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The prejudice against prejudice

On reclaiming language and speaking the truth

Every object of knowledge demands a method of knowledge proper to it. In other words, the way to understand anything is to take every object of study on its own terms. Accept the given as it gives itself and allow it to exist as itself as you get to know it more deeply and truly. We should try to let the mind be conformed to the real and not just to force-fit the real into artificial containers constructed by the mind. Of course, the mind is a force to be reckoned with. Abstractions are inevitable.

In the story of Cinderella, we find a prince looking for his bride-to-be, using the glass slipper she left behind after dancing at a ball with him. Why a glass slipper? The most obvious reason is that its shape is fixed. It doesn’t bend and stretch like leather. The shoe fitted Cinderella perfectly while she was dancing around the ballroom and no shoehorning of any kind would allow it to fit another’s foot. The method, that glass slipper, fits the object, Cinderella’s foot. Moreover, the transparency of the slipper ensures the perfect way to determine just how snug the fit is. In one telling of the tale, because the shoe doesn’t fit the feet of Cinderella’s step sisters, they start to hack bits off their feet. Toes get lopped off and heels get peeled. Well, this is the sort of thing that happens when the method, the shoe in this case, is prioritised over the object of study, represented here by feet.

This sort of thing—I mean the application of the wrong method to understanding things, not the brutalising of the feet of ugly step-sisters—happens everywhere and every day. A familiar example is Skinnerian behavioural psychology, which many managers still take to be true. Skinner studied the stimulus-response operations of rats, our fellow mammals, and then applied his discoveries to people. The only very minor trouble with this is that we are not rats; and so Skinner’s rather limited toolbox of applying incentives, whether proverbial carrots or sticks, ends up imposing a misunderstanding on what ought to be understood, namely human beings. If you’re interested, Alfie Kohn’s excellent book Punished By Rewards (1993) offers a brilliant account of why Skinnerian blank-slate behaviourism is not just plainly wrong but patently stupid. Kohn’s thesis, which holds generally although it plays out variously, is that incentives  devalue what is being incentivised. Adding extrinsic motivators diminishes the force of intrinsic motivation. And yet, this bold truth doesn’t stop many of us from talking about incentives. We have been, many of us, colonised by this stupid way of thinking about people.

Of course, this is just an example and what I want to discuss here is the fact that modernity, pretty much as a rule, adopts the very opposite of the principle named in the first line of the first paragraph of this little article. It is a dominant trend of the political left, in particular, to morph language to homogenise and so also to obscure reality. Have a look at Roger Scruton’s very entertaining and still relevant Fools, Frauds and Firebrands (1998) on this. This homogenisation and obfuscation is tantamount to adopting the wrong method for engaging with reality and so also a great way to ensure that many people misunderstand the very world they are living in.

Language, after all, is our main method for understanding anything. However, this warping of language, often to soften harsh realities, is precisely what we might expect given a little trend that started to creep in during the infamously misnamed Enlightenment and then sediment into being the accepted way of thinking about the world. My claim is simple and not too difficult to demonstrate. The current tendency to fail to attend to the nature of things predates all of us. The shape of this tendency was set up in recent centuries and has simply become normal. We have a very good clue to this in how we now generally think of the word prejudice.

The word prejudice, like any word I suppose, has a long history and I can only offer here a very rough and very sketchy genealogy. It’s been used in English since around the year 1300 and etymologists note that it stems from an old French word, préjudice, which is derived from the Latin word praeiūdicium. That Latin word can be split up to get a sense of the basic meaning that we are now still familiar with. Prae means before and iūdicium means judgment. Prejudice is equal, at its most neutral, to prejudgement. One thing to stress here is that, for a while, the idea of holding a prejudice was not, as it is now, automatically a Very Bad Thing.

