4. Prejudice
Clear Thinking by R W Jepson

We think so, because other people all think so,
Or because — or because after all we do think so,
Or because we were told so, and think we must think so,
Or because we once thought so, or think we still think so,
Or because having thought so, we think we will think so.— (Lines Dreamt by Henry Sidgwick.)

THE scientific investigator is bent upon discovering nature's laws; his goal is the truth, and in his pursuit of it he is completely disinterested. Apart from the passion that stimulates him to find the truth and the eagerness with which he pursues his task, his personal feelings do not enter in. He does not allow his feelings to influence him in his judgments. He does not adopt or reject a particular view because it gives him pleasure or displeasure, because it saves or causes trouble, or because it flatters or wounds his pride or self-respect. He knows it is no use his being hurt, or annoyed, or resentful when he finds that an hypothesis, which he has carefully built up, will not square with some newly discovered facts. He knows it is no use his shutting his eyes to evidence that seems to conflict with his own views — he must examine it dispassionately on its merits; he knows that any attempt to overlook inconvenient or disagreeable facts will deceive only himself and no one else, and that it will only lead him away from his goal. He knows he has to face all the facts fearlessly and frankly, and to keep an open mind, if he wishes to find the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Indeed, the remarkable triumphs achieved in the sphere of pure science have been due to the unbiased, disinterested and unemotional way in which investigators have pursued their tasks. But outside this sphere, in our everyday life when determining our actions or opinions and condemning or defending our own or other's conduct, all of us are liable to be led astray by our feelings. Even the scientific investigator, in his private unprofessional life, will often allow himself to be swayed by the very irrational impulses he has resolutely repressed in his study or laboratory.

It is to some of those feelings, which, whether we realise it or not, tend to influence our ways of looking at things, that I wish to draw your attention in this chapter on Prejudice. For when we allow positive or negative weight to our personal feelings in forming judgments in matters where reason, and reason alone, can lead us to the truth, then we are prejudiced; i.e., we have, in reality, prejudged the issue.

The feeling that exercises perhaps the most powerful influence upon our thinking is our love of ease and comfort and "a quiet life," and the consequent dislike of anything that threatens to disturb them. Hence the general prejudice against change or innovation.

We are creatures of habit. The oftener we act or think in a certain way, the more mechanical and the easier it becomes to go on acting and thinking in the same way, and the more difficult, and therefore the more distasteful, it becomes to deviate from our established routine.

Right from our earliest days our habits of thought and ways of looking at things are being moulded by circumstances almost beyond our control. In the family, the school, the district in which we live, the social class to which we belong, we are surrounded by customary modes of thought and behaviour, which we adopt as a rule without question; for most of us naturally dislike being thought different from those with whom we are in daily contact. And these close ties breed loyalties which we are naturally loath to disown. In later life, we are apt to think that the world in which we grew up was the best of all possible worlds, and to regard the customs and notions which helped to mould our own selves as the acme of wisdom and sound sense, never reached before or since. We refer to our own times as a kind of golden age; we call them the good old days [ Thus begging the question], compared with which the present is decadent and degenerate. Then at a later stage, fresh associations bring their influence to bear upon our views and outlook — the Church, the trade or profession, the clubs and societies to which we belong — all have their customs, conventions and fashions to which we conform almost as a matter of course; they bring fresh loyalties which may blind our reason and pervert our judgment. Loyalty to their country makes some people refuse to believe that their fellow countrymen can ever misbehave themselves in foreign countries, that foreign justice can be anything but a farce, or that foreigners can be actuated by any feelings other than jealousy or suspicion. Some years ago a number of British engineers were arrested in Russia and accused of espionage and sabotage. The comments of several British newspapers were based upon the assumptions, first, that the charges were absurd, for no Briton could be guilty of espionage and no British engineer could be suspected of sabotage; second, that the accused could not expect a fair trial, for justice in a Russian court was, as every schoolboy knew, a mere travesty of justice, as we in Britain understood it. Imagine what an outcry there would have been if a Russian newspaper had commented in a similar way on the arrest and accusation of Russian engineers in Britain ! This chauvinist, "My-Country-Right-or-Wrong" attitude is just as indefensible as the attitude of the opposite minority who will believe good of every country but their own. Lastly, we are extremely susceptible to the current prejudices of our own age: an intelligent analysis of a popular newspaper will soon reveal them, for it appears to be the policy of newspaper proprietors and advertising agents to create, foster or pander to them, in the hope of increasing circulations or swelling sales.

