In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas by Theodore Dalrymple, New York, Encounter Books, 2007, 129 pages, CAN $25.95
It is rare that one hears someone put in a good word for prejudice. The word prejudice has had primarily negative connotations for quite some time and increasingly so in recent decades when one specific use of the term has come to overshadow the others. Today the first meaning that comes to mind when one hears the word “prejudice” is that which used to be conveyed by the expression “color prejudice”, i.e., a negative opinion of someone formed solely on the basis of their race or skin color.
Color prejudice or racial prejudice is not the only kind of prejudice, however. Nor are all prejudices negative opinions of other people. It is as possible to be prejudiced in favor of a particular group of people as it is to be prejudiced against them. Furthermore, people are not the only objects of prejudice. The word “prejudice” simply means an opinion or an idea that is formed before the person holding the prejudice has had the opportunity to marshal all the facts and form an educated opinion on the basis of cold, hard, calculating, reason. We all have prejudices.
There are some people who would affirm the universality of prejudice and on that basis argue “That is why we need government programs that will educate people and eliminate prejudice”. Such people find it as impossible to conceive of a prejudice that is helpful rather than harmful as they find it impossible to understand why other people regard their suggestions as a form of soft-pedalled Stalinism.
Think however, of a child who is walking home from school when a vehicle pulls over beside him. The driver rolls down the window and a strange man offers the child candy if he will get into the car. The child refuses to do so and runs away making it home safely.
What saved the child from danger in this situation?
The answer, of course, is prejudice. He did not have all the facts. He did not know who the stranger was. He could not prove in a court of law that the man was a dangerous sicko and not some innocent generous benefactor. His parents, however, who were more concerned about their child’s welfare than about bringing him up to be free of prejudice, wisely installed in him a prejudice against accepting candy and rides from people he did not know.
Prejudice has always had its advocates. After the violence of the French Revolution began, Edmund Burke, having finally come around to the viewpoint of his friend Samuel Johnson, declared prejudice to be “the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages” which is “of ready application in the emergency” and “renders a man’s virtue his habit”. It is essential because “the individual is foolish, but the species is wise”. This arguments were expressed again in the 20th Century by Burke’s American disciple Russell Kirk.
In his 2007 book, In Praise of Prejudice, Theodore Dalrymple follows in this illustrious tradition. Who is this Theodore Dalrymple? Under his real name, Dr. Anthony Daniels, he was a physician and psychiatrist who worked in British hospitals and prisons until his retirement in 2005. Under his pen name he continues to pursue his second career as a conservative social and cultural critic who can be read in the pages of the City Journal (New York) and The Spectator (London) to name just two of his outlets.
In Praise of Prejudice is not a long book, but it is packed with wisdom in its 29 short chapters. In his first chapter, he describes the current attitude towards prejudice:
To admit to a prejudice is to proclaim oneself a bigot, the kind of person who can’t, or worse still won’t, examine his preconceptions and opinions, and is, as a consequence, narrow in his sympathies, pharisaic in his judgments, xenophobic in his attitudes, rigid in his principles, punitive towards his inferiors, obsequious to his superiors, and convinced of his own rectitude. (p. 3)
He then traces this attitude to its source: René Descartes. Descartes was the 17th Century French rationalist who in his Discourse on Method described his personal struggle with skepticism, how he sought to rid his mind of all preconceived ideas, and to believe nothing that he could not prove from self-evident first principles that could not be doubted. He struggled to find first principles which were not susceptible to doubt, which proved difficult until he famously realized, that in the very act of doubting there was something he could lay hold on as being beyond doubt. He was doing the doubting, which meant that he was capable of thought and that he existed. “I think” he declared “therefore I am”.
The “prejudice against prejudice”, Dr. Dalrymple points out, requires that we all be Descartes. There is, however, a twist:
The popularity of the Cartesian method is not the consequence of a desire to remove metaphysical doubt, and find certainty, but precisely the opposite: 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. (p. 6)
This is the theme that recurs throughout this book as Dr. Dalrymple explores the practical consequences, illustrating them with examples gleaned from his medical practice and everyday life, of a world without prejudice.
He is particularly interested in the relationship between prejudice and the family. In chapter five he examines how the cultural bias against prejudice affects the raising of children. Responding to an editorial from the New England Journal of Medicine about the child-obesity epidemic, he notes that the editorial correctly points out that young children to whom junk food ads are directed, are not old enough to make proper decisions about their diet. Instead of suggesting that parents should exercise their authority and teach their children good habits, the editorial called for a ban on junk-food advertising to children. The former, after all, would be installing one’s own opinions in one’s children rather than allowing them to form their own, and that is a great evil in these non-judgmental, non-prejudicial times.
