on October 6, 2007
"I know I'm prejudiced in this matter," Mark Twain once announced, quickly adding, "But I'd be ashamed of myself if I weren't." In a similar vein, Theodore Dalrymple in this clever series of short essays looks at the curious reprobative force directed in our time against such words as "prejudice," "discrimination," and "judgmental." Through his knowledge of cultural history and his excellent rhetorical skills of concession and rebuttal, Dalrymple makes wholly clear his own disassociation from any of the mean-spirited, invidious behaviors these words, used negatively, quite rightly condemn. At the same time, he shows how our wholesale abandonment of any positive connotations for such words is a failure in analysis, a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Looking at the "thoughts" of contemporary men in the street, he sees, sadly, the unintended, distorted consequences of Descartes' and John Stuart Mill's thinking, as it has filtered down to the masses. It would appear from their defiant bumper stickers and proffered rationalizations for bad behavior that contemporary men have become largely their own carvers. Shrewdly and wittily, Dalrymple asks whether thinking out everything for ourselves each day, while rejecting the past and all authority - such modern men's apparent social "philosophy" - is, in fact, a societal ideal of any real worth, or just a ground for social deterioration. Should every person take nothing on authority to the point of daily reinventing the wheel? Should the mind of an adult be just a perpetual tabula rasa? Dalrymple thinks, in our commendable zeal not to be unduly narrow or overlook any new evidence, we may have forgotten the difference between being genuinely open-minded and being merely empty-headed. Preconceived ideas, from which many of us shy away, he sees as necessary to genuine adults, who, through education and experience, have become "fixed in principle." Consequently, they approach experience, sifting the new or presumably new, not as intellectual zeroes, but as persons "who see more because they stand on the shoulders of giants."
on October 5, 2007
In the late 1950s in high school it was for me the easily accessable "The True Believer" by Eric Hoffer. Today in my late 60' it's Theodore Dalrymple's "In Praise of Prejudice - the Necessity of Preconceived Ideas." Seldom have I seen so much wisdom in so few pages. Any three page chapter condenses the wisdom of a bookshelf of more wordy and tedious works.
And such great sentences. After a short introduction to a ten line extract from Rene Descartes, Dalrymple opens the next chapter with this marvelious sentence: "We may inquire why it is that there are now so many Descartes in the world, when in the seventeenth century there was only one." The explanation of this sentence and its consequences proceeds. The last sentence of this two page chapter goes: "Then all the resources of philosophy are available to them [skeptics] in a flash, and are used to undermine the moral authority of custom, law, and the wisdom of ages."
The book requires careful reading and attention as each sentence must be intellectually unpacked but it is worth it. So much insight and so much wisdom for so few dollars.
Theodore Dalrymple is probably the best essayist since George Orwell. He is always a treat to read and rarely disappoints. In IN PRAISE OF PREJUDICE, Dalrymple uses his keen wit and insight, combines it with his characteristic ability to illuminate with some of the best writing around, and focuses these on an issue long in need of some plain common sense - the issue of prejudice.
In modern America (and probably many other parts of the Western world), the term prejudice has become so ridiculously linked with a negative connotation that it takes courage simply to write a book with this title. Yet as Dalrymple demonstrates, prejudice is not only warranted in our daily lives, it is necessary. Our world is so large and complex that anyone attempting to live his life by only believing those things which he himself has proven to be true, without influence of others, i.e. without prejudice, would be too crippled to perform even the most rudimentary functions in our society.
IN PRAISE OF PREJUDICE is broken down into small chapters exploring the necessity of prejudice, the inability to truly rid oneself of it (as removing one prejudice would simply lead to a new one) and the folly of even attempting to do so. Dalrymple makes an excellent point that removing one prejudice does not, ipso facto, lead to some better outcome. Often, indeed usually, the results of abandoning prejudices lead to a worsening of some situation or another. After all, there is a good reason why prejudices in favor of our own families, against sexual promiscuity and so forth, developed in the first place.
Given this, it is, Dalrymple convincingly argues, nothing short of cruel to fail to instill various prejudices in people from an early age. From his work as a physician in a prison and a slum hospital, Dalrymple saw all too often and all too clearly the human price paid when people make their own rules without regard to what others think. It is those prejudices regarding our own behavior that makes society liveable and breaking them down does no one any favors.
Of course, Dalrymple acknowledges that some prejudices are indeed bad and have led to a great deal of turmoil. But the question is rightly what is the burden of examination. Although prejudices regarding how to live our lives must be explored, they should not be rejected wholesale. Indeed, such an attitude is itself a prejudice - one against prejudice itself.
