The Cult of Non-Judgmentalism
A Book Review by Rebecca Bynum (Nov. 2007)
In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas
By Theodore Dalrymple
Brief Encounters Press
Theodore Dalrymple challenges the modern concept of "prejudice against prejudice" in his beautifully written new book, In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, with his usual wry and concise style. As in his previous books, Dalrymple puts his finger on an essential defect in modern popular thought that has left us seriously lacking in our ability to deal with reality as it is. Though he doesn’t address it directly, the modern myth of human equality lies at the bottom of the attitude he criticizes. As Richard Weaver wrote in “Life Without Prejudice:”
“It is possible in some abstract sense that all men are equal. But according to the Bible, Aristotle, and most considerate observers, men are not equal in natural capacity, aptitude for learning, moral education, and so on. If you can get the first belief substituted for the second, on the claim that the second cannot be proved, you have removed a ‘prejudice.’ And along with it, you have removed such perception as you have of reality.” (Modern Age, 1957)
A psychiatrist by training, Dalrymple rarely delves into the realm of the mind as an independent phenomenon. Instead, he focuses on the effect ideas have on human behavior and thus on society at large. He doesn’t speak of prejudices which originate in the unconscious and help us to form those "irrational" judgments we make on a day-to-day basis, judgments as to another person’s character, for example. Nor does he discuss what might be termed prejudicial judgments made simply through the “economy of thought” in which reasoned verification has dropped out of consciousness because our minds cannot hold every reason-chain for every action we take in the forefront of our conscious minds for long without our going insane.
Dalrymple focuses instead on the prejudices based on authority and tradition, as these have endured a sustained ideological attack for over a century. Tracing this onslaught to a representative source, he chooses John Stuart Mill for his counter-attack. His style takes the form reminiscent of a careful dissection, however, which is similar to Weaver’s treatment of Henry David Thoreau and to a lesser degree, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his Chapter entitled, “The Overestimation of Rationality in Choice,” Dalrymple writes:
The desire to reconcile the irreconcilable, to render radical individualism the most social of creeds and utilitarianism the most individualistic, Mill was led to an unrealistic view of both human beings and the society in which they lived. He was inclined to suppose, as many thinkers are, that most people either were or could become with sufficient education, like himself. In a way this does him honor, for he modestly supposed also that his own gifts were neither great nor exceptional, but this led him to imagine what is not very probable, that there would come a time when most people would be as deeply concerned with the moral foundations of human conduct as he. This in turn suggests that his knowledge of human beings in walks of life different from his own was not very extensive. This is hardly surprising, since by the time Mill came to write On Liberty, he and his wife led a reclusive existence.
At any rate, Mill generally overestimated the role that reasoning did, or very well could, play in normal, day-to-day life. Near the very beginning of the tract, written in such vigorous and persuasive prose that one is swept along by it, Mill inveighs against social prejudice, which he sees as a danger greater in present circumstances than openly tyrannical government:
Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct…
The individual must therefore decide for himself whether to conform to the ideas and practices of society, and this for a number of reasons. The most important of these is that the truth of any subject, no more in the empirical than in the moral realm, cannot be known once and for all, finally and indubitably, and therefore any “ideas and practices as rules of conduct” are open to question. Advance, both moral and empirical, emerges from the continual clash of opinion – this is indubitable. But even if this were not so, there is an ethical principle that would require that each man choose whether or not to conform to society’s ideas and practices…
While I am far from deprecating the role of intellection in human life, and sometimes even lament its absence from large parts of it, its role is inevitably far more complex than the straightforward one Mill imagined. The vast majority of men – and here I include myself, so I mean no disrespect – cannot go through life as if it were a long series of intellectual and moral puzzles. If it were, and we took them seriously, most of us would end up starving like Buridan’s ass who, perfectly equidistant between two piles of hay, could nor decide which way to turn.
Here we see Dalrymple, like all the best minds, unwilling to forsake his experience of reality for cold abstraction. He is practical, intuitive and grounded in a certain knowledge of life which makes one aware of the depth of his thought. He carries his wit lightly, without cleverness. And one never feels unduly manipulated by his arguments. He acknowledges that even Mill is not fool enough to assert that all authority is worthless, for no civilization of any complexity could grow without accumulation of knowledge, the foundations of which must be taken for granted. However, Dalrymple points out,
Mill acts as godfather to an idea that is not strictly his – namely, that one opinion is as good as another, even in matters of fact. One can see this in the modern use of the word “valid,” a word than in the mouth of students, must send shivers down the spines of academics of the old school, who have respect for the truth as the object of inquiry. It is not arguments that are valid anymore, in the sense that they are constructed in accordance with the laws of logic and of evidence, but that opinions and even questions are.
