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In Praise of Prejudice

Publisher: Encounter • 2007 • 129 pages

Prejudice: it’s America’s national trauma. To call someone prejudiced is to declare that he is outside the limits of polite society, and should be consigned to the outer darkness where only Klansmen and neo-Nazis dwell. But in reality, as the English psychiatrist and writer Theodore Dalrymple argues in this brisk and bracing book, “In Praise of Prejudice,” prejudice isn’t just name-calling and stereotyping of racial groups (though it may certainly include that). He explodes the common assumption that prejudice is wrong, so lack of prejudice is right, and establishes that no one is free of prejudice: one prejudice will always be replaced by another. Those who claim they are free of it, he says, are mired in intellectual, moral and emotional dishonesty.

Dalrymple establishes that someone who walks out into the world completely unprejudiced is as helpless as a newborn babe. He details the cruel effect of not instilling the right prejudices, and elucidates why prejudice itself is a good thing — a necessary foundation of intellectual, social and moral life. Prejudice is even, he demonstrates, essential to a well-functioning family life.

Prejudice, Dalrymple explains, is at the root not only of a lot of vice, but of most virtue. It is a prerequisite of sound moral judgment: to expect people to work out all their morals for themselves from abstract first principles is to expect far too much from them. It is not only unrealistic, it is harmful. Dalrymple speaks from extensive clinical experience as a doctor in a slum hospital and the prison next door — where he has seen that the pretence that we can be totally unprejudiced is a pretext for licentiousness and lack of self-control, to the detriment not only of individuals but of society as a whole.

In Praise of Prejudice will destroy your prejudice against prejudice:

  • Why the rejection of prejudice is not a good in itself
  • Revealed: the dire social effects of abandoning certain prejudices
  • Why it does not follow that, if racial discrimination is evil, all discrimination is therefore evil
  • Why discrination is the most important function of the mind; without it, truth could not be distinguished from falsehood, beauty from ugliness, or good from evil
  • One false assumption arising from the prejudice against prejudice: the idea that, since all people are created equal, all social relations must be conducted on the same and equal basis
  • Why one of most important purposes of pedagogy is to instill the correct prejudices
  • Equality of opportunity: how this ideal is necessary to a world without prejudice — and yet as an ideal is inherently totalitarian
  • How a philosophy that sets out to destroy the influence of custom, tradition, authority, and prejudice does indeed destroy particular customs, traditions, authorities, and prejudices, but only to replace them by others
  • Why prejudice is a requirement of genuine benevolence
  • How the prejudice against prejudice has led in our times, from the highest class of society to the lowest, to everyone living under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship
  • One of the foremost sources of the prejudice against prejudice: John Stuart Mill’s great tract, On Liberty
  • Why Mill’s contention that it is necessary for the development of a person’s own personality that his opinions should not merely be handed down to him, but be his own, is both false and dangerous
  • How the ideal of life without prejudices, stereotypes, pre-conceptions, and pre-existing authority is regarded as a proper, indeed a noble one, but is in reality anything but
  • Rights: how they expand to meet the egos of those for whom freedom is nothing but unconstrained action
  • How, if biology explains morality, no two people in the same situation could come other than to the same moral conclusions
  • Why it does not follow from the fact that the freedom to express falsehoods is essential to the discovery of truth, that all falsehoods are of equal, or indeed of any, value in this search
  • How the permission of intellectual freedom, however great, does not dispose of the question of authority, even in the freest of societies
  • How no system of ethical propositions, or any other system of propositions, can exist without presuppositions — that is to say, prejudices
  • Why, the more we reject prejudice as such, the harder it will be for us to retreat from the dangerous and self-defeating positions we have taken up in order to prove that we are not prejudiced

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