IN PRAISE OF PREJUDICE is, like all of Dalrymple's books, extremely insightful as to its subject matter. Those who stand against prejudice usually do so with nothing more than the most superficial reasoning behind their stance. Nonetheless, such a position has become dominant in our zeitgeist. Dalrymple brings some much welcome analysis and clear thinking to the table and it is quite refreshing to read.
on October 24, 2007
Who in today's world would dare admit to being prejudiced? Not many. In the modern mind, to be prejudiced is to be racist, narrow-minded and backward. We are all supposed to be free-thinkers, to question everything we have been taught, to own our mind as completely as one would a home of his own construction. But this is simply not possible. No person can question everything and rethink, from first principles, all of their beliefs. Prejudice (the acceptance of inherited ideas as truth without questioning them) is a fact of human life (for both good and bad) and always will be. Why, then, do modern people insist on believing in an idea that, because it is impossible, requires intellectual dishonesty?
Dalrymple points out the real reason behind the modern popularity of the idea of the totally free-thinking individual: we don't want any restrictions on our actions but rather complete license to do whatever we please. The modern embrace of the pure rationalism championed by the likes of Descartes and Mill is simply an excuse for a philosophical disputatiousness that rejects all authority regarding moral behavior, whether that authority is religion, history or social convention. Custom and etiquette are diminished, and society thus loses important regulators of anti-social behavior, whether it's illegitimacy or littering. Without self-policing of one's behavior, the law is the only force that can mediate the resulting rights conflicts, and thus it should not be surprising that the government's power grows to the point of authoritarianism.
In essence, this book is a philosophical distillation of the ideas behind Theodore Dalrymple's most well-known books: namely, that modern Western intellectuals (and the general public who have been persuaded by them) have gone too far in their embrace of rationalism and have thus used the power of reason to overturn long-held ideas that were both true and necessary for a healthy society.
In this work, Dalrymple doesn't linger on the negative repercussions of all this intellectual foolishness to the same extent as he did in the essays collected in "Life at the Bottom" and "Our Culture, What's Left of It", and thus this book is not quite as voyeuristically entertaining. The purpose of many of those earlier essays was to show modern intellectuals how their rejection of traditional beliefs have made the lives of the lower classes a living hell. While he does discuss illegitimacy and teenage pregnancy in this book, he also explores less gruesome repercussions, such as passengers putting their feet on the seats in trains and people dressing informally at funerals. Most interesting to me was his "Law of Conservation of Righteous Indignation" and his discussion of how there is often no good philosophical justification for social limits we all know are desirable.
Dalrymple has often been criticized for not providing more solutions, an unfair criticism in my eyes, since after all, isn't it obvious? Here, he provides solutions more overtly by advocating not a complete rejection of rationalism (how could any philosopher--and that's what Dalrymple is--do so?) but simply more humility and more respect for traditional prejudices. That doesn't make things easy. As always, those seeking some airtight and foolproof "decision tree" will be disappointed. As Dalrymple says, "It takes judgement to know when prejudice should be maintained and when abandoned". Judgement is something I believe we've forgotten in our rush to overturn the idea of prejudice.
Like "Life at the Bottom" and "Our Culture, What's Left of It", "In Praise of Prejudice" is a fascinating look at the underlying philosophy of the contemporary Western world. You can't understand the modern Western mind without understanding the ideas expressed in these books.
on March 3, 2008
Well, Dr. Dalrymple is to me at any rate. I would place him solidly on my list of top five writers without any question. Indeed, I probably will read anything he ever writes on any subject. Yes, I agree with the other reviewers that this book is too short, but, being that it is part of a series called "Brief Encounters," this is to be expected.
Here our eminent retired psychiatrist demolishes a major cornerstone of political correctness. Specifically, it is the mandate that we be non-judgmental in regards to everyone and everybody--with the exception of those who are judgmental or prejudicial, of course. In their case, no fate is too severe. Dr. Dalrymple argues convincingly that a life without preconception is an impossibility; just as is truth without presupposition. To display prejudice once meant an individual had discernment, but now it means one has a variety of PC ism.
