Prejudice, n. A vagrant opinion without visible means of support. —Ambrose Bierce
A farmer who dwelt in my home town was once arrested on the streets of Rochester, New York, while looking up at a large building which he owned. He was wearing, at the time, knee-high boots with unmistakable traces of the barnyard on them, dirty Oshkosh-by-Goshes over a tattered flannel shirt, and an old railroad engineer’s cap. The charge was vagrancy. His son favored similar clothing. I helped to paint the old farmhouse when I was seventeen or eighteen, and I remember how shocked I was when Dad told me that old Everett could buy the whole town of Phelps with his pocket change. Their name was Mott, and various members of the extended family owned some grape juice, some automobile factories, natural gas, real estate in most major cities, and who knows what all.
One could say that this branch of the Motts, father and son, were “vagrant men with no visible means of support.” And easy, therefore, for a Rochester cop to look upon with a certain amount of “prejudice” as the old man stood on the street spitting tobacco with his thumbs linked through the bib overalls. They both, father and son, were graduates of New England prep schools and Williams College.
Prejudice is not to be mistaken for its verb cousin, “discriminate,” which the redoubtable Bierce defines as “To note the particulars in which one person or thing is, if possible, more objectionable than another.” Prejudice is apparently a rather unobjectionable fellow, compared with the one who discriminates, especially if he also is the black sheep of the family, “Bigot,” who is “obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.”
This all playful, of course. The Motts would not have a long stay in the pokey despite the “prejudice” and “discrimination” of the Rochester cop. It must be time, then, to offer the usual obligatory denial that there is anything either funny or redeeming about people who can accurately be described by any of these terms. But hold on, Imaginative Conservatives; while I am willing to let my friends Discriminate and Bigot sit in the corner and await their turns, I wish to say a few things on behalf of Prejudice, who is quite a necessary fellow.
Tocqueville observes that “Dogmatic beliefs are more or less numerous according to the times,” but there are always and everywhere dogmatic beliefs, “that is, opinions men receive on trust without discussing them.” “If man were forced to prove to himself all the truths he makes use of every day,” he goes on, “he would never finish; he would exhaust himself in preliminary demonstrations without advancing.” We all must count on what has come to us by one means or another: “There is no philosopher in the world so great that he does not believe a million things on faith in others or does not suppose many more truths than he establishes.” In other words, most of what we know (and how we act) is established by habits, customs, and prejudices; by things that come from authority outside ourselves and about which we do not have think.
He goes on to make a very important observation, and to argue it with some vigor–that in cultures and times of equality men are most resistant to admitting to authority outside themselves, or at least outside human beings in general. On the one hand, this can lead to the relativism we all know has dominated American thought since around 1900; on the other, it can lead to authority by majority. Only rarely does it take the form of adherence to authority from tradition.
Tocqueville was far from the only person to recognize the universality of dogmatic beliefs, or the necessity for prejudice. “‘Prejudice”–the half-intuitive knowledge that enables men to meet the problems of life without logic-chopping,” writes Russell Kirk (taking almost directly from Edmund Burke), along with “prescription” and “presumption,” “suffice to direct the individual conscience and conscript fathers. Without them, society can be saved from destruction only by force and master.” Even before Burke, Kirk quotes Chesterfield: “A prejudice is by no means (although generally thought so) an error; on the contrary, it may be a most unquestioned truth…” Western thought is replete with the wise understanding that reason serves us best when combined with the calm certainty that prejudice affords.
G.K. Chesterton answers the objection that modern thought has not only exposed prejudice but reduced it to “an opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience,” (OED) thus hanging it out in the realm of superstition or what Lionel Trilling once said about conservative thought, “irritable mental gestures which seem to resemble ideas.” Chesterton says, “The special mark of the modern world is not that it is sceptical, but that it is dogmatic without knowing it.” Liberals and progressives, in the 20th century, captured the ground of “open-mindedness and tolerance, not by being really tolerant, but by holding to dogma that refused to make judgements on things except insofar as they are useful or hold up to unstated dogma of “science” and equality. They simply define their prejudices as something other than prejudice. Chesterton at times came close to equating known prejudice with tradition, which he also called “the democracy of the dead.” “Tradition refuses,” he said, “to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” The current attempt, not the first, to relegate prejudice to the dark corners of human ignominy, is the worst ever, because it seeks to replace all past prejudices with present ones, and then claim that they do not exist.
The reason that I assign 2 3/4 cheers to prejudice and not all three, is that like many of my most progressives friends, those who consciously rely on it are tempted, given our human nature, never to think. That’s a rare problem among imaginative conservatives, I believe. The imagination is rarely sterilized by the prejudices that refuse to name themselves. I confess to a slight prejudice about the Motts, father and son, because of the inheritance from my New England ancestors demanding order and cleanliness, which of course is next to godliness, and my wife’s inheritance from the scrubby Dutch. I’m glad the prejudice wasn’t too strong, else I would not have been able to bear teaching college students in the 60s and early 70s. In the case of the Motts, they were so interesting!
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.