Attempts to disturb these prejudices are bound to meet with strong resistance: so many of us dislike not only change, but also being forced to think at all. But it is only right to add that if the reformer and the innovator usually have to contend with this dead weight or inertia of prejudice against change, they are just as likely themselves to be prejudiced against existing notions, merely because they are old and well-established and generally accepted, and to be prejudiced in favour of new ideas, merely because they are new or happen to be le dernier cri. In fact, it is almost inevitable that every man should be blinded to some extent by one or the other of these prejudices. The important thing is that we should recognise the possibility, for then half the battle is won; to realise our limitations is half-way to overcoming them. And, while recognising the possibility of prejudice behind our own views, let us be chary of dismissing other people's views merely on the ground that they are prejudiced; there may well be rational grounds on which they may be accepted. When we ourselves feel perfectly convinced we are adopting a reasonable attitude and our efforts to reach agreement with those who differ from us are unavailing, it is tempting to attribute to prejudice their apparently unaccommodating attitude. In cases like this, the real source of disagreement may be found, as I have suggested before, in the tacit assumptions underlying both attitudes — our own and theirs; and it would be profitable to discover and examine these assumptions before giving up hope of reaching a mutually agreeable settlement.

The next feeling that we so often allow to interfere in our thinking is that of pride or amour propre. When we have once adopted an opinion, our pride makes us loath to admit that we are wrong. When objections are made to our views, we are more concerned with discovering how to combat them than how much truth or sound sense there may be in them; we are at pains rather to find fresh support for our own views, than to face frankly any new facts that appear to contradict them. We all know how easy it is to become annoyed at the suggestion that we have made a mistake; that our first feeling is that we would rather do anything than admit it, and our first thought is "How can I explain it away?" Especially is this the case when our authority as experts is doubted; we are up in arms at once, our amour propre is hurt, we become hot, and if we only knew it, we are already in a less favourable position to argue rationally.

Let me quote here a passage from The Mind in the Making'by J.H. Robinson (in The Thinkers Library, Watts & Co.):

"If we are told that we are wrong we resent the imputation and harden our hearts. We are incredibly heedless in the formation of our beliefs, but find ourselves filled with a passion for them when anyone proposes to rob us of their companionship. It is obviously not the ideas themselves that are dear to us, but our self-esteem which is threatened. .... . . Few of us take the pains to study the origin of our cherished convictions; indeed, we have a natural repugnance to so doing. We like to continue to believe what we have been accustomed to accept as true, and the resentment aroused when doubt is cast upon any of our assumptions leads us to seek every manner of excuse for clinging to them. The result is that most of our so-called reasoning consists in finding arguments for going on believing as we already do. "

This is the rationalising process to which I referred in Chapter One.

Moreover, many who would strongly repudiate the imputation of prejudice and perhaps pride themselves on their open mind, unconsciously fortify their prejudices by listening only to those who share them, and by reading only what echoes their own sentiments.

"He who reads History, not to learn what it has to teach but simply to find in it what he already believes will learn very little. He will find only what he wishes to find."

And so if we were to trust the statements of all those who have read the history of the last few decades with this object in view, then we should experience some difficulty in, shall we say, tracing the causes of war; for, according to them, all wars are due to international financiers, Jews, armament firms, imperialism, oil trusts, Jesuits, democracy, dictators, communists, individualists, foreigners, the English, the Press, education, boosting the birth rate, Catholicism, Freemasons, lawyers or drink. Such people shrink from the special effort required to take account of negative evidence; they are blinded by prejudice; they are obsessed by another "King Charles's head"; or, as the man-in-the-street would say, they have bees in their bonnets.