The influence of the sensitivity-at-all-costs gang has altered the world irreparably and for the worse. Dr. Dalrymple showcases this eventuality within a myriad of contexts. One of which is unconventionality which once equated with individuals being... unconventional. Yet now, the label has morphed into a compliment. This has led the avant-garde to undergo "the equivalent of an arms race," becoming more and more outlandish in order to satisfy the needs of their social clique. They always forget the truism that the only thing which never changes is the avant-garde.
No longer are politeness and civility integral to functional social relations. Making a spectacle of oneself in public can be lamentable but is deemed a sign of honesty and sincerity. No matter how out-of-control the person who "loses it" becomes his tantrum elucidates how true he is to his feelings. Asking him to show restraint would rob him of authenticity.
Numerous ornate phrases bejewel In Praise of Prejudice and my own favorite is "The Law of Conservation of Righteous Indignation." Dr. Dalrymple posits that a free-floating, constant mass of indignation among populations may be as intrinsic to humanity as our lust for fat and salt. We find that as old prejudices dissipate, new ones form to become repositories of animus. Tobacco is a perfect example. Once it was regarded merely as a vice but now outrage over its usage unites our elites. Our leaders then spray their sanctimonious acrimony upon the demon weed and whoever is foolish enough to pay the exorbitant taxes that allow them to smoke it. Yes, this is a brief encounter with Dr. Dalrymple, but, as always, it is one that leaves readers vastly enriched.
on February 2, 2008
Theodore Dalrymple is a moral essayist of generally very high standard, and although I would argue this isn't his best work, In Praise of Prejudice is a fundamental read regarding one of the most pressing issues of our time. To be more specific it is really a single essay in 29 parts that is a response to current trends in post-modern thought which have more than certainly influenced the bastions of our governance and culture, and from there have radiated into many slices of society if not all. The post modern quest to eliminate the sway of pre-conceived ideas is evident in the transmogrification of the word discrimination from the highest ideal of cultivated intelligence to one connotative of debased hatred, the narrowing of the concept of prejudice to negative prejudice only -in the colloquial sense-, and the esteem with which people boast of their "non-judgmentalism" as a badge of distinction and honor.
However Mr. Dalrymple argues persuasively that the elimination of traditional prejudice has not unlocked the human fulfillment of all desires so promised by the movement's godfathers, John Stuart Mill, Rousseau, and Bertrand Russell amongst the most luminary. Rather, pre-conceived notions are inexorably present in human nature, and cannot be eliminated but to be immediately, if unconsciously, replaced by others. The shedding of the accumulation of the wisdom of mankind (painfully imperfect as man himself and permanently tainted with Original Sin) has instead been replaced by a more feral nihilism and egotism, with moral squalor the result, and in the resulting chaotic (and "empty-headed" as opposed to open minded as one reviewer puts it so well) quest to slake all human desires fewer are sated and society is worse off overall.
A few drawbacks deny a fifth star to this otherwise elegant, concise, fundamental and compelling expose on the nature and necessity of morality and the pre-conceived notions it rests on. Sometimes the author can meander off into the bizarre and trivial simulated Socratic dialogues to make a point, such as his made up argument with someone who believes the Pacific Ocean is made of brie. Other times his chain of thought can have some ghostly thin links. Last he can sometimes write some very overly punctuated and confusing sentences.
Despite these flaws this is a book that is important to read and understand, although very high-brow which may put off a lot of readers. A civilization based on freedom and liberty depends on the authority of the morality of its citizens lest it devolve to the basis of authoritarian government to compensate for that morality's evaporation. Theodore Dalrymple shows that the morality necessary for freedom rests on prejudices, which must be evaluated, reviewed and improved as time progresses, but which not only can not but should not be eliminated in spite of their inherent imperfectability.
on November 3, 2007
Much of the criticism directed here against this witty and insightful short work laments that it elaborates the obvious. Such critics of it are, of course, to be commended for their own prior level-headedness, while at the same time they should realize they're overlooking Dalrymple's argument that large sections of the media and academe have in our day genuinely lost sight of the obvious. And the obvious, as the aphorism has it, is the hardest thing to point out to people who've genuinely lost sight of it. Even Socrates recognized that people more often need to be reminded than, in the fashion of the Sophists, newly instructed. I add C.S.Lewis' sobering insight that even God didn't bother to be original.
