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Wednesday, July 08, 2009
Theodore Dalrymple (one of the greatest writers and thinkers alive, in my opinion) wrote a wonderful book two years ago entitled In Praise of Prejudice. A short but deep book, it discusses the perils of a society that pretends to ban prejudice and the necessity of certain preconceptions. I say "pretends" because no person, much less a society, is able to rid himself of prejudice. He merely trades one bias for another. For example, few people today worship any god like in ancient times. And fewer still believe in some pagan god (when was the last time you met a Baal worshiper?). But that doesn't mean that most people have ceased to worship gods, they've just rejected one for another (fitness, Americanism, or global warming come to mind). Or consider the hate crime legislation. Hate against Christianity (or other majority views or people groups) is not considered a hate crime. So in that case, prejudice is bad if it's directed against Muslims but allowable if it is directed at Christians.

This past week, Dalrymple again discussed the need for prejudice in a column for the Social Affairs Unit. Note that he is not referring to a KKK-like prejudice against black people, but more to the normal preconceptions that we unknowingly hold to every day.
The other day I happened to see a fellow-passenger reading an article in a newspaper that I had missed, about the way in which police in Britain have now started searching white people against whom they have no suspicions whatever, simply to balance the racial proportions of people searched in their efforts to prevent terrorism.
I admit that I am highly sceptical about how much of the activity carried out in the name of anti-terrorism is genuinely and necessarily connected with that end, but racial quotas can only weaken that connection further.
In this [taxi] were the usual warnings deemed necessary in taxis all over the British provinces about the amount one would have to pay if one vomited in it, how one ought to behave well because one was being recorded on camera, etc. And if these warnings were not enough, there were two police notices:

Anyone who verbally abuses or assaults the driver of this Taxi will be reported to the police and prosecuted.


Please don't be offended if your driver asks for payment before you start your journey.
So how does a driver select the people from whom he asks for payment in advance?

The answer, of course, is by means of his prejudiced understanding of the world. He looks at his potential fare and asks himself, "Is this the kind of person who might refuse to pay me at the end of the journey", or do what is known in the trade as "a runner"? And if it is, he asks for the money in advance.
Of course, his prejudiced understanding of the world, based partly on experience, partly on hearsay, and no doubt partly on personal taste or distaste, will sometimes lead him to false conclusions. A nasty-looking drunk may have every intention of paying his fare; a respectably-dressed man in a business suit might be planning to swindle or even rob him. Appearances can be deceptive, and no doubt often are.

But he has little else to go by and has to make a decision very quickly. There may be more rejoicing in heaven over the repentance of one unjust man, etc., but among taxi-drivers there is more regret over one wrong judgment about such a matter than over ninety-nine duly-paid fares. And if a taxi driver failed to exercise his judgment in this way, we should feel correspondingly less sympathy for him when he was assaulted or cheated.

What the taxi driver does (and what the police obviously think he is entitled and perhaps ought to do), is what we do all the time in our daily lives. Our mistakes may be grievous ones: when I saw pictures of Mr Madoff, I thought, "What a kindly, calm, intelligent, far-seeing expression he has, just the kind of man to whom I should have liked to entrust my savings, had I known about him".

But the possibility of error should not deter us from making prejudiced judgments, for the suspension of such judgments is also a judgment of a kind, and one that is likely to be far worse in effect overall than their maintenance. Of course, no prejudice should be so strong that no evidence or experience to the contrary can change it, either about individuals or about groups of people who share certain characteristics.

The pretence that one can approach the world without prejudice is dishonest and absurd. The sleep of prejudice brings forth bureaucratic monsters. It is to go into the world without the faintest idea about where one might find the things one is looking for.

If the police really had no prejudices, the consequences for the population would be truly dreadful.
The failure to make the most obvious judgments leads to vicious absurdity. I recall the case of one young man of Indian extraction who was set upon by three young louts with a long history of violence. The young man was thoroughly respectable, as well as being self-evidently mild-mannered; but the three louts accused him of having attacked them first, an accusation so prima facie absurd that one would have thought no one could entertain it for a moment. But, in the name of equity, the police treated it as seriously as the young man's accusation against them, which was far from absurd. They charged him as well as the three louts; and offered to drop the charges only if he dropped the charges against the three louts.

That is justice in a society that claims to be without prejudice.


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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 »