An apt illustration of the way in which prejudice may originate, and the way it subsequently affects thinking, is contained in the following story, which I am permitted to quote from 'The Proper Study of Mankind', through the kindness of the author:

"Tomkins is a schoolboy, a champion of the interests of that downtrodden class. He has strong views on the subject. Schoolboys, he says, are in danger of losing their rights. Their principal oppressors are prefects, who punish them too frequently and too severely. If the prefects were more persuasive and less coercive they might not find anything to punish at all; for their aggressive manner is itself the cause of most of the insolence to which they object. They make a god of petty little rules and regulations, most of which serve no real purpose; the school would, in fact, be better disciplined if it had no rules at all. And if prefects were abolished, friction in the school would be abolished too. It is generally the wrong sort of person — the prying, toadying sort — who gets elected as a prefect; and if by the headmaster's oversight a decent fellow becomes one, he is soon spoiled by the power he has to use; for in time the exercise of authority spoils everyone."

Tomkins makes great play with these and similar arguments. He sees himself as the champion of the underdog, as a kind of scholastic Hampden, in fact; and he derives considerable satisfaction from the picture. He thinks that these arguments have caused him to take up his present position. But that is precisely where he is wrong.

The trouble with Tomkins dated back some two years. What really happened to him was this. About that time he developed rather an awkward habit of lying in bed too long in the morning; this caused him frequently to be late for school; he was reported to the prefects of that time and punished. This was probably no more than he deserved; he was getting rather slack; but to admit that, even to himself, was more than Tomkins was prepared to do. So his mind set to work, quite unconsciously, to justify his position. What does three minutes more or less matter anyway? he asked himself. It is absurd of the prefects to make such a fuss about a trifle. But that is like prefects; fussy people, always trying to stop a fellow from enjoying himself. Are they themselves so much better than anyone else? And Tomkins soon invented all these reasons for disapproving of prefects which we have set out above.

Now some of the reasons so eloquently expounded by Tomkins are quite good reasons in themselves. Prefects have no monopoly of wisdom; some of them do undoubtedly deteriorate if allowed too much power; and others of them may have as muddled an idea of their duty as Tomkins has of his. But the point is that these reasons, whether right or wrong, do not, in fact, provide the real explanation of Tomkins's attitude to prefects. He does not dislike prefects because of these reasons. He has constructed these reasons because he dislikes prefects.

If Tomkins were fully aware of this then he would be simply a dishonest humbug, and there would be no more to be said about him than that. But it is exceedingly likely that by now he will have entirely forgotten what it was originally that caused him to take up his present position. He is by now firmly in the grip of a set of ideas which he calls his 'principles,' and he would be honestly indignant if anyone were to suggest that they were really his prejudices.

The third feeling is that most commonly associated with prejudice — self-interest. It is uncommonly difficult not to allow our love or desire for power or wealth or possessions or personal advancement to interfere with our judgment. This is especially the case where matters of public policy, involving the welfare of the whole community, are concerned. The natural interest, or instinct, we have for self-preservation extends also to the preservation of the power and privilege belonging to our own social class or professional status. The suggestion of any form of social reconstruction will naturally cause the average person to ask, "How is it going to affect me? What sort of position am I going to occupy in the new order of things?" One is reminded of the story of the two Yorkshiremen, one of whom is explaining to the other his idea of Communism. He says,

"If tha has two houses, tha gives one to't folk that has none." His friend nods gravely. "And if tha has two cows, tha gives one to thy neighbour that has none." Again his friend's assent is forthcoming. "And if tha has two pigs — " "Nay, lad," protested the other, "tha knows I have two pigs."

In Disraeli's novel, Sybil, there is a baronet who thought that the future of the order of baronets was the most important political problem of the day. We should be hypocrites if we pretended that, on listening to the details of a new Budget, our first thoughts were not

"How will the Chancellor's proposals affect my pocket? How far am I going to gain or lose by them?"