Some of the hostility toward this book seems motivated, as well, by a simplistic religious fundamentalism, since it's true Dalrymple declares himself a non-believer. But he who is not against you is with you, as the Bible asserts. By all means read Burke and Kierkegaard, but I suspect each of these old worthies would have seen the basic thrust in Dalrymple, as in Plato, is in the direction of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
on June 23, 2008
Dalrymple's In Praise of Prejudice, subtitled The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, tackles a seemingly settled subject, prejudice. Who could possibly be in favor of prejudice? He starts by acknowledging that the word prejudice has assumed horrible connotations: "To hate, despise, depreciate, or discriminate against someone merely because he belongs to a certain racial group." Nevertheless, he reminds readers that prejudice--in the sense of predispositions or preconceptions--is absolutely necessary to human thought and to social progress. One generation builds on the progress of previous generations by taking for granted the discoveries of the past. Neither of these two propositions seems particularly startling, so it is fair to ask, "Why should I read this book?"
Is the author's point merely to show some useful sides of prejudice? No! He has a far more ambitious goal; he demonstrates that Western society's fear of--and reaction against--prejudice has encouraged moral, ethical, and social breakdown by undermining our judgments, weakening our institutions, and making us susceptible to totalitarian fixes. He tackles this thesis from many angles. Chapter five, for example, is about childrearing and education. By trying to ensure that we leave children free from our prejudices, we lose site of the dividing lines between infancy and childhood, childhood and adolescence, and adolescence and adulthood. Parents routinely ask their children's advice about things children know nothing relevant about. He mentions the grocery store, where parents quiz their kids about what they want to eat. We have all seen the result: "in the absence of experience, children will always choose the same thing, the thing that is most immediately attractive or gratifying to them." Then, society calls for government action to curb the childhood obesity crisis.
Parents' willingness to indulge their children has become something of a pet peeve with me. I see parents becoming short-order cooks at nearly every mealtime, their children getting veto power over whatever has been prepared, with unlimited special menus available to them. Such overindulgent mothers would respond to a husband's demand for unique, personal, impromptu meals with anger or even violence, but when little Johnny demands, the mother starts asking exactly how he'd like his order prepared. Dalrymple argues that this desire to keep our children free from our influence results in "arrested development." He observes that overindulgent parents accomplish something unintended: "A young child, constantly consulted over his likes and dislikes, learns that life is, and ought to be, ruled by his likes and dislikes. He is not free of prejudices just because he is free of his parents' prejudices. On the contrary, he is a slave to his own prejudices. Unfortunately, they are harmful both to him as an individual, and to the society of which he is a member."
While I thought that this book might have more cognitive science inside, perhaps more like one of Steven Pinker's, the lack of scientific rigor (footnotes and source citations are absent) is a reasonable sacrifice for such a readable book. I received the book on Friday and read it three times over the weekend. If you are looking for an enjoyable and thought-provoking book, you should order this little 126-page gem.
on January 6, 2008
"Is it not true that many prejudices are harmful, cruel, stupid, and vicious? Certainly it is. But... it does not follow that because some prejudices are harmful, we can do without prejudices altogether." In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas is an intellectual yet accessible essay by retired physician and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple, calling for a re-examination of the knee-jerk belief that every last form of prejudice is inherently bad. Dalrymple instead points out how, in some cases, prejudice is helpful or even necessary to survival. Thirteen-year-old girls are not old enough to fully understand the consequences and responsibility of having children, and some mistakenly choose to become pregnant in hope of having a baby to love; to protect them, it is vital to inculcate them with a prejudice against underage, out-of-wedlock pregnancy until they're old enough to make adult decisions. Many a battered woman has knowingly become involved with a man of bad reputation, in part because she didn't want to prejudge - and later she or her children paid the brutal price. A philosophical treatise that condemns racism and harmful prejudices, even as it observes a common human tendency to replace one prejudice with another as well as the necessity of pre-judgments and preconceived ideas to form any kind of moral system, even something as simple as "thou shalt not kill" (such a proscription against murder, for example, contains the preconceived idea that taking human life is a bad thing). Thoughtful and thought-provoking, "In Praise of Prejudice" is highly recommended reading.
on March 23, 2008
It is a rare book which requires reading without breaks. This was such a book. It helps that I am in agreement with the major points of the book! Prejudice many not be the best word to describe the expectations and common concepts and attitudes, but he major point is clear: we simply must have common ideas, customs and opinions in order to survive. It is impossible to picture a world where everybody is individual in the full meaning of the word. The present western culture is schizophrenic in a sense that we want to be individuals but at the same time long for community spirit and want to share our opinions. It is pathetic how much energy is used to be different than the others. Of course, it would be great if we could have an optimum level of "prejudice", but this seems to be impossible. This is one of the best books I have read lately.