Last Friday, somewhere five miles above Afghanistan, I began a blog about prejudice (Race, Culture, Nationality, Religion and Citizenship – Tiptoeing Across a Minefield). I’d been annoyed by the fuss surrounding Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone’s remarks about Israel, which were widely branded as ‘anti-Semitic’. I disagree with the view that Naz Shah’s remarks were anti-Semitic, even if I strongly disagree with her (now withdrawn) suggestion that Israel should be relocated to the United States. I therefore agree with Ken Livingstone that her remarks were not anti-Semitic, even if they did imply criticism of Israeli policy, and even of the United Nations’ vote in 1948 to establish othe state of Israel. To criticise Israel is not necessarily to be anti-Semitic. It is important to establish this.
The controversy inspired me to think about prejudice in general and about the nature of argument. Broadly, I think, there are two kinds of view. There are views for which ‘respectable’ arguments can be made, where disagreement as to the facts of a matter, differences as to interpretation and sometimes even differences as to principle can be discussed rationally, even if opposing parties might finally agree to differ. And then there are views that are beyond the pale of civilised argument, views founded on prejudice that are not amenable to rational discussion, where no facts, interpretations or principles could ever be persuasive.
In general, a good test of a ‘respectable’ view is to ask whether there are any imaginable circumstances that might cause one to change one’s view. This is what determines whether a scientific theory is properly scientific. If a theory cannot be falsified by observation then it isn’t scientific. (Thus Relativity replaced Newtonian theory.)
But, of course, science is one thing and politics and ethics are another. Facts are generally amenable to discussion, interpretations are to some extent, but principles are often not. Especially if your principles are based on ‘divine’ text then argument will usually reach a roadblock.
My own view is that arguments based on ‘divine text’ are not ‘respectable’. Arguments based on ‘universally’ agreed concepts of human rights, however, are. To that extent my views on the demarcation between ‘respectable’ views and ‘prejudiced’ views is also ideological. I subscribe to a secular, scientific view of the world and I will never believe that ‘God says so’ could ever be an acceptable principle.
I set myself a challenge. I made a list of statements, almost all of them ones I disagree with, and asked which of these might be classified as ‘respectable’, and therefore amenable to rational debate, and which might be classified as ‘prejudiced’. And if ‘prejudiced’ what type of prejudice?
Now that I have to decide, I find it rather difficult!
For a start, I must take a flexible view on vague generalisations. For example, if I say ‘Germans have no sense of humour’ I don’t mean that no German could ever understand a joke, but rather that ‘by and large’ no German could, and I probably mean ‘sense of humour, as I understand humour’.
‘Respectable’ (but often false, in my view)
- Asians take education more seriously than Europeans (possibly demonstrable?)
- Christians are guiltily obsessed with sex (a view I share)
- Germans have no sense of humour (probably wrong)
- Italians make the best lovers (unlikely, but amenable to experiment)
- The Kurds should not be given their own homeland (amenable to discussion)
- Israel should never have been created where it is located today (amenable to discussion, but for the record, I disagree)
- The Jews take education very seriously (possibly demonstrable?)
- Hitler for a time supported Zionism. It was an aspect of his anti-Semitism. (A lot depends on how you view the word ‘support’, but this is discussable, and has recently been discussed).
- Zionism is racist to the extent that it favours Jewish immigration to Israel (this is amenable to discussion, and this would centre around what ‘racism’ is)
- Israel’s policy of settlement in the West Bank is wrong and in breach of international law (amenable to discussion)
- There aren’t enough actors and actresses of colour nominated for the Oscars
- Gay couples shouldn’t be allowed to adopt (I disagree, and no evidence supports this view, but I believe the view can be ‘respectably’ discussed)
- African Americans commit more crime than white Americans in proportion to their population (I do not know if this is true, but assuming we could agree on a definition of ‘crime’ I can imagine facts that would support or undermine this view).
- European civilisation is in decline (a vague statement but a starting point for highly academic discussion)
- Muslims should be treated with suspicion (religious intolerance)
- Arabs are lazy (racist)
- Americans are stupid, blinkered imperialists (nationalist)
- The French don’t wash (nationalist)
- Americans are arrogant (nationalist)
- Gays shouldn’t be allowed near children (homophobic)
- Women drive cars less well than men (sexist)
- Gays should be flung to their deaths from tall buildings (theologically based homophobia)
- There’s a gay mafia in the film industry (homophobic because what would establish the truth of this?)
- Gypsies (the Roma people of Central and Eastern Europe, for example) should never be trusted (racist)
- Gays have no place in the military (rejection of the ‘established’ evidence that being gay makes no difference would suggest underlying homophobia but I am less certain of this classification)
- Asians are less inventive than Europeans and Americans (racist)
- Women shouldn’t drive cars (sexist – I listed this twice!)
- There is only one true faith and it is Roman Catholicism (religious prejudice)
- Black people are less intelligent than white people (racist)
- Mexicans are rapists (nationalist)
- African Americans are more criminally inclined than white Americans (racist)
- Immigrants are spongers (nationalist)
- The Swiss have never invented anything more interesting than the cuckoo clock (nationalist)
Well, I am not certain of these classifications. Opinions please – but, NOT on whether you disagree or agree with a view, but rather on whether you think I have classified a view correctly as ‘respectable’ (in my sense of ‘amenable to rational discussion’) or ‘prejudiced’.