We should be more, or less, than human if we did not feel a glow of satisfaction in the passing of some Act of Parliament which meant an increase of salary, or accelerated promotion, or added dignity to ourselves; and if we did not feel disappointed if it affected our careers or our pockets adversely. As long as these feelings of satisfaction or disappointment go no further, there is no question of prejudice. But if we argued that the Act was a good one, i.e., that it was beneficial to the country as a whole, inasmuch as we benefited by it, and that others, who were not benefited immediately, were not justified in condemning it on that ground, because it would ultimately be to their advantage, then we might rightly be suspected of being prejudiced.

The Law takes cognisance of human susceptibility to prejudice from self-interest. In the Middle Ages, the Law did not recognise a gift unless there was some consideration given in return. To-day a person who has any share or interest in any contract or employment with a borough council is disqualified from sitting as a councillor. At one time the holding of an office of profit under the Crown disqualified a man from sitting in the House of Commons; and to-day if a Member of Parliament wishes to resign his seat he applies for the "stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds" — a curious survival of the old custom. Nowadays, too, if a Member of Parliament financially interested, say, in a shipbuilding firm were to vote on a motion affecting the award of a contract to that firm, he would be liable to heavy penalties. The existence of prejudice (for other reasons, of course) is also recognised by the medical profession who consider it undesirable that a doctor should attend his own family in cases other than minor ailments.

Self-interest prompted a man charged with breaking a shop-window to plead that he was a public benefactor because he had provided work for an unemployed glazier! His plea is similar to the remark ascribed to the sole survivor of an earthquake when surveying the ruins. "Well, it's good for trade; the damage will have to be repaired!".

Special Pleading
Prejudice in this form of 'Special Pleading' is evident in the man who varies his attitude towards the Law according as it suits his interests or convenience. At one time he will, when pressing his legal rights to the most unfair extreme, justify his hard dealing by urging that he is not contravening the law and is merely insisting on what is lawfully due to him. At another time, the same man will show no scruple about breaking the law, protesting, perhaps, that "the Law is an ass," or that he is not morally bound by it when it conflicts with the Law of Nature; he will urge, for instance, that wild animals are the natural property of anyone who can seize them; or that "finding is keeping"; or that every man has a natural right to bring any goods he pleases into the country, and that though the law has limited this right and guarded the limitation by penalties, yet if he chooses to risk the penalty, he is doing nothing morally wrong.

The instances cited serve to show how prejudice causes people to accumulate arguments in favour of anything in which their own interests are favourably affected, and to concentrate on the, objections to anything which they do not like; i.e., prejudice tends to determine the scope and direction of people's inquiries, and the stage at which they arrive at a definite conclusion.

Thus prejudice interferes at two vital stages in the thinking process — at stage 2, when we choose and examine data, and at stage 4, when we are engaged in working out and comparing the consequences of suggestions in preparation for final judgment — and at both stages it puts, as it were, blinkers on our eyes, or makes us look at things through spectacles coloured with our feelings, our likes or dislikes, hopes or fears.

Hence it is not surprising that we often betray our prejudice by using coloured words and phrases with a question-begging effect. When we beg the question, it usually means we refuse to consider a point because we have already made up our minds on it and, while professing to examine the data, allow our conclusion to leak through.

In fact, if it were not for prejudice we should not make as many logical errors as we do, nor would those made by others pass unnoticed. Prejudice tempts us to use sophistical arguments and causes us to be deluded by them when others put them forward. Let me give you an example. During the late war, when a Town Planning bill was being discussed in the House of Commons, a speaker used the following argument:

"We (i.e., the British people) are fighting against Hitler and Totalitarianism. Hitler is the arch-planner of history and totalitarian states are planned states. What are we fighting for, if not to avoid planning? How then can we consistently and without hypocrisy advocate an extension of planning in our own country?"

Now this is tantamount to saying:

"All totalitarian states are planned states: therefore, all planned states are totalitarian."

