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 system of logic will be disappointed. As Dalrymple says, “It takes judgment to know when prejudice should be maintained and when abandoned”.
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.