pleasant and unpleasant surprises every day! Persons whom I’d never expect to be productive in any way turn out to have the best singing voice ever or can paint like the dickens; neither of which skill I have any talent for!

Most importantly, I am learning the value of giving myself a chance and being around persons who have an open mind towards me.  It really reveals possibilities you or others never imagined when you trust yourself to do something new and others trust you as well. You’d be surprised how much you surprise yourself!

So the bottom line is this: Nobody can predict the things a person can do. The human mind is so vast in its capabilities that it cannot know its full potential. While we may not be able to control our knee jerk internal response to people, we can learn to dissolve our natural treatment of others. When we learn to give others a chance and give ourselves a chance as well we open a door to possibilities we never imagined.

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