State of Humbug
By: Bernard Chapin
Spectator.org | Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Dr. Theodore Dalrymple (aka Anthony Daniels) is a retired English psychiatrist who spent most of his career working on the grounds of an urban prison, an experience that he chronicled in a regular, haunting column for the London Spectator. He recently retired to France but continues to write voluminously for outlets such as the Daily Telegraph, the New Criterion, and the City Journal. He is the Dietrich Weismann fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author, most recently, of the slender, devastatingly argued volume In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas (Encounter Books).
BC: Dr. Dalrymple, would you say that the rehabilitation and clarification of basic terms -- such as prejudice, discrimination, honor, good and evil -- has become an essential task for conservatives? Is that why you wrote In Praise of Prejudice?
Theodore Dalrymple: I suppose I am a bit of a Confucian in the matter of the rectification of language. And I am afraid that in the present climate, the connotation of words has often taken over in importance from their denotation. Thus, since irrational racial antagonism is a manifestation of prejudice, all prejudice comes to partake of the quality of irrational racial antagonism, and the right-thinking person thinks he has to overthrow prejudice as such. This is not realistic: no one has ever lived or could ever live as if this were the case. Hence we live in a state of humbug.
BC: Each man his own Descartes?
Theodore Dalrymple: I do not think it possible for anyone to get by in life without prejudice. However, the attempt to do so leads many people to suppose that, in order to decide any moral question, they have to find an indubitable first principle from which they can deduce an answer. The answer turns out to be the one they wanted, either supported by rationalizations, or by the argument that, since such an indubitable first principle cannot be found, one answer is as good as another, and therefore they will do as they please.
BC: How much do the obsessions of our elite depend on their denial of a human nature? Could the PC cults of diversity, sensitivity, non-judgmentalism, and tolerance endure for long in the face of the general public's understanding of human nature?
Theodore Dalrymple: The idea that man is a tabula rasa, or Mao's sheet of blank paper upon which the most beautiful characters can be written, is an old one with disastrous implications. I do not think though that the cults you mention could survive honest thought about human nature.
BC: Has the refusal of parents to pass on prejudices to their children increased delinquency rates over the course of the past 40 years?
Theodore Dalrymple: This is an empirical question, but I suspect that the refusal of parents to instill certain prejudices because they are prejudices has contributed to a certain coarsening in our societies. Of course, it has also contributed to some improvement. I think people are less likely than they were to pass on racial prejudices, for example, and I think this is a good thing.
However, we should remember that good habits as well as bad are created and maintained by prejudice and not principally by reasoning. Therefore, it is not a question of getting rid of prejudices as such, but of sifting them. I would want any child of mine to be prejudiced in favor of many things and against others.
BC: Has the prejudice against "alternative lifestyles" been replaced with a prejudice against family life?
Theodore Dalrymple: I think there is certainly now a prejudice against traditional families, either extended or nuclear, and this is a disastrous prejudice. Recently, I entered a prison in which there was an official notice saying "Remember, families come in all shapes and sizes." What was really meant was that households come in all shapes and sizes, and this is a different thing.
Moreover, the idea that all forms of human association are equally good was clearly what literary theorists might call a subtext to this official notice, though this idea is obviously bonkers and completely at variance with experience.
BC: Is there now a prejudice against personal responsibility?
Theodore Dalrymple: There is an odd division in the thinking of liberals (in the American sense) of people into those who have personal responsibility and those who do not. Broadly speaking, people like us -- educated, relatively well off -- have personal responsibility; but millions of people who are the victims of something or other do not, their victimhood having deprived them of agency.
Of course, this is sometimes, though rarely, the case, and there are gradations; still, the law's assumption that most people are responsible most of the time is correct.
BC: Would you agree that the veneer of being non-judgmental is rather thin because those supposedly tolerant have no problem spewing all kinds of prejudicial invective about conservatives?
Theodore Dalrymple: The veneer of non-judgmentalism must always be thin, because non-judgmentalism is virtually an impossibility. The desirability of non-judgmentalism is itself a judgment; indeed, it is hardly too much to say that life is judgment. In effect, non-judgmentalism is a rhetorical stick with which to beat aspects of the status quo which the non-judgmentalist does not like.
BC: Hasn't the line between "having a right to an opinion" and "having a valid opinion" become completely blurred in recent years?
Theodore Dalrymple: Many young people now end a discussion with the supposedly definitive and unanswerable statement that such is their opinion, and their opinion is just as valid as anyone else's. The fact is that our opinion on an infinitely large number of questions is not worth having, because everyone is infinitely ignorant. My opinion of the parasitic diseases of polar bears is not worth having for the simple reason that I know nothing about them, though I have a right to an opinion in the sense that I should not receive a knock on the door from the secret police if I express such a worthless opinion.
The right to an opinion is often confused (no doubt for reasons of misplaced democratic sentiment) for the validity of an opinion, just as the validity of an argument is often mistaken for the truth of a conclusion.
BC: I loved the sentence, "Whatever I say will not avail me, for other people will claim to know my meaning better than I know it myself?" Why is it that so many leftists claim to know precisely what their opponents are thinking let alone the essence of their unconscious psychological drives?
Theodore Dalrymple: I am not sure that this deformation applies only to the left. We all resort to the ad hominem from time to time: in human affairs, it is difficult to avoid it, and probably not desirable. After all, our opponents are human. The proper use of an ad hominem argument, however, still requires evidence to back it up.
For example, if you say that Marx was motivated by a thirst for power or at least domination, you could support yourself with examples of his actual behavior. If someone were to say that my opinions were motivated by a thirst for personal wealth...well, the actual evidence refutes him, unfortunately.
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