The earliest uses of the word prejudice were legal. You see this legal and largely neutral sense of the word, for example, in the United Kingdom’s Petition of Right, published in 1627. Already in the 1700s, though, the somewhat neutral use of the word was starting to tilt towards a more negative connotation. One example of this is in a sermon preached at St. Mary’s in Oxford in the very early 1700s with the title, The Nature and Mischief of Prejudice and Partiality. That sermon offers a rather damning definition of prejudice. Here’s the definition, word for word, with all of its commas and capitalised words included:

“Hence the True Nature of Prejudice may seem to Consist in this, That it is a Premature, Indeliberate, and Irrational Opinion, hastily fix’d in the Mind, either For, or Against any Person, or Thing, not arriving from any Light, or Conviction of the Understanding, or the Merit, or Evidence of the Cause, but from the Predominant Controul of the Will, and the Arbitrary Impulse of Humour, or Imagination, Aversion, or desire. And It may be Call’d a Kind of Moral Sympathy, or Antitipathy, or a Fanatical Liking, or Hating any Thing, not so much from Reason as Caprice.”

Another famous example of the use of the word prejudice, later in the same century, is found in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). For Burke, however, the use of the word is more positive, and it is worth reflecting on, as I will below, for this reason. Not too long after Burke’s book is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), where the negative sense of the word predominates. Austen suggests that prejudice is something to be overcome. In this, we already have a hint of what will happen later, closer to our time, as prejudice becomes an entirely pejorative term. Austen’s brilliance and reasonableness are not common in our time, though, and so the negative sense of prejudice has not been tempered by virtue or reasonableness.

In the twentieth century, give or take a few minor twists and turns in the history of this little word, prejudice becomes All Bad. You find this sense of the word in Theodor Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality (1950) and Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice (1954). You notice, too, that those who are against prejudice as a rule are decidedly on the left of the political spectrum. Now, so long after those books were published, the trend has been reified. It has become normal to regard a person as prejudiced when he offhandedly rejects some outgroup. It is so normal, in fact, that we do not necessarily notice that the core issue in prejudice is not ultimately about a bias against people or people groups reduced to their most obvious signifiers of race, class, and sexuality. To reduce people to their surface is a shocking and horrifying event in the history of language and meaning but this is the symptom of an even more catastrophic disease. The pejorativisation of all prejudice, without even allowing the question of what the specific prejudice in question is, ultimately means a bias against history and tradition. It is ultimately about setting up a resistance to the truth that is manifest through history and tradition.

This, I realise, may seem a rather stark and outlandish claim. But let’s look at history and see what it tells us. Already during the Enlightenment, prejudice became a troublesome thing because it undermined the Enlightenment ideal that figured that everything should be decided by reason alone. By its nature, prejudice assumes a thing to have already been decided, even if it does not necessarily presume that its commitment to that decision is beyond questioning and challenging. The Enlightenment gurus didn’t like that. They more or less said to themselves, “How dare anyone decide for me what I ought to accept and reject!” And so arrived on the world’s stage a prejudice against prejudice. There are hints of this already in the Reformation, and they have continued wherever the myth of individualism reigns.

This Enlightenment prejudice takes tradition as an object of critique and so does culturally what the natural sciences do empirically. Just as empiricism forces us to test our sense impressions, this prejudice against prejudice forces us to test our intellectual impressions. Not all Enlightenment rationalists did this, as Hans-Georg Gadamer points out in his book Truth and Method (1960). In Germany, for instance, at least for a while, the prejudices of the Christian religion were taken as true prejudices. But even these needed, in the end, to be justified by reason, according to the logic of the individualist modernisers. This is to say, prejudice still needed to be fact-checked by snobbish modern gnostics.

But into this little modernist mix crept a subtle and pernicious little idea. To assume that the authority of tradition must necessarily be challenged and checked by reason, for this is what becomes manifest in a prejudice, authority, in general, has to be reconceived not as a source of understanding, which is what it actually is, but as a source of illegitimate power. Authority, subtly, gets recast as inherently ‘problematic’. Who in their right mind would want to subject themselves to illegitimate power? No one! So an appeal to human reason becomes entirely reasonable. Let’s question everything and test everything, then, just to be sure that we are right. That way, we can have rationalisations for everything we believe, as if it is possible to reduce human understanding to what we can articulate; as if we do not know more than we can tell.