The failure, however, to pass one’s own likes and dislikes on to one’s children, does not mean that they will grow up without prejudice, Dr. Dalrymple notes. A child treated as a sovereign decision maker from his formative years will grow up with a prejudice that his every whim ought to be immediately gratified. Of such a child, Dr. Dalrymple writes:
He is not free of prejudices just because he is free of his parents’ prejudices. On the contrary, he is a slave to his own prejudices. Unfortunately, they are harmful both to him as an individual, and to the society of which he is a member. (p. 20)
If parental attempts to raise children without installing their prejudices in them only results in the children developing new prejudices it follows that the world without prejudice the social engineers dream about cannot actually be created. Attempts to do so, merely replace one prejudice with another, and this can involve replacing a prejudice with a worse one, or even replacing a generally helpful prejudice with a harmful one. In chapter six Dr. Dalrymple looks at how the prejudice in favour of family life, such as the formerly omnipresent idea that “families should sit down together to eat around a table”(p. 21.) has been replaced with a prejudice against family life. In the next three chapters he examines a particular example of this: the replacement of the prejudice against having children out of wedlock with a prejudice that there is nothing wrong with having children out of wedlock.
Here he makes the important point that is actually cruel not to instill the right prejudices in children. The prejudice that there is nothing wrong with having children out of wedlock, shields the young girls that do so from social criticism, and empowers them. It also makes it more likely that unhappy home conditions will be perpetuated from one generation to the next. Dr. Dalrymple writes:
Would it not have been better, for her in particular and for the world in general, if she had been instilled at an early age with a prejudice that she should not have a child until such time as she was able, with the child’s father, to offer the child a stable base from which he or she would later be able to launch his or her own life?
By the time she comes to this conclusion herself (and from talking to such girls, I have discovered that it is likely that she will do so, it will be too late. (p. 32)
Part of the problem with the people who have created the “prejudice against prejudice” is that they think far too highly of man’s rational abilities. In chapter 11 Dr. Dalrymple traces this to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Mill, Dr. Dalrymple argues, through his ignorance of human nature, “generally overestimated the role that reasoning did, or very well could, play in normal, day-to-day life”. He then points out that the real target of Mill’s tract, was not “openly tyrannical government” but “social prejudice”. Mill was not trying to define the limits to the legitimate sphere of government authority so much as seeking to exclude all of society from a sphere of authority he sought to generate around the rational individual. Most people, however, do not and can not live their lives by treating every decision that arises as one that must be carefully reasoned out from first principles.
Contrary to Mill and his liberalism, authority is essential. If we never accepted anything on authority human knowledge would be very limited because we would all spend our lives re-learning from scratch everything every previous generation had learned in the same way. Dr. Dalrymple eloquently puts it this way:
I have known from a very early age that a battle took place at Hastings in the year 1066, but I still do not know how to prove that it did. To do so would require the training of a lifetime, and would necessarily inhibit my acquisition of knowledge in other directions, with the result, moreover, that it would merely confirm what I already knew, unless it were also my intention to carry out original research into that period of history. (p. 49)
Borrowing an image from Lord Acton, Dr. Dalrymple shows how Mill has become the godfather to various ideas that he would probably have rejected – the idea that one’s idea is as good as any other provided it is one’s own (chapter 13), and the idea that we should abandon morality in licentious pursuit of our passions (chapter 15). He then demonstrates that it is actually very difficult to establish standards of common decency by arguing from first principles. How, in the example he uses, do you prove that people should not put their feet up on unoccupied seats in trains?
The chapters in Dr. Dalrymple’s book are short and concise although several of them deal with themes that deserve book length treatment on their own – such as how the vacuum created by the collapse of traditional morals and prejudices is quickly filled by new ones such as the current prejudice against tobacco use (chapter 17), or how radical individualism actually results in an increase in government power (chapter 18).
Over the course of the whole book, however, he makes an excellent case for the fact that human beings cannot avoid forming prejudices and making judgments, that we cannot make all our decisions on the basis of well-reasoned arguments from first principles, and that when we abandon old prejudices, contained in the customs, traditions, moral rules, etc. that represent the accumulated experience and wisdom of our species we will simply form new prejudices that are inferior to the old ones and harmful to ourselves and to our societies.