Thursday, December 20, 2007

Is Prejudice Ever Good?

A reader wrote to me yesterday with an interesting question. In my earlier post Random Quotations I listed this quote, attributed to Mark Twain: "I know that I am prejudiced on this matter, but I would be ashamed of myself if I were not."

The reader said that she was thinking of putting this quote on the wall at her work place, but wanted to know the context of the quote before venturing to do so.

Hm, I thought, I believe I know what you are thinking. It would be embarrassing to put the quote up and then a co-worker says something like "Say, don't you know it was racial prejudice he was defending?"

I looked at the source from which I got it, a review of the book In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, by conservative essayist Theodore Dalrymple on the web site of the conservative New English Review, but it was no help. It contained no indication of the source or context of the quote.

The idea that prejudice can be good is an occasional theme of American conservative essayists going at least as far back as the title essay of Richard Weaver's Life Without Prejudice and Other Essays (1965).

[Disclaimer: I didn't post those quotations because I agree with them. I was commenting on their literary qualities, not their truth or falsity.]

After more searching, I eventually did find the source. The quote is from The Innocents Abroad, chapter: "The Ascent of Vesuvius, Continued." It was slightly misquoted, which was what made it hard to find initially. Here is the passage from which it was taken:
And here, also, they used to have a grand procession, of priests, citizens, soldiers, sailors, and the high dignitaries of the City Government, once a year, to shave the head of a made-up Madonna--a stuffed and painted image, like a milliner's dummy -- whose hair miraculously grew and restored itself every twelve months. They still kept up this shaving procession as late as four or five years ago. It was a source of great profit to the church that possessed the remarkable effigy, and the ceremony of the public barbering of her was always carried out with the greatest possible eclat and display--the more the better, because the more excitement there was about it the larger the crowds it drew and the heavier the revenues it produced--but at last a day came when the Pope and his servants were unpopular in Naples, and the City Government stopped the Madonna's annual show.

There we have two specimens of these Neapolitans--two of the silliest possible frauds, which half the population religiously and faithfully believed, and the other half either believed also or else said nothing about, and thus lent themselves to the support of the imposture. I am very well satisfied to think the whole population believed in those poor, cheap miracles--a people who want two cents every time they bow to you,and who abuse a woman, are capable of it, I think.

These Neapolitans always ask four times as much money as they intend to
take, but if you give them what they first demand, they feel ashamed of themselves for aiming so low, and immediately ask more. When money is to be paid and received, there is always some vehement jawing and gesticulating about it. One can not buy and pay for two cents' worth of clams without trouble and a quarrel. One "course," in a two-horse carriage, costs a franc--that is law--but the hackman always demands more, on some pretence or other, and if he gets it he makes a new demand. It is said that a stranger took a one-horse carriage for a course --tariff, half a franc. He gave the man five francs, by way of experiment. He demanded more, and received another franc. Again he demanded more, and got a franc--demanded more, and it was refused. He grew vehement --was again refused, and became noisy. The stranger said, "Well, give me the seven francs again, and I will see what I can do"--and when he got them, he handed the hackman half a franc, and he immediately asked for two cents to buy a drink with. It may be thought that I am prejudiced.

Perhaps I am. I would be ashamed of myself if I were not.
So the prejudice involved was indeed racial prejudice.

Is there a moral here about the nature of prejudice?

A prejudice is, roughly speaking, an unjustified belief. To hold and act on such a belief is to act in blindness and thus increase the likelihood that (by your own standards) you will go wrong. If you do go wrong, you will be walking into a booby trap that you set for yourself. Kind of like the reviewer who did not check the source of this quote.

4 comments:

"Q" the Enchanter said...

"Is Prejudice *Ever* Good?" First, certain biases are almost always reliable (e.g., our bias in favor of object constancy), and far more cognitively efficient than case by case inquiry. ("Did the cat I witness go under the car persist spatiotemporally? Let me go check...")

Second, even a paradigmatically unreliable bias like racial prejudice might be at least justified in certain environmental milieus. In a prerational, tribal society, for instance, case-by-case assessments of outsiders would probably have been disastrous (not least because alternative, rational strategies did not obtain for assessing just which tribal outsiders constituted a threat). So a crude bias against those who look *other* (either on the basis of conspicuous phenotypic traits like skin color or on the basis of distinctive cultural markers like jewelry, scarification, body painting or dress) arguably would have been externally justified, even if though its judgments are grossly false-positive prone.

Besides which, anyone who's ever met a Neapolitan knows how untrustworthy they all are.

Lester Hunt said...

"q," I'm tempted to write a new post in response to the issues you raise. My own view is that, of the available beliefs on a given subject, one should always accept the one that is best supported by evidence. Prejudice would be (one way of?) persisting in a belief that is not the one best-supported. You raise two sorts of counterexamples. One is the class of beliefs (or principles or categories) that are so fundamental that there strictly speaking can be no "evidence" without them. Here I would say that my principle can still apply if we expand somewhat our notion of what can constitute "evidence." My notion that objects do not wink out of existence when I turn my back on them is in some way or other better supported than the alternatives. The other is a wide class of beliefs that relieve us of the necessity of further evidence-gathering, beyond a certain level of thoroughness. Here I would apply my principle at the meta-level: That I should not persist in gathering evidence beyond [insert magnitude indicator here] is best supported by the evidence. (I've know fellow hunter-gatherers who try to be fair an judge strangers by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, but oddly enough they are all dead.)

"Q" the Enchanter said...

As long as we're in agreement on the Neapolitans, Lester.

Roberto Cavalcanti said...

The value of a prejudice can be measure only in practice, not in theory. The value of a prejudice only has practical merit. It’s not in itself bad or good. It can be right or wrong, but we can’t know it, if it’s not yet a concept or something forthcoming.

Since the prejudice by itself has no positive or negative value, for it only has pratice value, we could put forth a simple example: we don’t go to certain place because we have the preconceived idea that is well know for the robberies that take place there. We don't know if we’ll be assaulted there, but it’s natural that we have the prejudice. If we’ll be robbed there or no, only in practice we’ll know. Other example: if you have two bottles of mineral water, one of known origin and another of uncertain origin, you will have some suspicion on the second. The relentless cries against every type of predetermined concepts is to undermine the instinct of self-conservation of the species, that is foundation of the natural law. So, to demonize the prejudice is the foolishest thing you could do.