I know this subtle little trick, which amounts to a rather big lie, has happened largely unconsciously and this is why it needs to be spelled out. It needs to be spelled out because rational knowledge has its limits. Conclusions arrived at by individuals alone or even by groups of individuals who agree with the same ideological premises are not always right; they can, in fact, be horribly wrong. It is possible, in fact, to reason ourselves into believing lies.

The thing that tradition does, and the thing that prejudice does at its root, is act as immunity against potentially destructive outside forces. It manifests a connection with the past and it is always out of the past that we gain our handle on reality. In fact, part of what I’m doing here is to note that the prejudice against prejudice also has a history. It is not some new idea that emerged only when the Rainbow Bolsheviks got hold of mainstream media and global corporations and turned the world into a paradise for oppression-junkies. There was a setup and that setup, although rooted in a very human tendency to be self-deceived, was most clearly established during the Enlightenment. Behold, the triumph of methodology over reality!

Of course, a prejudice may very well turn out to be wrong in one way or another. But to simply discard it, out of hand and without any considered thought, is equal to destroying the possibility of understanding. We cannot get rid of bias although we can try to understand what biases we have. Anyway, now, as I’ve said, prejudice is typically regarded as any reified fear of the other; of some outgroup. This is captured in the usual leftist terms of excommunication; terms that destroy any possibility of discussion and debate, like racist, homophobic, transphobic, and the like. But this reified fear of the other is not the chief function of prejudice in our lives, as the very prejudice against prejudice shows us. The chief function of prejudice is to safeguard our connection with tradition.

We all carry with us a historically affected consciousness. We are enworlded beings, and to resist our sense of enworldedness is to deny ourselves something that is fundamental to our nature. Automatically dismissing prejudice, as if it is actually possible to be unbiased, is to place us entirely at the mercy of any ideology that happens to come along to grab our interest. This is partly why we find ourselves living in a world of alternative facts and not just varying opinions. It is not because we have biases but because we are not allowed to have biases that this has happened. If you’re not allowed to have biases you won’t even bother to understand your own biases, your own prejudices, or your own connection with the past. Prejudice is an immune system. It may work too well and it may even fail but it is often, if not always, there to defend what we, by our very nature, are. It is there to defend us against harmful, often stupid and irrational, ideas. It is there to force us to pause and question and not merely absorb whatever the latest ideological fad happens to be. Automatically discarding prejudice on the assumption that our individual rationality, with all of its blindspots, is sufficient to protect us, is already a form of self-harm. We need something that causes us to hesitate.

A silly but not irrelevant analogy may help. There’s a tradition, one that many of us take absolutely for granted, that says that jumping off a cliff is bad for your health, so no one really does it. But it’s not hard to imagine that some progressive prophet might show up and say, “You people are just prejudiced! You’re cliffjumpophobic! The thing needs to be tested by experiment and experience because this is what anti-patriarchal freedom demands!” The person with a prejudice should stop and question this: “Perhaps I am wrong? Maybe the prophet is right? But wait! What would be the implications of accepting this?” But the aim of the prophet is to remove this prejudice as quickly as possible. It’s too inconvenient when one wants to spark a revolution. The prophet, this brattish postmodern child of the Englightenment, might thus more easily fuel a mass movement in favour of jumping off cliffs just to spite the traditionalists. Jumping off cliffs might become very popular, in fact. Some people would stubbornly hold to the tradition and their prejudice, of course, but increasingly the cliff-jumping club would get bigger and bigger.

The progressive phenomenon might take over the media and spark a strong rivalry between leftists who support self-injury in the name of freedom and rightists who get called fascists for not agreeing with the beliefs of those leftists. But eventually, after some deaths and maiming and a lot of irreversible damage, the inevitable discovery will be made. Jumping off cliffs, it will turn out, is really quite bad for your health after all. Unfortunately, this would happen only after the sport has become a veritable tradition of its own. The prejudice against cliff jumping will give way to a prejudice against the prejudice against cliff jumping; and undoing the latter will be very difficult because no one will be allowed to admit that it is, in fact, a prejudice. Contesting it would get you cancelled or fired—or worse. I know, it’s a silly story, but the point is that prejudice may turn out, as often is the case, to be the distillation of a long process of human beings having already figured out how things work. To assume that our forebears never tested and pushed any boundaries is to make a gross misjudgment about human nature. It is the height of Enlightenment arrogance.