It is not difficult for us to see that this argument is unsound and that the conclusion is not warranted. But we are in a critical frame of mind and we are examining the argument coolly and dispassionately: the speaker, on the other hand, as is obvious from the rest of his speech, had an intense dislike of planning, and allowed his feelings to overcome his better judgment. He is to be blamed, not for disliking planning — he has a perfect right to do so, and he may have excellent reasons for his dislike — but for allowing this dislike to influence his judgment on a matter of fact. He was, we can only presume, so keen upon discrediting planning by making it indistinguishable from a totalitarian regime (his dislike of which he knew his audience shared) that he allowed himself to be indifferent to the soundness of the argument on which he based his conclusion. But if the subject under discussion had been one on which he did not feel very strongly one way or the other, he would probably have never made such an error himself, and he would have been quick to detect it if he had heard another speaker use it.

Hence it is a useful practice to test our own and other people's arguments on subjects on which we feel strongly by reducing them to their essentials, and then translating them into similar arguments on some subject which does not excite any particular feelings on our part. If the argument is unsound, then the fallacy will become obvious. For example, if we substituted Arabs for totalitarian states and Moslems for planned states, the argument would have run: "All Arabs are Moslems: therefore all Moslems are Arabs" — and the absurdity would be evident at once.

This is one way in which we can make sure that prejudice is not leading us astray — to acquire the ability to reduce an argument to its bare elements and to cultivate the habit of translating it into analogous terms, or better still, into symbols — neither of which are likely to arouse feeling. "All T are P: therefore all P are T" is manifestly absurd and would not deceive anyone.

Prejudice often shows itself in the use of far-fetched arguments. People under its influence tend to lose their sense of proportion and probability, and to be ready to go to almost any length or any extreme in order to provide themselves with evidence to back up their beliefs or contentions. They will seize upon some striking coincidence or develop a fanciful analogy or make wild speculations, blithely unconscious of the fact that they are doing themselves or their cause no good and merely making them ridiculous. Similarly, they are particularly prone to be unfair to their opponents and to attribute to them statements far more sweeping than they have actually made. Examples of these and other unconscious or deliberate tricks to secure persuasion at any price will be found in Chapter Nine.

Prejudice is often created and fortified by ignorance. It may originate in a judgment made on isolated instances or on limited experience. National prejudices arise this way: it is natural to be suspicious and distrustful of foreigners whose institutions and ways of thought are not familiar to us, and these feelings of distrust and suspicion give rise to prejudices which are among the main causes of international misunderstanding. Therefore the more the nations of the world learn to know and understand one another the less part will be played by prejudice as a cause of international friction. But in general, although increased knowledge gives less excuse for prejudice, it is not necessarily a cure for it, and it does not follow that the more we know and the better we are educated the less prejudiced we shall be.

Prejudice springs from the unconscious and is the result of feeling, and try as we will we cannot keep emotion out of our thinking. We can take such precautions as I have suggested; but they are hardly adequate against ingrained and inveterate habits of thought. Here I can only suggest one or two prophylactics: a readiness to listen patiently and tolerantly to other people's opinions; a determination in dispute to get to the root of a question, to stick to the point, to try to look at facts squarely and dispassionately and to judge them on their merits; to keep calm and cool, and to avoid personalities and rancour. All these counsels are easy enough to give but not so easy to carry out. But it is worth while trying to follow them in the hope that the effort will grow into a habit; and when we want help we shall profit by consulting trustworthy authorities and those whose views are expressed moderately, rather than those who have an axe to grind and who use rhetorical exaggeration, stamping emphasis, catch-phrases, slogans, cheap quips and other devices that are only calculated to arouse feeling and irrational tendencies.

All these steps will naturally follow if we are keen enough on getting at the truth and on living useful and purposeful lives — in fact, if we cultivate a passion that will override and direct our other feelings, a passion not only for the truth but also for the achievement of a high aim and purpose. Herein lies the true solvent for prejudice.