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July 01, 2009

In Praise of Prejudice: Theodore Dalrymple on where a society without prejudice will get us

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple argues that the police should use their instincts - in other words their prejudices - more, not less, if they are to be more effective in fighting crime.

The grass is always greener on the other side, and other people's conversations are always more interesting than my own. Moreover, my eyes on trains are invariably drawn from what I am reading myself to what other people are reading. I have no idea whether I am unique in this, or whether everyone else is exactly the same.

The other day I happened to see a fellow-passenger reading an article in a newspaper that I had missed, about the way in which police in Britain have now started searching white people against whom they have no suspicions whatever, simply to balance the racial proportions of people searched in their efforts to prevent terrorism.

I do not know whether the story is true, but as the Americans say, "it listens": it is perfectly plausible or even likely, because of our obsession with targets and quotas. I admit that I am highly sceptical about how much of the activity carried out in the name of anti-terrorism is genuinely and necessarily connected with that end, but racial quotas can only weaken that connection further.

Arriving at the station where, according to the announcement, "this train" does not merely stop, but "terminates", I took a taxi. In this vehicle were the usual warnings deemed necessary in taxis all over the British provinces about the amount one would have to pay if one vomited in it, how one ought to behave well because one was being recorded on camera, etc. And if these warnings were not enough, there were two police notices:

Anyone who verbally abuses or assaults the driver of this Taxi will be reported to the police and prosecuted.
And:
Please don't be offended if your driver asks for payment before you start your journey.
I am glad to report that no driver has ever asked me for my fare before we started out on it, however long and therefore expensive that journey was going to be. So how does a driver select the people from whom he asks for payment in advance?

The answer, of course, is by means of his prejudiced understanding of the world. He looks at his potential fare and asks himself, "Is this the kind of person who might refuse to pay me at the end of the journey", or do what is known in the trade as "a runner"? And if it is, he asks for the money in advance.

What, exactly, does he look for? He does not have a checklist, of course, of the kind that bureaucrats like to introduce in their attempt to eliminate the untoward from human existence. No: their judgment is global and instantaneous. Does the fare have the look of feral malignity that is now so very common? Does he have the stigmata of violence, such as scars and certain kinds of tattoos? Does he speak in an aggressive and contemptuous way, and is he likely to be armed? Is he of the age of wrongdoing? Is he dressed respectably, or has he adopted the international costume of the antisocial young man? Is he drunk or perhaps under the influence of drugs? What race is he (the Chinese always pay their fares)? The driver takes this all in instantaneously, as a chess player takes in the overall situation on the chessboard.

Of course, his prejudiced understanding of the world, based partly on experience, partly on hearsay, and no doubt partly on personal taste or distaste, will sometimes lead him to false conclusions. A nasty-looking drunk may have every intention of paying his fare; a respectably-dressed man in a business suit might be planning to swindle or even rob him. Appearances can be deceptive, and no doubt often are.

But he has little else to go by and has to make a decision very quickly. There may be more rejoicing in heaven over the repentance of one unjust man, etc., but among taxi-drivers there is more regret over one wrong judgment about such a matter than over ninety-nine duly-paid fares. And if a taxi driver failed to exercise his judgment in this way, we should feel correspondingly less sympathy for him when he was assaulted or cheated.

What the taxi driver does (and what the police obviously think he is entitled and perhaps ought to do), is what we do all the time in our daily lives. Our mistakes may be grievous ones: when I saw pictures of Mr Madoff, I thought, "What a kindly, calm, intelligent, far-seeing expression he has, just the kind of man to whom I should have liked to entrust my savings, had I known about him".

But the possibility of error should not deter us from making prejudiced judgments, for the suspension of such judgments is also a judgment of a kind, and one that is likely to be far worse in effect overall than their maintenance. Of course, no prejudice should be so strong that no evidence or experience to the contrary can change it, either about individuals or about groups of people who share certain characteristics.

The pretence that one can approach the world without prejudice is dishonest and absurd. The sleep of prejudice brings forth bureaucratic monsters. It is to go into the world without the faintest idea about where one might find the things one is looking for.

If the police really had no prejudices, the consequences for the population would be truly dreadful. Old ladies with Zimmer frames, going slowly and painfully to fetch their bread and their milk, would be equally the object of their attentions as the young men in nylon tracksuits, hoods and baseball caps, who hung about on street corners all day.

The failure to make the most obvious judgments leads to vicious absurdity. I recall the case of one young man of Indian extraction who was set upon by three young louts with a long history of violence. The young man was thoroughly respectable, as well as being self-evidently mild-mannered; but the three louts accused him of having attacked them first, an accusation so prima facie absurd that one would have thought no one could entertain it for a moment. But, in the name of equity, the police treated it as seriously as the young man's accusation against them, which was far from absurd. They charged him as well as the three louts; and offered to drop the charges only if he dropped the charges against the three louts.

That is justice in a society that claims to be without prejudice.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. He is the author of the author of Junk Medicine: Doctors, Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy and In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas.


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Lucid and well-targeted as always. Long may taxi drivers continue to exercise their typically finely-honed prejudices in this way. To suggest otherwise does lead to madness, some of which I have experienced myself. On a night out in Sheffield some years ago I was refused entry to several pubs (not all), based on the fact I was wearing boots by the wrong manufacturer (Rockport). I learned on that night that it is a favourite brand among hooligans and rioters. Needless to say, I look as much of a brawler as I do Marlene Dietrich, that is to say a million miles removed. The doormen, of course, could not be relied on to take a common-sense (prejudiced) approach to matters. God forbid they use their brains and experience. Do the policymakers, who do not live in the real-world, nor have to make expedient decisions in real-time ever reflect on these ever increasing absurdities? In our mad, policy and procedure obsessed, thought-controlled society, judgement, experience, wisdom and subtlety account for nothing. There is a place for unambiguous unbending rules (not selling alcohol to a polite, angelically-faced minor), of course, but this in itself ought to be a cultivated prejudice of course. At least private prejudice and though I baulk at typing it a "holistic" approach still reigns strong, if not supreme outside of officialdom. For the time being anyway.

Posted by: cybn at July 15, 2009 03:55 PM
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This obsession with "neutrality" is hurting us already. In US airports, passengers are pulled out of line for special attention purely at random, and there are bureaucratic mechanisms which ensure the randomness of the selections. Now, legally the TSA has the right to search each and every passenger, but that is impossible in practice; but what they should be doing is not scattering their attention over the flying public as a whole, but rather concentrating their limied resources on those passengers most likely to be terrorists. If you are looking for terrorists, you are wasting your time searching grannies in wheelchairs and retired clergymen; indeed each such pointless search takes away a search of, say, the man in the Wahabi beard and skullcap. It is thus hardly surprising that we have incidents such as that of June 4, where a (Muslim) man succeeded in bringing a gun on board, and was only caught by alert passengers after the plane was in the air.

Posted by: Bohemond at July 29, 2009 01:19 PM
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