Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-Semitic/a racist/homophobic/a misogynist. Some of my best friends are Jewish/black/gay/women. Who are you kidding? The minute you utter the sentence 'some of my best friends are...[enter despised group of choice]', you are identifying your unfortunate friends as the exceptions that prove what you take to be a rule. Moreover you are identifying an individual with a group and applying all manner of conscious and unconscious labels that you associate with the group to the individual. You are saying, in effect, that you like your friend, in spite of his membership of the group.
There are two distinct errors here. The first is that the labels are likely to be prejudices - opinions formed on the basis of insufficient evidence or none at all. The second is that you are unconsciously assuming that all the labels apply to every individual in a group. I see that you are nodding sagely, agreeing that prejudice is a very bad thing and noting that you yourself have never uttered The Sentence. I'll bet you have, though, unless you belong to a particularly maligned minority: Americans.
'Fucking Americans!' Are you really telling me you've never uttered or muttered these words? Everyone I know has a story that illustrates the alleged stupidity, parochialism and inflated sense of worth that characterizes Americans. My own favourite was told to me by an Australian guy who'd chatted up a pretty student at a bus stop in Harvard. After a while, she said she didn't recognise his accent. 'Oh, I'm Australian' he said. Her brow furrowed. 'Australia? West or East Coast?'
The thing is, some of my best friends are American. What's more, most of them live in Dumbfuckistan (aka the Republican voting States, aka Jesusland), as distinct from the Democrat States (aka the United States of Canada). See here. In fact, I have a nasty feeling that not only did some of them vote for George Bush, they actually have no regrets about doing so.
What disturbs me about this is that I sometimes feel the urge to apologise for this lamentable lapse of taste (liking some Americans) and that this urge is often strongest when my interlocutor is highly educated. The thing is, it's fashionable to hate Americans and has been for as long as I can remember.
How 'we' (educated, Western Europeans) chortle over polls suggesting that one third of Americans believe that aliens have visited earth (here) or that 24% of Republicans think that Barack Obama might be the antichrist (here) or that 55% of them believe that creationism and Intelligent Design should be taught alongside evolution in public schools (here).
We tend to forget that a clear majority of the world's top scientists are based in the USA (63% of the top 1% most highly cited scientific publications are written by scientists in the USA), that it boasts 15 of the top 20 universities in the world (the previous two statistics here) and that philanthropy levels in the USA are more than double those in the UK, Germany or the Netherlands (here).
When we mutter 'fucking Americans', what we really mean is 'fucking ignorant Americans' and educated Americans could and do justly mutter the same thing about the ignorant elsewhere in the world. Especially in France (here). What is particularly characteristic of ignorance in America is that it goes hand-in-hand with being a Christian (see this delicious article, which describes the National Academy of Sciences - 93% of whose members are atheists - as 'one of the most poisonous organizations in America' and 'a nest of atheists', thus neatly refuting the point it sets out to make). I shall expand on this point in another post. A lot.
Of course it is not very nice to be dismissive of the opinions of the ignorant but it is not prejudiced. By definition, the opinions of ignoramuses are uninformed and therefore worthless, except as anthropological curiosities.
Prejudice ought to be a matter for shame not pride, exactly in proportion to how educated you believe yourself to be. It also behoves us to learn to recognise our own prejudices before they come back to bite us. One man's prejudice is another man's clear-thinking analysis of the facts. How you react, for example, to the research suggesting that Askenazi Jews are more intelligent than other races (here) or that Africans are less intelligent than Caucasians (here) says a great deal more about your prejudices than it does about your lack of them.
'Prejudiced' is the pejorative adjective of choice of the terminally prejudiced.
There's an old joke about a regimental sergeant major, tried beyond reason by a lippy cadet, shaking his swagger stick at the cadet and bellowing 'Smith, there's a SHIT at the end of this stick!' To which Smith replies 'Yes sir! Not this end sir!' Show me an accusation of prejudice and nine times out of ten I'll show you a stick with a shit on the end of it. Not the pointy end.