And so, I return to Burke. Burke argued that prejudice is precisely what I have said it is. He argued for defending those beliefs that social beings have that gesture towards their rootedness within a social and historical world. Most of our beliefs, as it turns out, may not be so easily justifiable. We often don’t have good reasons for believing what we do even if we believe what is true. This doesn’t mean we should jump at any opportunity to adopt the abstractions of philosophers, or social media posters, to replace those beliefs. It also doesn’t mean we have to have a good reason for having prejudice. What justifies a prejudice, in fact, is not our own personal reasons for it but the fact that it is socially and historically situated.

Take, for example, prejudice around sexual relations. Various societies have various approaches to how the sexes should relate to each other but there are some general features that societies share. Historically speaking, the demand placed on men has been for them to be chivalrous while the demand placed on women has been for them to be modest; moreover, sexual union has needed to be socially negotiated, often via various very complicated processes. Any anthropologist studying different human cultures would say that such things make good sense. The general stability of societies and the happiness of people in their partnerships and the wellbeing of their children depend on carefully built rules of engagement. But the prejudice that maintains all that is good here is actually not so easy to defend because it is rooted in a profoundly embodied sense of honour and shame.

But now all of this is a mere prejudice, isn’t it? And so rationalists and sexual liberators have squeezed this prejudice through their deworlded filter and arrived at the entirely disembodied conclusion that the best thing is for individuals to do whatever they want, as long as others consent to their perversions. We have technologies like pills and baby murder to help us mitigate the most visible consequences of this, to hell with the emotional and spiritual consequences, so that’s fine, right? But now that we live in a time in which the sexes almost universally don’t trust each other even to the point where political polarisation is taking place around sexual differences, where children of single parents are simply at much greater risk of depression and suicide than their counterparts, it’s starting to look like that old prejudice was a good thing. Only, now, many of us must make our way in the world without it. By the way, Mary Harrington’s brilliant book Feminism Against Progress (2023) deals with this topic in much greater detail and is highly worth reading. Louise Perry’s excellent The Case Against the Sexual Revolution (2022) is another. Reactionary feminists like Harrington and Perry are finding language to recover some healthy prejudices.

The need for doing so is very pressing. The prejudice against prejudice, as I’ve said, is most obvious in language. In an article for Blaze Media, Auron MacIntyre recently pointed out a rather odd thing evident in progressive journalism. “To the progressive journalist,” writes MacIntyre, “drinking milk and working out are dangerous signals of racial hatred, but a song openly calling for genocide is simply a quaint little ditty that should not be taken too seriously.” MacIntyre is referencing the furore that arose around the South-African-born American Elon Musk’s post about the fact that Julius Malema and his communist party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, have been chanting and singing about killing farmers and so “openly pushing for [the] genocide of white people in South Africa.” Progressive journalists, well-schooled in the rhetoric of obfuscation, did whatever they could with this news to avoid suggesting that there is an actual problem in South Africa that needs to be faced and addressed. They could have very easily looked into the actual story to find the horror that lurks in it; the horrifying truth being that white farmers are really attacked so frequently and murdered so brutally as to make Jack the Ripper’s destruction of his victims seem kind. It may be a complex issue with varying perspectives but just dismissing it as merely metaphorical is not just dimwitted and ignorant but morally corrupt.

Still, I see the dilemma of progressive journalists. No one wants to seem racist so they’d rather be quiet about Malema’s and his party’s less than wholesome intentions. This, at least, is a generous reading of what may be a rather layered set of intentions. Here the prejudice against prejudice fails to make an obvious distinction. While it is clearly right not to judge a person on his appearance, it is certainly still wrong to call for the murder of a white minority group in South Africa. It is not racist to say so just as it is not sexist to point out that it is wrong for a woman to verbally abuse every man she meets. But the prejudice against prejudice has created both the desire to call everyone you don’t like a fascist and the desire to suggest that anyone on your team is a lovely human being who can do no wrong. In other words, it has condoned a simplistic and utterly false way of looking at the world, as divided into a simple us and them dichotomy, with the goodies on one side and the baddies on the other. The prejudice against prejudice has created this very eventuality.

