Sunday, August 21, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: "In Praise of Prejudice" by Theodore Dalrymple

I once heard a man speak about how the essence of wisdom is the ability to make distinctions. He said, "Eskimos have 14 (or some ungodly number - I don't remember the exact number, but you get the idea) different words for snow. In America, we have one: 'snow.' Now, who is wiser about snow?"

Whether he meant to or not, he was making the point that the ability to detect and express distinctions is at the core of wisdom. The book of Proverbs, the Judeo-Christian canon's most well-known book of wisdom, is essentially a list of arguments which encourages discrimination: wisdom is A, foolishness is B; a woman worth marrying is A, a woman worth leaving alone is B; a godly man is A, a heathen is B. So when you look around today and see nothing but fools, you can rest assured that one of the primary reasons that people are so foolish is that they have surrendered, either willingly or consequent to having been browbeaten into it, the ability to make distinctions.

The ability to make distinctions is known as "discrimination." We speak of a man who is a coniessuer of wine or cigars or fine cars as being possessing "discriminating taste." The notions that we carry around in our heads because we know a lot about wine or cigars or fine cars are, of course, called "stereotypes" (Maseratis possess superior cornering ability, Plymouths are unreliable, Cubans consistently make the best cigars, an older wine is - all else being equal - better). The attitude that certain things are to be preferred or rejected based on the knowledge that we already have of it is called "bias" or "prejudice."

Prejudice, in the modern world, gets a bad rap. Socialists in this country have convinced everyone that 1) prejudice is bad because racial prejudice is bad, and 2) that truly intelligent people walk around without preconceived notions of any kind, constantly trying to figure out the truth anew. In politics, we call this type of person a "Moderate." If you work on a construction crew, you call this type of person an "idiot."

Because all of us operate with stereotypes and prejudices, and life would be impossible without them. Your entire childhood, your parents tried to instill certain ideas in you so that you would understand how the world worked and would be able to function in it safely, only to send you off to a public university where some learned professor attempted to strip you of your "prejudices" and revert you to infancy once again.

For instance, every time that I walk into a room and see a switch on the wall, I assume that if I flick that switch, it will turn on a light - somewhere. This stereotype of switches serves me quite well. Rather than wasting a lot of time dialoguing with a switch when I come into a room to try and get to know it in its own right, I boldly, and with astounding regularity, correctly, walk over to the switch, flick it, and a light comes on somewhere!

Have I been wrong? Of course. I once lived in an apartment and within the first week of living there I flicked a switch expecting a light to turn on and instead heard a great roar as the garbage disposal was engaged. On a rare occasion, I have gone over and flicked a switch and nothing happens. Or at least seems to happen. Whenever I experience nothing after flicking the switch, I always envision that scene from a TV program I once saw in which an unidentified switch is clicked over and over to no apparent effect till we learn that the neighbor's garage door is groaning up and down.

But the number of times that I have been wrong has been infinitessimal. And I am clever enough, when I find a switch that does not seem to turn on a light, I quickly learn, "Oh, that switch is for the garbage disposal." Or the electric chair. Or an exploding booby trap in my neighbor's, last name of Grant, driveway (if only!). And the real point is, is it better to carry around the predisposition that those types of switches turn on lights and merely learn the exceptions, or to enter every room with an empty head and wait for the switches to prove themselves to us?

Political correctness would have us to waste our lives investigating light switches when we already know, with 99.99999% accuracy, what life is all about. It is impermissible to note that women are emotional, and not intellectual - though the number of intellectual women that I have met in my life is a small number, hovering around three. And then, there is Ann Coulter, of course, but I have never met her. If you know her, will you put in a good word for me?

It is impermissible to notice that ethnic minorities commit a disproportionate amount of all crimes, though Liberals themselves are more than happy to mention that imprisonment is a huge problem in various ethnic communities, but not because of crime! - Lord no! - but rather because of a lack of economic opportunity, or education, or transistor radios, or Wii's, or something. It is impermissible to notice that Democrats are the most anti-intellectual individuals on earth, though every study not done by Democrats actually finds that Democrats score very low on tests of factual matters related to politics. And so on....

Theodore Dalrymple goes much farther than argue that prejudice should be accepted and left well enough alone (which I am, myself, ready to do), but he actually encourages and praises prejudice. While my theory is that we should not reject knowledge that comes to us, Dalrymple encourages us to actually seek out occasions to exercise prejudice! OK, well, maybe not, but his book *In Praise of Prejudice* is nevertheless worth more than one read (I stopped at two readings).

Dalrymple encourages us to instill our prejudices about such topics as life, philosophy, religion, and politics into our children, on the grounds that, should we fail to do so, "children will always choose the same thing, the thing that most immediately attracts and gratifies them." They will choose to spend, not save. They will choose to lie to keep themselves out of trouble rather than developing moral character by telling the truth and accepting responsibility and consequences for their actions. They will choose to gorge themselves on sugar, and thus become the objects of Michelle Obama's disdain for being "obese." Perhaps Dalrymple is correct on this point.

Dalrymple further argues that some prejudices are true - as my illustration of the light swtiches above - and we risk, by refusing to pass along these prejudices that false prejudices (like the myth of Global Warming and the myth that Men and Women are the Same and the myth of the Entire Democrat Party Platform) coming along and replacing truth, and that ultimately, the failure to instill in others correct stereotypes and prejudices is an act of great cruelty, as it pushes children out into a world unfit to participate in reality. AND it makes them susceptible to snake oil salesmen and liars, like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. He further argues that prejudice is, after all, inevitable, as the former prejudice against blacks has, in American, been replaced by a prejudice against whites.

He argues, rightly, that neither authority nor custom, frequent instillers of prejudices, are wrong or abusive in and of themselves. In fact, matters that have been around long enough to be custom are more likely to be correct or true than matters which were adopted for the first time in 1968, and matters that can be spoken of authoritatively are far more likely to be true and right than matters that have to be hemmed and hawwed about and spoken of in vague allusions. "Hope and Change," anyone?

Dalrymple asserts that "discrimination" ultimately means "to make a proper judgment." And that Liberals, who never make proper judgments, have taken occasion from the association of the word with racism to dull the thinking faculties of three generations. He notes that, when he was younger, "A person who did not discriminate, or was undiscriminating, was a person without taste, morality, or intellect [and socially] was likely undiscriminating in his behavior." This explains the popularity of rap music.... And sadly, the intellectual life of Americans has become as polluted as its FM radio stations precisely because a lack of discrimination leaves men unfit to discern between truth and falsehood, beauty and ugliness, or even good and evil. This explains the Springer show.... In American intellectual life, as in American pop culture, kitsch has become the constant substitute for truth.

No less towering intellects than Aristotle, Plato (and Socrates through him), and Adam Smith believed in the irrefutable value of prejudice. Those who reject ten thousand years of intellectual history, philosophy, and religion, in preference for the vacant emotional mewling of the 1968 generation would do well to realize that it is not those of us who recognize that stereotypes sting precisely because those that we held to prior to 1968 were true, but that operating with the ability to discern between good an bad is a moral necessity. Such a realization is not an attempt to force our beliefs on anyone, but the radical notion that every man has the right to determine what is right and wrong, true and false, for himself, is an incomprehensibly self-absorbed and prideful idea. Though men capable of rendering a correct judgment will often be considered "arrogant" or "full of themselves" by the moral pygmies whose intellectual and moral diets are dictated by pop culture, there is no more radical arrogance than the wholesale rejection of 10,000 years of truth and wisdom for the right to design a world all of one's own making.