Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Prejudiced against prejudice

Any deep philosophy tends to get rooted in paradox – the paradox itself providing the motivation to explore further, like the irritating bit of sand in the oyster shell that won’t go away and gives rise to a beautiful pearl. Here’s a good example from Socrates, after being attacked by a politician late in life:

“I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know”

A more pithy version along the same sort of lines also from Socrates is: “The one thing I know is that I know nothing.”

Socrates taught by active dialogue with pupils and not by written word. I imagine that if Socrates had a blog, his entries would be short and terse (unlike this one), and the comments session would extend to a much greater degree. If I were in discussion with Socrates, I’d be tempted to ask “How do you know that? Or do you just think you know?” I’d like to think Socrates would have approved, latching on to the paradox in what he had said. On the other hand, he might have said “Did it really take you all that time to work that out? You have a lot to learn!”

Similarly the study of Zen Koans is rooted in paradox – to stimulate further thought and understanding. Christian liturgy is also full of paradoxical ideas ( e.g. in communion, the broken bread being the broken body of Christ that joins the partakers into one body from many parts – a brokenness/wholeness paradox).

My own personal paradox is contained in the title of this post.

As I get older, I have come to realise that the one thing I detest most in life is any kind of prejudice, be it racial, religious, about sexual orientation, or just about anything that says “I’m different to you in this respect therefore I’m superior”.


“I’m better than you because I’m Christian/Jewish/Muslim/Hindu/Buddist/Atheist/Agnostic and you’re not”.

“I’m better than you because I have white skin/black skin/brown skin/yellow skin and you don’t”

“I’m better than you because I’m right-handed and you’re not” ( the Latin word for left-handed is “sinister”, for a reason – left-handed people weren’t trusted because you couldn’t tell which hand they’d use to stab you).

“I’m better than you because I’m straight and you’re not”. (in this last case, it seems largely to be straight people that exhibit sexual-orientation prejudice).

All of the above prejudiced statements are ones I cannot tolerate, in fact they infuriate me. The reason is simple. To categorize another person’s merit on the basis of one attribute (be it race, creed, colour, handedness, sexual orientation) is to reduce that person to one dimension. But people are multi-dimensional – can’t be classified for their worth on the grounds of one attribute. And besides that; I am only too aware of the absolute misery caused by, for example, racial or homophobic prejudice.

So I’m inclined to think that because I have no such prejudices, that I’m better than those who have prejudices like the above. They’re not worth talking to. ( Often the attempt to reason with someone who knows they are right is a very frustrating process because they won’t listen to you, or even worse distort what you say to suit their own agenda). I often meet such people on internet discussion forums. After trying hard to reason, my approach is eventually to set up email rules to delete their posts before they hit my inbox. They’re a waste of time, and likely to send me into a rant. Sometimes it has to be said they amuse me. One fundamentalist on a Christians In Science discussion group once chided me with the statement ”Stop worshipping the false atheist God Darwin”. As if I would worship Darwin any more than Einstein, Newton, Shakespeare, Mozart etc. When it comes to Gene Rodenberry, the creator of the Star Trek universe, however … that’s a different matter! But the truth is the statement amused me because of its sheer stupidity, not to mention the prejudice of the writer – I accept “Evilution” so I must be a Bad Guy!

Oops. Paradox. I’m doing the same as they are! I’m prejudiced against prejudice. ”I’m better than you because you’re prejudiced against X and I’m not”.

We’re all flawed, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have something to offer. T.S. Eliot was a Jew-hater, and yet I admire his poetry. Another poet I greatly admire is Philip Larkin, but he was a sexist pig. Even the guy on the internet forum provided some light-hearted amusement. I wear his insult like a badge of honour!

Am I a hypocrite or just confused? It would be good to have a talk with Socrates to try and resolve this further.