Friday, July 27, 2007

Acceptable Prejudices?

Are there acceptable prejudices? Should some be acceptable? Is it merely "politically correct" to speak about the unacceptability of prejudices? These questions cannot be answered without recognizing the impact upon them of the Reagan-Thatcher era, begun 38 years ago now.

Such a perspective is missing in what started as a post by the Raven Maven, followed by a trail of comments and blogposts, rounding up with Chani's own very good essay pointing to the issue at hand. (Pity I wouldn't be welcome at BlogHer to meet all these bloggers, if I could even go.)

We cannot even begin to ponder these questions, and why these questions arise, without stopping to consider the mindset that led that great liberal Richard Nixon to issue Executive Order 11478 in 1969.

The order expanded Lyndon Johnson's EO 11246, which among other things, required all government contractors to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, color, religion, sex or national origin." Nixon made it apply to the government itself.

That's the origin of the affirmative action policy, which began to be attacked as the very essence of "political correctness" in the Reagan-Thatcher era.

The premise of the attack was that discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin -- now illegal -- had ended and that prejudice was a thing of the past. People arguing for respect toward human diversity were simply attempting Orwellian thought control and the banning of free speech.

Yet here comes Chani to tell us that not only is prejudice alive and well, but it is applied to people well beyond the categories allegedly protected by law -- the biases Randy Newman meant to expose in his song Short People. He goes from "Short people got no reason
to live" to "Short people got no reason to love."

Now isn't that the story of all of us?

Indeed, in this arena George Orwell is famously misunderstood about his grasp of the political weight -- in the broadest sense -- of language. He explains this in an essay I give to read to every reporter I hire: Politics and the English Language.

Let's break it down another way. Prejudice (from the Latin prae-, before, plus judicium, legal proceeding) is, in essence, to judge before the facts are in for reasonable evaluation.

We all prejudge many things. We prejudge that there will be a tomorrow because there was a yesterday, for example, even though strictly speaking we don't actually know there will be a tomorrow. That's a reasonable prejudgment, nonetheless, since experience provides us a mountain of facts; but it's what Francis Bacon called an incomplete induction, even if it is the basis of science.

With people, however, especially people who are not like ourselves, of whom we don't really have a huge experience, or whom we don't really know, we develop biases. We are even biased for or against people we know well: the favorite child or niece who is always expected to get A's or the spouse or lover whose thoughts and next word we sometimes think we know.

The problem with voicing or acting on these biases is that they can be mistaken and that someone will get hurt as a result for no good reason.

Can we reasonably hold it against (or in favor of) someone being born into a rich family, with a constitution that tends toward becoming overweight, possessing gray matter that spins at many terahertzes faster than the average computer chip, let alone characteristics such as color, ethnicity, sex or national origin? (We do know, don't we, that "race" does not scientifically exist?)

Can we be so certain that what we intuit or guess -- and I am an intuitive, say the tests -- is correct enough to risk causing another person pain? Even if it were correct, would it be worth it?

Just because being overweight is a factor in disease and even death, does that mean that people who are heavy deserve to be called names? Has anyone lost weight, become beautiful, smarter, whiter -- characteristics associated with success -- because of insults?

The term "politically correct," however, in its post-Reagan-Thatcher usage is all about ridiculing these questions as inane.

The concern about the alleged shackles of keeping to what's PC is really about denying that our societies remain mired in prejudices, biases and discriminatory speech and action -- it's too "PC," after all, to note that women earn less than men or blacks less than whites, and that this is not just happenstance but by social design.

Yes, and it's too PC to note that tall, thin people fare better in the job market, therefore financially, therefore romantically and generally in many aspects of human fulfillment. The tall, thin guys -- and I'm tall -- get the bucks, the gals and the happiness. Or was Robert Redford, as a star, plump and short? Isn't Danny DeVito cast as merely a modern buffoon?

That is why I am less concerned with whether something is politically correct than whether it is philosophically true and valid. There are no prejudices that are ever fully acceptable to any thinking group of human beings.

We should be curious and brave enough to submit all our prejudices to critical reason, and our reasons to our heart and our hearts to purity of will.

(This post is retroactively part of Julie Pippert's Hump Day Hmm and BlogRhet's "Let's Talk About Race, Baby" week long initiative.)

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Fabulous blog. Fodder for hours of thought and conversation.

Geneviève said...
This comment has been removed by the author.