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Thursday, January 03, 2008
I recently read Theodore Dalrymple's latest book, In Praise of Prejudice, and found it to be as enjoyable and stimulating as his other books (he is, in my humble opinion, the best writer I've ever read). It is a short book (129 pages), with chapters as short as a couple of pages. But it is full of insight rarely found in today's authors. I'm not sure that I could do it justice in a review of my own, so I have decided to let Nathanael Blake's review suffice.
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.
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.

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


Sarah Jo said...

in my psych classes at lu - we talked about prejudice as a necessary element for cognitive functioning (as a way of making manageable large amounts of information for response and storage in the brain - as well as sterotyping).
Interestingly - a section from francis shaffer's book - the God who is there - comes to mind where he speaks about the masses using words without knowing their meaning. Prejudice is one of those words whose actual meaning is neither positive nor negative - but colloquialism and ignorance have let to the masses using the word incorrectly.

the real reason I meant to comment was completely unrelated:
this looks cool :-)


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Darius' book montage

The Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel The Main Thing
Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God
Overcoming Sin and Temptation
According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible
Disciplines of a Godly Man
Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem
When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Ourselves
The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith
Respectable Sins
The Kite Runner
Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak
Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak
A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, ... anabaptist/anglican, metho
Show Them No Mercy
The Lord of the Rings
Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass
The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception
Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming
The Chronicles of Narnia
Les Misérables

Darius Teichroew's favorite books »