In Praise of Prejudice

Be Prejudiced
by Nathanael Blake —  12-27-2007 @ 08:46 AM

In Praise of Prejudice, the latest volume from the superb essayist Theodore Dalrymple, is a delightful addition to his oeuvre. It’s a quick read that makes an essential point in Dalrymple’s inimitable prose: prejudice is necessary for humans.

This is hardly a popular position. As the author notes, “I very much doubt whether anyone, at least in polite company, would admit to a prejudice about anything.” He then sardonically draws out the implications: To judge by self-report, we have never lived in such unprejudiced times, with so many people in complete control of their own opinions, which are, as a result, wholly sane, rational, and benevolent. Nobody judges anything, any person or any question, except by the light of the evidence and his own reason.”

As we all know, this description is hardly accurate. People continue, as they have always done, to think and act on habit, desire, authority and other unexamined grounds. People are simply incapable of functioning in a fully rational manner, and given the finite nature of human knowledge and reason, most of what is “known” is, and always will be, accepted on authority for most people.

Why then is there such a hue and cry against prejudice itself, then? Why not simply declare that the old prejudices against, say, giving birth out of wedlock were bad, but that the new prejudice against smoking is good? The answer, Dalrymple believes, is found in the uses skepticism is put to today. It isn’t used to strip away until we finally locate a firm first principle (a la Descartes). Rather, it is “to cast doubt on everything, and thereby increase the scope of personal license, by destroying in advance any philosophical basis for the limitation of our own appetites.” People are not skeptics about electrical theory, or the arrangement of the solar system, but “a ferocious and insatiable spirit of inquiry overtakes them, however, the moment they perceive that their interests are at stake–their interests here being their freedom, of license, to act upon their whims.”

The breakdown of old prejudices may ease the social pressures to conform to standards of behavior, but the consequences are grim. The small graces of life fall by the wayside, as say, commuters are no longer willing to give up seats to the elderly and pregnant women. Worse, entire lives are plunged into vicious circumstances; the rate of illegitimacy among Britain’s underclass is similar to that of America’s inner-city black population, with similar results. A telling example of the change in perception is presented by Dalrymple:

Not long ago I watched an old British comedy film from the 1950s, in which a young man of the upper-middle class had made a working-class girl pregnant. The girl’s indignant father demanded that the young man should marry his daughter, a demand whose justice he understood and at once agreed to. The audience howled with laughter at the primitive idea that the future birth of a child created an inescapable obligation on the part of the father.

Furthermore, the elimination of social prejudices necessarily leads to a more authoritarian state, as people refuse to recognize any authority between themselves and the law. The restraint that people formerly exercised because they had internalized the standards of community, family, church, and the like, must now be externally applied by government force.

Visiting my fiancé at her law school, I noticed an empty Miller Lite can sitting in the snow outside a nearby apartment. Considering it, I knew that I wouldn’t leave it around, not because of anti-littering laws, or reasoning about the economic or ecological impact of leaving empty beer cans about, but because I was raised to consider such tasteless, crude, and something that is just not done. And, if nothing else, if I were to leave the remnants of a celebratory drinking spree lying about, I’d be sure to want it to be something classier than Miller Lite. It’s pure prejudice, but it keeps me from throwing my trash about.

Elizabeth Kantor

In this excellent book, Dalrymple demonstrates how such prejudices are essential to civilized life.

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