Society programmed for prejudice
August 15, 2006
Another way of titling this column could be “hazards of determinism.” But my specific focus is ethnicity, following a monthlong visit to Europe and many discussions about just how much one’s ethnic or national origins matter.
One favorite way of attempting to understand people is by reference to their ethnicity: “Oh, well, now I understand — she comes from Italy (or India, Kentucky, New York or Romania, you name the place).”
Many books address this issue, and one Nobel Laureate in literature, the Indian novelist V.S. Naipaul, is famous for dealing with it in nearly all of his works. See, for example, his recent novel “Magic Seeds.” Another Nobel Laureate, in economics, Amartya Sen — also of Indian origins — has also addressed the issue in several works, including his short book, “Reason Before Identity.”
As one who hails from a country where quite a few people are obsessed with the topic of ethnicity — “What does it mean to be a Hungarian?” — yet someone who has had very little interest in my own ethnicity, I have been concerned with the issue from the point of view of just how much determinism is acceptable in our self-understanding.
Clearly, some measure of determinism is inescapable. We are determined by our genes and other impersonal factors to some considerable extent. How tall we are, our skin pigmentation, eye color, even elements of personality, tastes and preferences are surely not something we have decided upon freely.
But to go much further is hazardous, mainly as far as our own capacity to know the world and ourselves is concerned. For if everything about us is produced by impersonal factors, such as where we were born, who our parents are, what climate we grew up under, etc., then here is the problem:
What about our understanding of these very influences? Are they simply something we are compelled to believe? Do we have any independent knowledge of even what has influenced us and other people, or is our “understanding” just something imposed upon us by our ethnicity and other factors over which we have no control?
In other words, do Italians have to see the world as Italians, and Germans as Germans, Catholics as Catholics, Jews as Jews, Japanese as Japanese, or New Yorkers as New Yorkers? Are we free to reach conclusions based on careful, independent examination of facts or are the “conclusions” we reach, about this matter and anything else, in fact, really no more than something we had to reach as the sort of people we are, given our point of view?
The hazards of ethnicity and other types of determinism include losing all confidence in what we learn about the world since this, too, is just something we had to learn. So objectivity, in science or law or ethics, is out the window. We are but parrots who mouth what we have been fed by various forces that work on us.
Many social and natural scientists advocate this position but fail to discuss what it does to the reliability of our convictions, our conclusions. We do not treat the utterances of a parrot as possible true beliefs, let alone knowledge, of the world. They are rather like the color of the parrot’s feathers, something inescapable. But if that’s how our beliefs must be understood, these beliefs carry no credibility at all. Everyone simply must believe what he or she does!
Does this not also imply that various prejudices people have are totally blameless. After all, they just grew up having to hold them and could not be responsible for them however wrong they might be? Indeed, what do “right” and “wrong” mean in a world of such thoroughgoing determinism?
Before one buys into the tempting idea that whatever is the case about human beings, it all came about because it had to and none of us is free to think for ourselves but simply follows some ethnic programming, it bears to consider what that idea does to anything we believe, even about that very notion.
Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at