March 12, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Judging the Book by its Cover
WHAT is prejudice? By its roots, the word means but “judgement before the fact,” which is to say—judging a human being, before one knows who or what he is. As it is clear that no one judges for no reason, the judgement in question is usually the the result of that human being’s inclusion in a peculiar group, be it a racial group, an ethnic group, or a group marked by some characteristic (such as skinny people or fat people or people who wear glasses or people who work in Hollywood or what have you).
Now, not all such judgements classify as “prejudice,” and many of them are inevitable. For instance, if I encounter an animal with the form of a human being, I will certainly presume that he is endowed with certain capacities, such as the ability to speak and understand speech. If I were to treat every stranger as a perfectly unknown quantity, such that I could not even suppose he was fluent in my language or had normal feelings about social relations, it is obvious I would be utterly paralyzed in my day to day life. I would go about doing all kinds of absurd and unreasonable things, approaching each stranger as if I could not be sure he were not a complete idiot or a psychopath. Or another and more concrete example: if I am a plumber looking for a journeyman, I will disqualify out of hand all tetraplegics, under the assumption that they are incapable of doing the job that I need them to do. Who would call this prejudice?
Then prejudice is an unfair judgement before the fact. It is a judgement which is not warranted by experience. If I, as a misanthrope, approached human beings as if they were all of them depraved and unintelligent, that would be prejudice. If I, as a plumber looking for a journeyman, refused to hire Mexicans on the grounds that they are lazy or immoral, that would be prejudice. Why? Because we all know human beings who are not depraved and who are of excellent intelligence; we all know Mexicans who are much harder working than most of their neighbors and who hold themselves to the highest ethical standards.
Yet it is not enough that there are one or two exceptions; there must be many exceptions. It will perhaps happen that I approach a human being to ask him directions on how to get to the supermarket, only to find that he is deaf and dumb. I have surely not been guilty of prejudice; the odds were strongly in my favor that the person before me would know how to answer me.
A man is guilty of prejudice, then, when he supposes things about an individual human being on the basis of a general judgement of the human group to which that individual belongs, when the judgement in question is unwarranted, because it is not widely true. Prejudice is, moreover, generally negative, though one can of course imagine positive prejudices. (“Why, George must be a good man; he’s a Democrat!”) Wikipedia quotes one Gordon Allport as defining prejudice as a “feeling, favorable or unfavorable, toward a person or thing, prior to, or not based on, actual experience.”
The question of course is—experience of what? Of the “person or thing,” or of the group to which it belongs? The answer to this question is in truth the crux of the very problem of prejudice as such.
To see this, let us take another example, this one more controversial. It is widely known in Europe that gypsies are prone to thievery. This knowledge is based on generations and generations of collective experience—the experience of passengers on trains and buses who must constantly watch their pockets and purses; the experience of restaurant owners in many European cities who cannot leave their silverware on out-of-doors tables from the certainty of never seeing it again; the experience of countless homeowners in rural areas who cannot put up copper gutters or leave any wires exposed from the certainty of losing them to the hands of roving metal thieves. Everyone knows that the thieves in all these cases are overwhelmingly gypsies. This is a fact, and anyone who thinks differently is invited to spend a year living in any major continental European city, particularly in the South, where he can put his good faith in the gypsy race to practical test.
Now, if a gypsy asks to be let in my home, is it prejudice if my reaction is based in part on the reputation of his ethnic group? Is it prejudice if I deny him entry, or at the least keep a careful eye on him while he’s between my walls?
If we say that this is not prejudice, being, as it is, merely the sensible application of probability, then I am afraid acts of irrational and unwarranted prejudice are much rarer than we generally take them to be, and our views on “discrimination” really must become a little more modest. We must allow, for example, that there is no prejudice in supposing that a given man is more prone to commit violent acts than a given woman, or that a given woman is likely to be more sentimental and empathetic than a given man, and we must allow that it is therefore not prejudicial to suppose that men are better fit for the military than women, or that women are better fit for child rearing than men. When a white man in a city crosses to the other side of the street to avoid a group of young black men, that is not prejudice (suffice it to look at inner city crime statistics!) just as it is not prejudice when we suppose that a person who votes Republican is also a Christian. In all cases there will be exceptions to the rule; but these exceptions are to be treated as they come.
If, on the other hand, you say it is prejudice to treat the gypsy differently than we would treat a person of different descent, on the grounds that we know nothing about that particular gypsy, and he might not follow the habits of his compeers—well, then we are back to wondering just how this more generous principle is to be embodied in daily life. For in consequence we must surely suppress all negative judgements about persons we do not know. We must approach each new individual as if he were a paragon of goodness and even excellence, and not permit our awareness of the generality of human frailties and human limitations to influence us negatively in any way whatsoever. Each new individual must be to us as the finest of all God’s creations, until we have reason to believe otherwise; for to suppose him in any way weak or inadequate or fallible, as a normal human being, is to fall into the trap of imposing on a stranger negative characteristics which are merely generally true of that category “human beings.”
I suspect, however, that this is merely setting us up for incessant disillusionment. I suspect we will be more likely to pass even harsher judgement on everyone around us, when we find they have fallen short of our impossible standards. I suspect we will be guilty of a much more insidious and much more dangerous “prejudice” by acting in this way, than if we were to act on the basis of real observations about differences in human groups. I suspect, in short, that our injustice will remain, but will be of a different and perhaps more poisonous kind.
And I suspect as well that the inventory of our household items will soon find itself somewhat abridged.