Roger’s Rules

In praise of prejudice or, Scientific American gets softening of the brain

Once upon a time, Scientific American was a great way for humanists–a fancy name for the scientifically illiterate–to keep up with what was happening in the world of science. The magazine was wide-ranging, deep enough to be respectable but written for the interested layman. Above all it everywhere displayed a contagious curiosity about the natural world. In recent years, alas, it has been more and more infected by the virus of political correctness. The April 2008 issue contains a particularly silly article that illustrates the problem. It’s called “Buried Prejudice: The Bigot in Your Brain” (h/t the always excellent Arts & Letters Daily). The author, Siri Carpenter, accurately notes that all of us “unwittingly hold an astounding assortment of stereotypical beliefs and attitudes about social groups: black and white, female and male, elderly and young, gay and straight, fat and thin.” But instead of asking what that tells us about the reality of human nature–and by extension, what it tells us about the reality of the world that human nature is responding to–Carpenter launches into an extended liberal-guilt dance about the persistence of “implicit bias.” “Deep within our subconscious,” a bold-faced description of the article reads, “all of us harbor biases that we consciously abhor. And the worst part is: we act on them.”

But what if we didn’t act on them? Carpenter begins this threnody by quoting Jesse Jackson’s famous–or infamous, depending on the depth of one’s commitment to liberal orthodoxy–admission that when he walks down the street and hears footsteps behind him, he is relieved when he looks around and sees somebody white. Carpenter is aghast at the prejudice Jackson’s comment betrays. She laments “a basic fact of our social existence, one that even a committed black civil-rights leader cannot escape,” namely that “ideas that we may not endorse—for example, that a black stranger might harm us but a white one probably would not—can nonetheless lodge themselves in our minds and, without our permission or awareness, color our perceptions, expectations and judgments.”

Carpenter is horrified that even Jesse Jackson–Jesse Jackson!–should be tainted by the sin of prejudice. But let’s step back a moment and examine the word “prejudice.” At least since John Stuart Mill, we have been encouraged to associate prejudice with ignorance and bigotry. How many teachers, in primary and secondary schools as well as colleges, regard it their first duty to relieve their students of “prejudice.” But prejudice does not have to mean bigotry or ignorance. It can also mean the repository of moral, social, and intellectual wisdom represented by custom, habit, and tradition.

This was something that Edmund Burke, for example, saw clearly. “Prejudice,” Burke wrote, “renders a man’s virtue his habit. . . . Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.” In seeking to relieve us of prejudice, well-meaning liberals also seek to relieve us of those unspoken commitments that families and churches have painstakingly sought to instill. That indeed is one reason parents are right to be suspicious of teachers who promise to “emancipate” their students from prejudice. What that often means in practice is emancipating them from the moral and religious precepts they have been brought up on. It is a form of social engineering brought into the classroom and carried out by the same wretched people who think that “it takes a village” to educate our children.

Let us grant that there are such things as stultifying homogeneity and ignorant bigotry. That is not at issue. The point is that there is also such a thing as groundless diversity which just might pose a much more serious threat to our society today than prejudice. In order to be meaningful, diversity must rest on a common moral, social, and intellectual culture. Without that common ground, diversity rapidly degenerates into mere tribalism. Dialogue requires not only diversity but also devotion to shared principles.

There are basically two problems with the sort of programmatic “non-biased” approach to the world that Siri Carpenter extols. One is that it systematically discounts the advantages of that “just prejudice” Burke commends to our attention. The second, and in some ways more serious, problem is its implicit utopianism. I note from her personal web page that Carpenter advertizes the fact that she contributes “5 percent or more of my profits to various non-profit, philanthropic organizations.” It’s nice that she makes the contributions. I trust that I am not alone in finding the public declaration slightly emetic. Carpenter wishes the world were a certain way. Alas, the world refuses to cooperate. What if Jesse Jackson’s reaction was rational, i.e., a reasonable inference from the available evidence? What then?