The prejudice against prejudice, far from calling for rigorous and careful reasoning and careful distinctions, ultimately amounts to destroying any and all discernment. It produces a formula through which reality must be filtered, and that formula is wrong. It’s the formula that, as my friend Sam Buntz has said, ensures that leftists can “hear someone advocate reading great books, and, through their own inscrutable hermeneutics, interpret it as a call to genocide entire continents.” It also ensures, as I would contend, that leftists will hear someone on their team advocate for genocide, and, through their own hermeneutics, interpret it as harmless lyricism. Many speak of political correctness gone mad for good reason but what is seldom noticed and called out is the ultimate result of failing to correct this madness. A person, educated or indoctrinated out of believing in basic truths, may accidentally support the next Hitler or Stalin because he doesn’t want to say that calling for the murder of white people is wrong or that looting is wrong or that it is wrong to force people to put pronouns in their email signatures. It is clearly wrong to destroy real experiences in the name of abstractions and homogenising rhetoric.

But this destruction of discernment happens at a very subtle, everyday level too. People talk about their partners instead of their husbands and wives, out of some fear that they may seem homophobic. People merrily adopt the self-identifications of others out of a fear of offending. As Adam Ellwanger writes, a person isn’t crippled or handicapped but disabled, or, better, a person with a disability; you won’t hear people talking about illegal aliens or undocumented migrants so much but it’s fine, for now, if they speak of migrant workers; and it’s definitely not PC to talk about hookers and prostitutes because they’re now sex workers.

Again, this seems, on the surface, to be about being nice. We don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. And maybe that’s not necessarily a terrible motivation. I’ll grant that some sensitivity is good as long as that sensitivity is not about lying. But as Ellwanger points out, what’s beneath the manipulation of language and rhetoric used to break so-called stigmas is the deeper issue of manipulating how we see reality. In fact, often avoiding reality to serve those in power is the aim. This is a natural consequence of severing our ties with tradition. “No one” wants to be viewed as impolite and rude, says Ellwanger, “so many people fall into line. They use the new words, but in so doing, they help give birth to the world that the liberals and leftists demand: one with a language without truth, a society without stigma, and a world full of the dysfunction and suffering that necessarily follows.”

Newspeak can be powerful, especially when it seems to describe reality but subtly obscures or removes certain aspects from view, such that we may fail to know precisely what is true or right or noble or good. This has long been a strategy of many on the left, who have been fond of using ad hominems to dismiss conservatives—far-right, fascist, and so on—but seem to never feel burdened to explain what they think it means to be conservative or upon what reasoning their judgments are based. For a long time, the modern left has been fighting ghosts like structural oppression, structural racism, material forces, ideological superstructures, truth procedures, the big Other, commodity fetishism, the patriarchy, and the like. And it is tempting to give into this worldview because it is so pervasive. And yes, this has been pushed by the left. Anyone in academia who isn’t a leftist knows this, and many who are leftists, like Slavoj Žižek, know it too. We see it everywhere in mainstream media, which has a massively liberal bias.

It is for this reason, as Roger Scruton says in the book I mentioned above, that our main task, the task of everyone I believe but especially those on the right who do not like the oppressor-oppressed dialectic of leftists, is to recover the real power of language, which is not to seek power, as suggested by Derrida’s malicious notion of phallogocentrism, but to seek understanding. Language is meant to reveal, to clarify, and to explain. Language that merely manipulates is bad language. Recovering language may mean using difficult words sometimes. It may mean saying things in a lengthy fashion and not in soundbites. The only way to be right is to speak the truth and to debate where we may have gone wrong in our understanding of it. And the truth is that the truth isn’t always easy to figure out or easy to hear. Sometimes, the truth is in a prejudice, like the prejudice against jumping off cliffs and getting very, very badly hurt.