For example, a British television interviewer named Jonathan Ross, known – indeed, employed by the BBC at a salary of $11,000,000 a year – for extreme vulgarity, asked the leader of the opposition party, David Cameron, whether as a youth he had masturbated while thinking of Mrs. Thatcher. This witless question, not surprisingly, drew some public criticism, to which he replied that he stood by his question, which he still considered “a valid one.”
Why did Ross consider this a “valid” question? Because it was his very own. And in the absence of the widespread acceptance of metaphysical realities, those absolutes which stand above and beyond mankind, by which man once was measured, man cannot help but find himself to be the measure of all things, which reduces further to a conception in which each individual is the measure of his own universe. Writes Dalrymple,
Many an argument about substantive matters of fact is now brought to an end by one of several of the disputants claiming, at a point of irreconcilable difference, “Well, my opinion is just as valid as yours.” No matter that one of the disputants among them may have made a special study of the question, has more evidence at his disposal and has constructed a logical framework for them, and that the persons who claim equal “validity” for their opinions on the matter have never given a moment’s thought to it and are thoroughly ignorant of all that is relevant to it. If nothing is certain, then what are facts anyway? They are opinions. Thus freedom of opinion becomes equality of opinions: for what is the use of freedom without equality?
Dalrymple’s principal concern is the effect of ideas as they filter down through the social scale and their effect on those who are not “little Descartes” though they are forced into that position by the modern omnipresent injunction to “think for yourself” and the equally useless, “question everything.” He observes:
Conformity to any rule is felt as a wound to personal sovereignty, as is the exercise of any authority exterior to that of the ego. Far from settling questions of the rightful exercise of power of one person over another, the attitude engendered by a partial reading of Mill (or handed down as a kind of philosophical rumour) turns all human interactions into questions of power. This is particularly so for those who are, or feel themselves to be, at the lower end of the social scale. Their dignity as absolute sovereigns, as the Sun Kings of their own soul, is the most frequently infringed; life for them is a long series of acts of lèse majesté by others. Their ego is like a wound that is never allowed to heal, that is constantly re-opened by reality, into which salt is ever rubbed by those with greater power or prestige than themselves.
The influence of Mill and others is such that today social mores and traditions are thought to be evils in themselves, since they are considered to be impediments to progress, enlightenment and individual freedom. Therefore, there is nothing left to act as a brake on human behavior except legality and therein lies the rub. As says Dalrymple:
The lack of any intervening authority between the individual on the one hand, and the sovereign political power on the other, enables the latter to insinuate itself into the smallest crevices of daily life.
Over the last century we have witnessed such a powerful ideological attack on tradition, that tradition has not held, then on religion, and religion holds only in pockets, and then upon the foundational unit of civilization, the family, so that finally in many places, especially at the lower rungs of our social scale, the family has effectively been destroyed, so that nothing stands between the individual and the power of the state. Often in these areas many adult individuals are dependants of the state by virtue of welfare. They are provided with their physical needs, food, clothing, shelter and medical care, often dispensed in the form of anti-depressant drugs, all through the benevolence of the state. It is inevitable that these solicitations should take the form of greater and greater totalitarian control. So what starts out as a drive toward absolute freedom ends up in absolute totalitarianism.
As an antidote to this state of affairs, Richard Weaver contrasts the views of John Randolph of
Dalyrmple is especially eloquent when speaking about the demise of the most basic institution of civilization, the family, because the products of these broken, or more accurately, never-having-existed homes were overwhelmingly represented among his patients in the prison and slum hospital in
Thus, what began as a minority opinion held by a handful of anti-social elites in the nineteenth century has multiplied to become today the commonplace attitude of the masses and has born a bitter fruit in terms of social disintegration.
Mark Twain perhaps gave us the greater wisdom when he wrote, “I know that I am prejudiced on this matter, but I would be ashamed of myself if I were not.”
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