On prejudice

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. Today, a look at prejudice. Prejudice appears in many forms, but it is at its most insidious when it denies its own existence. One has a duty to identify that kind of prejudice for what it is, but it also constitutes a danger to rational criticism – because, unless properly done, almost anyone can then be accused of prejudice.

On prejudice

By: Gareth van Onselen

6 February 2012

Prejudice can behave like a chameleon: sure enough there something there but, camouflaged within its general environment, it is difficult to identify precisely its exact form. Likewise its concealment is instinctual, a kind of denial, as if subconsciously to pretend it doesn’t exist at all. So nor is it necessarily self-aware.

And what can be harder than that: to understand something you cannot properly see and which denies its own existence? Let alone confront it. Tell it is different and it points to its similarities. Ask it its opinion and it suggests its bias a pure and true reflection of reality itself.

Prejudice that stands out in plain sight, easily identified and self-aware, is dangerous indeed but at least one is able to engage it directly and to gauge accurately the merits of its defence. But prejudice which conceals itself is insidious – subtle and menacing – its’ very nature the biggest obstacle to any rational engagement with it.

Sometimes it is best revealed by plucking it from its comfortable perch and placing it in some new context where, just for a moment, its bias stands stark. Other times, it’s simply too clever and quick to contrast.

Yet there is perhaps a greater evil – those politically correct policemen who use this kind of prejudice to accuse the innocent of intolerance and discrimination. They see shadows everywhere. And because it is so difficult to prove, anyone is a potential target; and justified criticism is conflated with bigotry just as reason and logic are said to represent some personal hate.

One needs to think very carefully about prejudice, if one is to understand exactly where rational criticism ends and preconceived bias begins. Confuse the two and debate is immediately tainted, reduced from open and honest discussion to an atmosphere defined by fear and intimidation; one where any opinion is interpreted first and foremost as a kind of prejudice and, in turn, dismissed out of hand.

Gareth van Onselen writes in his personal capacity. He is employed by the DA as a Director of Political Analysis and Development. This column first appeared in the Business Day.