Thursday, 13 August 2009

On The Inevitability & Necessity Of "Prejudice"


The public furore this past week over the issue of ‘hate speech’ following comments made on a blog by diplomat Kuo Kuan Ying, has been rather unsatisfactory.

Now I in no way condone the remarks of Kuo Kuan Ying, however prejudice per se is not always the social evil it is frequently and wrongly portrayed to be. Prejudice is a necessary aspect of everyday thinking and acting without which risk-management (and with it therefore, personal independence) would become impossible. Many women, for example, are prejudiced against jogging in poorly lit parks at night. Some people are prejudiced against taking a ride in a taxi, given that there are no rear seat belts and that driving standards in Taiwan are poor. However, these prejudices have a rational basis in the known facts of reality. To publicly reject prejudice is to publicly reject the rationality of everyday life.

Second, the notion that all people are born equal and should therefore respect one another completely disregards the fact that all people do not remain equal and that some commit themselves to crimes – to take but one example. Am I bound to respect mass-murderers, or serial killers, or rapists or petty thieves or paedophiles? Of course not! To do so would be to destroy the very notion of respect itself. Respect – like love – can only be earned by action aimed at realising certain values shared between two or more people. This is not a trivial playing with semantics – words denote concepts and public misuse of them is an offense against the human capacity for reason.

Third, it is not respect but the matter of civility of tone and tolerance in people’s dealings with one another that is important to the wider context of political freedom of speech. I may tolerate one who holds and expresses views different from mine provided he extends the same tolerance to me – but that does not imply that I owe him respect or that he owes me any respect. Thus both he and I ought to be free to express our valuations and prejudices against one another as much as we jolly well like. In a democratic society however, there is a peculiar problem with that. Rather than resolving conflicts of value by reason, trade and peaceful social cooperation, the mechanism of majoritarian rule, the essential feature of democracy, only works because there are prejudices and conflicts of value. A democratic society does not resolve conflicts of value between people or groups of people – it merely contains them in a pressurised form between election cycles, with each political coalition longing for the chance to impose their values and prejudices on all the others. Thus, prejudice and conflicts of value – whether rational or irrational – are vital to the life of a democracy, and that is a terrible corrosive acid to a civilized life of reason, trade and peaceful social cooperation.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Fagan

(Sent: Sunday March 29th. Published in the Taipei Times: Wednesday April 1st 2009)