Ideas have consequences, Richard Weaver observed, and the banishment of the idea of prejudice has had profound consequences for Western culture, Theodore Dalrymple explains in his new book, “In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas.”
“Today, the word prejudice has come to seem synonymous with bigotry; therefore the only way a person can establish freedom from bigotry is by claiming to have wiped his mind free from prejudice,” Mr. Dalrymple writes, explaining that concept of “prejudice” (meaning “preconceived judgment or opinion”) has suffered from its association with racial discrimination.
“Theodore Dalrymple” is a pseudonym for retired British psychiatrist Dr. Anthony Daniels, whose writings about the culture of poverty include frequent references to his experiences treating patients during his years working in a prison and a public hospital in Birmingham, England.
A frequent contributor to City Journal and to the British magazine, the Spectator, he is the author of several previous books, including “Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass” (2001) and “Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses” (2005). The following is a recent e-mail interview with the author:
Q: You write about “the intellectual heartlands of the world, where we all happen to live.” Was your book written with a specific audience of intellectuals in mind?
A: My book was written for that elusive person, the general reader. I tend to assume that the general reader is interested in the same things as I. So far, sales have always proved me wrong.
Q: You accuse 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill of “a prejudice against prejudice.” What do you mean by that?
A: By prejudice against prejudice, I mean the supposition that the inherited wisdom of mankind is wrong or mistaken. Actually, Mill was more subtle than that — he acknowledged that much of what passes as traditional wisdom may actually be wise — but the overall effect of his rhetoric has been quite the opposite.
Let me say that I admire Mill as a person very greatly.
Q: What are the practical consequences of the unprejudiced approach to life?
A: The attempt to live as if one were unprejudiced is dangerous. It leads one to disregard the most obvious considerations about people, for example that their manner and appearance is aggressive. In my work I was often consulted by people who failed to take notice of the signs that a person gave because to do so would be to ‘stereotype’ him, and they suffered the consequences.
Q: Many of the anecdotes you use are drawn from your experience as a physician treating British prison inmates. How did that experience affect your perspective?
A: My experiences as a doctor in a slum and in a prison made me averse to the frivolous attitudinizing of middle class intellectuals.
Q: You quote Dr. Ronald Ross, a Nobel Prize-winning physician, describing India as home of “an ancient outworn race,” and then observe that this apparent expression of prejudice “was not incompatible with benevolence and humanity.” Why do so many people now believe that prejudice and benevolence are mutually exclusive?
A: I think that there has been a semantic shift such that the word prejudice conjures up images of the Ku Klux Klan or perhaps the Spanish Inquisition. For Adam Smith, say, all men had a predisposition to sympathy for his fellow beings. This aspect of prejudice is now entirely forgotten.
Q: You make reference to a number of philosophers — [Rene] Descartes, [David] Hume, [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau, and Karl Popper among others. Does our “prejudice against prejudice” suggest a decline of the philosophical worldview?
A: In a sense there has been an increase in the “philosophical worldview,” in so far as everyone is now expected, and expects, to be his own moral philosopher, so that even the most trivial of customs is examined from the point of view of first principles. One of the points of my book is that, if you insist upon examining questions such as whether people should put their feet up on the train seats in front of them from first principles, civilized conduct soon declines, because it is impossible to find definitive and indubitable reasons why people should not put their feet up on train seats in front of them. One does not learn good conduct by reflecting on first principles — which is not, of course, to say that good conduct is without any reason whatsoever.
Q: “In Praise of Prejudice” is written in what some readers might consider an old-fashioned style — reminiscent of such 18th-century writers as Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. Is there a reason for this?
A: If it is in that style, it is because it comes naturally to me and suits my subject. It is not deliberate imitation: but I can’t help finding the comparison extremely flattering.
Q: What, if anything, can be done to rehabilitate the notion of what Burke called “sound prejudice”?
A: This is a very difficult question. Obviously, it can’t be done by governmental fiat or legislation, because an enforced doctrine of healthy prejudice would be as bad as what it replaces. I think the only solution is to work to change the philosophical atmosphere of society, to try patiently to undermine what [Michael] Oakeshott called rationalism in politics. Success is not guaranteed, indeed seems somewhat unlikely. Be that as it may, that is what I have been attempting all these years.